Senators Jim Webb (D-VA), Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) today joined representatives of the nation's leading veterans' organizations to advocate comprehensive educational benefits for post-9/11 veterans in the fiscal year 2009 budget. The groups unveiled their Independent Budget to the Committee on Veterans' Affairs earlier in the day, advocating a "21st Century GI Bill," similar to the Webb-Hagel bill (S.22) that enjoys widespread support in Congress.
This is the first time in twenty-two years of presenting an Independent Budget to Congress that the participating veterans' organizations have advocated a new, comprehensive GI Bill, as opposed to a mere enhancement. The Independent Budget has carried great weight in years past in terms of instructing the Committee on Veterans' Affairs budget priorities.
[To view the prologue from the Independent Budget, a list of the participating organizations and the full budget recommendation for a "21st Century GI Bill", visit: http://webb.senate.gov/pdf/i_budget.pdf. The "GI Bill for the 21st Century" recommendation begins on page 16.]
Representatives from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), the Paralyzed Veterans of American (PVA), AMVETS, and the Student Veterans of America (SVA) joined the senators at a press conference today in the Russell Senate Office Building.
"This independent budget represents the voices of our nation's veterans' service organizations who truly understand the costs of war," said Senator Webb. "These advocates have called for a 21st Century GI Bill' that provides returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with benefits that respect their service and reward their sacrifice like the WWII veterans that came before them."
"I hope that Senate leadership and my Republican colleagues take note of the overwhelming support for this initiative and will put partisanship and politics aside to address this national problem," continued Webb.
"America owes the men and women who make the sacrifices and carry the burdens of war and military service more than just our gratitude," said Senator Hagel. "Our nation has helped our veterans of every war since World War II. Congress should provide these men and women with modernized and relevant GI education benefits that are worthy of their sacrifices."
"It is only fair and right that our service members have the educational resources to meet the demands of the 21st century," continued Hagel. "There can be no higher priority for America than our soldiers and their families who have given so much to all of us."
The Webb-Hagel "Post-9/11 Veterans' Educational Assistance Act" (S.22 in the Senate, H.R.2702 in the House) embodies the comprehensive "21st Century" benefits called for in the veterans' independent budget. Under the bill, service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan could earn up to 36 months of benefits, equivalent to four academic years, which would include payment of tuition, books and fees, as well as a $1,000 a month living stipend for those veterans whose military service qualifies them for the program.
In addition to Senators Webb, Hagel and Lautenberg the legislation has been co-sponsored by a total of 32 members of the Senate and 92 members of the House of Representatives. [For a full list of Senate co-sponsors, visit: http://www.webb.senate.gov/pdf/s22cosponsors6.pdf]
Senator Lautenberg, a WWII veteran, attended college on the G.I. Bill. "We often talk about honoring our veterans and their service. Now it's time to show them," Senator Lautenberg said. "We need to help veterans handle the high costs of tuition, housing, books and more. For veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, our bill would do just that. Helping those who served our country is not just our responsibility, it's our duty."
The Webb-Hagel Post-9/11 GI Bill has also been endorsed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), the Air Force Sergeants Association (AFSA), the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States (EANGUS), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).
"The veterans' community is speaking with one resounding voice," said Eric Hilleman, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs. "Invest in the strength of our national security, our young veterans, their future, and the future leaders of our nation. Supporting the troops is the commitment to care for them when the uniform lies folded in a drawer."
"When President Roosevelt signed the original GI Bill in 1944, he made higher education affordable for eight million veterans," said Paul Rieckhoff, Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). "Our country's newest generation of heroes deserves the same opportunity. A World War II-style GI Bill is the cornerstone of IAVA's 2008 Legislative Agenda and we are grateful to Senators Webb and Hagel for their leadership on this critical issue."
"All across the nation thousands of veterans are presented with a choice: struggle to afford your education, or give up and try to find work," said Luke Stalcup, Columbia University student and cofounder of the Student Veterans of America (SVA). "After years of dedicated and dangerous service in Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans must now battle to afford an education upon returning home. Student Veterans of America calls on the members of the 110th Congress to support the 21st Century GI bill' recommended in the Independent Budget and embodied by S.22."
To download a complete press packet of materials, please visit: http://webb.senate.gov/pdf/gibillpacket1.pdf
Audio, video of the press conference will be available on www.webb.senate.gov following the hearing.