On June 22, 1944, the “GI Bill of Rights” was created.
While its upcoming 75th birthday may not sound like a significant achievement in our nation’s history, it means a great deal to me and tens of millions of others.
Through three-quarters of a century, the GI Bill remains an excellent way to support veterans in two key areas: higher education and home ownership. This combination of benefits ensures that the GI Bill continues to provide success for Americans.
Original legislation came about through lessons learned from history. When World War I veterans returned, few benefits existed for them. This spurred “Bonus Marches” as service members demanded post-war bonuses to avoid the bread lines.
Not wanting a repeat of this following World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched his plan to shift the nation’s economy from supporting the war to supporting our troops. Out of this plan came the GI Bill.
At that time, a small minority of Americans attended college. But in 1947, 49 percent of post-secondary enrollment consisted of veterans returning home. The result from this is well documented: these men and women launched careers, built homes and started families. The American dream became a reality for many, shaping American society as we know it.
My grandfather, Bill Orr, returned from his U.S. Navy tour in the Pacific after the war ended. He enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s science program, graduating in three years. Shortly afterward, he married my grandmother, Rita, secured a teaching position in west-central Minnesota, and built the home I grew up next to.
Rita and Bill went onto have nine children and Mr. Orr taught high school science for almost 40 years to thousands of students from Benson, Minnesota. Fast forward 75 years and the GI Bill helped my ability to graduate college — I’m on my second round of the benefit to gain a master’s degree.
The GI Bill remains a permanent part of veterans’ benefits. The legislation’s expansion includes active duty personnel, reservists and surviving spouses. In many cases, a veteran can transfer their benefits to dependents as well.
The “Forever GI Bill” approved last year features a lifetime guarantee for veterans who served after 2011. Often touted as incentive to join the military, I’d argue that many young adults signing up for service don’t truly realize the magnificence of the GI Bill until they see their civilian peers struggling to pay school loans years after graduation.
Grandpa Bill passed away in 2017, but we were able to compare our stories of service when interviewed by American Public Media shortly before his death (www.americanradioworks.org/documentaries/from-boots-to-books/, skip to 28:42).
One realization I had from that wonderful experience is that my life wouldn’t be what it is — I may not even be here at all — had FDR not signed the legislation for our heroes returning home in the late 1940s.
I am a product of the GI Bill, and someone you know probably is, too.