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Witness Testimony of Richard F. Weidman, Vietnam Veterans of America, Executive Director for Policy and Government Affairs

Good afternoon, Madame Chairwoman, Ranking Member Boozman and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for giving Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) the opportunity to offer our comments regarding the GI Bill for education activities that could, if put in place, materially enhance the lives of the men and women retuning to civilian lives from today’s wars. The founding principle of Vietnam Veterans of America is that “Never again shall one generation of American veterans abandon another generation.” It is our duty as Vietnam veterans, the last major cohort of wartime veterans prior to today’s returning veterans, to do all that we can to try and ensure that what happened to us does not happen to them. They have earned far better treatment than we got thirty five to forty years ago when we returned. You now have an historic opportunity at this watershed in the history of veterans’ affairs to make a real and lasting difference for the current generation of returnees by taking steps to meet the very real and pressing need to update and upgrade the Montgomery GI Bill for a new generation of veterans.

When my generation returned from Southeast Asia, the educational benefits for which we were eligible under the GI Bill paled in comparison to the very generous benefits our fathers and mothers received when they came home after achieving victory in World War II.  That GI Bill, passed in 1944 with the guidance and support of World War I veterans, helped fuel the expansion of a real middle class in America, which led directly to an unprecedented era of economic growth and prosperity.

A WWII veteran who desired to attend a school of higher learning had all of his expenses paid – tuition (up to a certain ceiling), books, fees, room and board. And GIs flocked to the schools in droves. 

Fast-forward twenty years.  When the GI Bill for veterans returning from Vietnam was authorized, it was at the rate of $100 per month in toto for all expenses, the exact rate that the benefits for Korean veterans had stopped, a decade earlier. Clearly it was inadequate to assist many veterans to afford any school, much less a private college.

When I returned from military service, I began a career as an educator, serving on the teaching faculty of the Humanities Division and as an administrator at Johnson State College in Vermont. Many veterans found out that I was also a veteran, and came to me for assistance with the

registrar, business office, the VA Regional Office (VARO) in White River Junction, Vermont, housing, and multiple other problems (including just trying to “fit in” with a student body that was younger and in comparison to them and what they had experienced, naïve fellow students).

A group of students, with encouragement from me, asked the President of the college for space and Federal Work Study Program funds to start a veterans’ office on campus. After one semester, we approached the Governor with a proposal for Comprehensive Employment & Training Act (CETA) funds. We asked for less than $40,000, but they gave us more than $300,000, so we opened a veterans’ office on every campus in Vermont, under the title Project to Advance Veterans; Employment (PAVE). I served as one of the founders, and Chairman of the Board of this 501(c) 3 Vietnam veterans’ community based organization. The original Vermont project on campuses became one of several prototypes for the offices created by the Veterans’ Cost of Instruction Program (VCIP), which funded such offices on campuses across America.

A man by the name of Stewart Feldman, who was then Special Advisor to John Gardner, head of the Conference of Mayors, put together a report on disparities in the utilization of the GI Bill for education by Vietnam veterans. What he found was that there was a direct inverse correlation between the cost of public higher education and utilization of the GI Bill by Vietnam veterans. There was also a direct correlation between the cost of public higher education and the drop out rate. In other words, places with free tuition for public higher education at the time, such as the California state colleges and the City University of New York (CUNY), had very high utilization rates, and relatively low drop-out rates. Vermont had the highest State university in-state tuition in the nation and the highest state college in-state tuition in the nation, Vermont also ranked 50 out of 50 in percentage of utilization of the GI Bill, and highest in drop-out rates as a result of the relatively high cost.

While this report, and lobbying by the National Association of Collegiate Veterans (NACV) (which several years later changed their name to National Association of Concerned Veterans when their leaders started to graduate), the amount paid by the VA for these benefits went up substantially, but it was never enough to take the cost of public education off of the table as a

major determinant of the utilization and completion rates. The utilization rate, and the completion rates for Vietnam veterans never came close to that of World War II veterans, as a result.

In the first fifty years following initial enactment in 1944, more than twenty million veterans received further training or education as a result of the GI Bill. Of those, 49% received vocational; training or one-the-job training. It enabled some 46% of these men and women to attend college.

Thanks to the late G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery, former chairman of this Committee, and the hard work of his colleagues and loyal staff (particularly Ms. Jill Cochran), the Montgomery GI Bill was created for a new generation of veterans. As a result of a broad coalition of organizations there were significant increases to the amount paid by the Montgomery GI Bill in the past decade.

While VVA testified in favor of those increases at the time, we made it abundantly clear then and we reiterate now that VVA favors a “back to the future” model of educational benefits that accords this newest generation of American veterans the same GI Bill that my father’s generation received when they came back from World War II.

Today, a veteran who returns from Southwest Asia or anywhere the United States has a military presence in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) receives a much-reduced stipend in comparison to that accorded WW II veterans. That monthly amount has to pay for books, fees, and living expenses as well as tuition.  Not surprisingly, many veterans do not avail themselves of the opportunity to further their education.

Now, Congress is considering increasing educational benefits for the latest generation of American soldiers.  All we can say is: It’s about time.

There are several bills in the Senate – S.723, S. 1261, and S. 1719 to mention but a few – and a number in the House – H.R. 1969, H.R. 2247, H.R. 2417, and H.R. 3082, also to name a few – that aim to enhance or expand or otherwise improve the delivery of educational benefits to qualified veterans.  Most recognize that the educational provisions that comprise the Montgomery GI Bill are far from adequate.  Active-duty troops must pay into program if they think they are going to attend an institution of higher learning when their stint in the military is over.  The benefits, however, hardly cover the basics and, we believe, most newly minted veterans do not take advantage of this relatively meager assistance.

VVA is on record as having endorsed the bill introduced by freshman Senator Jim Webb on his first day in office this past January. VVA holds that enactment of S. 22, with the addition of the provisions from Senator Blanche Lincoln’s bill to include individuals serving in the National Guard and Reserves, (beyond being the right thing to do for men and women who have put their lives on the line for us) is in the nation’s vested self interest on at least two counts: first, it would train a new generation of leaders who would be freed to go as far as their drive, discipline, intelligence and ambition takes them without being limited by family finances; and, second, those young people considering enlisting today need to know that America values them enough to not only take care of their health and recovery where they have been lessened by military service, but that the nation has enough confidence in them to invest in a new middle class by affording them every opportunity to “Be All They Can Be” in civilian life. We invested many tens or hundreds of thousands preparing them to be warriors. Surely we can invest a similar amount to prepare them to be civilians, and to help us “Win the Peace.”  

The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2007, S.22, would, if enacted into law, direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to pay “to each individual entitled to educational assistance . . . who is pursuing an approved program of education [funds] to meet the expenses of such individual’s subsistence, tuition, fees, and other educational costs for pursuit of such program of education.”  Assistance would include a monthly stipend of $1,000.  Now, this is a real GI Bill.

The United States military is still the largest and arguably the most effective training institution in America. Skills are taught ranging from computer programming to meteorology to flying to allied health care professions to language proficiency to public relations to virtually anything that one can think of as a type of work or skill that would be required in any facet of our society. They do what they do very well indeed. Service members are able to acquire extraordinary proficiencies and skills even in a short military career.

Furthermore, a new GI Bill must take into account the OJT, and other so-called not traditional classroom forms of training that is non-credit training, whether it be for a particular skilled trade, or entrepreneurial training offered through a Small Business Development Center (SBDC), or other vehicle that take into account the way adults learn in the 21st century. So flexibility must be built into the law while protecting veterans (and the public treasury) against unscrupulous operators who would try to secure tuition without delivering value to the veteran.

Madame Chairwoman and distinguished Members of this subcommittee that concludes VVA’s formal statement. I welcome your comments, and will be pleased to answer any questions you may have. Again, on behalf of VVA National President John Rowan, the VVA National Board of Directors, and our membership, we thank you for allowing VVA to appear here today to share our views.