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Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act, 2008

Floor Speech

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC


MILITARY CONSTRUCTION AND VETERANS AFFAIRS APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2008 -- (Senate - May 20, 2008)

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Mr. HAGEL. Mr. President, I am grateful to my colleague, the junior Senator from Virginia, for his continued leadership and years of contributions to our country, especially on behalf of our veterans. I would like to make some remarks focused on the general scope of what this effort is about.

The Senator from Virginia has laid out very concisely, cogently, some of the realities of the force structure we have today and why it is important and in the opinion of almost 60 Senators and over 300 House Members that we take the so-called GI educational benefits this country committed to beginning in 1944 when President Truman signed the first bill and roll those forward into the 21st century, because what has happened is that we are now caught in a different kind of a world, different kinds of wars, different kinds of requirements. But what has not changed is the absolute necessity that we rely on quality individuals to man our force structure. In a world that is far more complicated, combustible, and dangerous than ever before, it has required new sets of skills, obviously technologies, to defend our country, our interests in the world. It is that reality that we must adjust to within the framework of all of our policies.

What we are doing here is not adding a new benefit, we are not adding a welfare program; what we are doing is we are bringing up to date the benefits earned by men and women who have committed a good part of their lives to our country. We had that debate a long time ago, whether America wants to do that. Now, unless there are some individuals in the Congress or in America who want to go back and reengage that issue, we can do that, but I do not think that is the case. I think we recognize those who serve. I think we also, in recognizing their service, understand they have earned certain benefits.

So we are rotating a GI educational benefit system forward into the 21st century, a system that has not been changed for 25 years. And as reflected in Senator Webb's charts--these, by the way, I remind our colleagues, as was noted by the junior Senator from Virginia, these are not his numbers, these are numbers from the Defense Department. So if we are to take care of our people, because we rely on our people to take care of us, if we rely on that rifleman, that person at the bottom who has always been the one whom we have asked to fight the war--fight the war, die in the war, sacrifices by their families, those who do not come back, many who come back are seriously scarred, wounded, will never recover. That is the reality of the world in which we are living. So we are talking about a relevant system, relevant to today's costs for an education.

I benefited from the GI bill when I came back from Vietnam, as did the junior Senator from Virginia, as did the senior Senator from Virginia when he came back from World War II, the Korean war, as did almost every veteran in this body who has fought in a war benefitted from this program. So it is important that we get something very clear; that is, this is not a new program.

Now, as the Senator from Virginia noted, this then fits into the larger framework of a cost of war. Unless we are going to just discard the people whom we count on, that rifleman at the bottom who does not have much say in all of this, by the way--he is told to take the hill; he takes the hill. He doesn't set policy. Our military doesn't set our war policy. They have input and influence into the strategy, into the tactics, but we, the elected officials of America, starting with the President, his team, and the Congress, we are the ones who set policy, we are the ones who engage our Nation in war.

By the way, just as an aside, I think we should go back to a day in this country when we wanted and did, in fact, commit our Nation to war, we should declare that in the Congress of the United States, we should declare war rather than these skirmishes that we kind of on the side fund and we on the side deal with. We on the side never really come clean with the reality.

Here is an opportunity for us to do what is right and what is wise--what is right and wise; that is, to bring this educational benefit program forward.

The Senator from Virginia noted something that is very important--the administration of this program. That is always important, who administers the program, how will it work, can it work?

We have worked very diligently--our staffs, with many Members involved--with the Veterans' Administration, the Department of Defense, to make this work. We have ample testimony, recent testimony before the Veterans' Committee in the Senate from senior Veterans Administration' officials saying: This can work. We can now do this. We can implement this.

The cost. The cost is an interesting debate, in my opinion, because if, in fact, we are a nation that can afford the cost of war, we can afford $12 billion a month waging the war in Iraq, we can afford all the requirements it takes for a nation to go to war, but somehow we are disconnected from the obligation and responsibility of taking care of those who fight the wars? We somehow can't find the money for that? We somehow want to look the other way? I don't think so. I don't think the American people--and they never have been--are in agreement with that.

As to the retention issue, the Senator from Virginia again addressed this. Even taking the Senator's arguments, as clearly as the Senator from Virginia did, and making those arguments--and I can make them again, and others will--I am not sure that is even necessary because this is not a retention bill. There is a consequence to this bill, of course. We should frame within the text and the context of this bill a dynamic of retention: How can we make it attractive for our young people to serve aside from the fact that they love their country, they want to be part of something larger than their own self-interest, they want to make a noble contribution to freedom, to the world, to peace, to their families, to their future? And you can't substitute that. That is bigger than any benefit. Of course it is.

But the reality is, just as Harry Truman and just as our leaders back during World War II understood, just as every leader has understood since then, as we have continued to commit to our veterans, those who fight the wars and their families, it is wise to reinvest in our society.

How do you reinvest in our society? Well, one way, certainly an important way, is education. It is assuring these men and women who give of themselves--in a very selfless way that very few people do, by the way, especially today, when you look at less than 1 percent of the society, the American society, our population, less than 1 percent is bearing all of the burden. They are carrying it all for the rest of us. What do I mean by that? Because they are the few who are serving in two wars, rotation after rotation in Afghanistan and Iraq and on duty all over the world and in this country. So when they are finished, just as the Senator from Virginia has noted, in the Army and Marine Corps, it is more than 50 percent, after the first enlistment, that leave. Would it not be smarter, would it not be wise to reinvest in these people, to help them get an education so they can continue to contribute to America and strengthen America in every way?

National security is not only about the military. In fact, I think we can make a pretty strong argument that the military is obviously an essential component, but just as important is the economic vitality, this culture, the society, the commitment, the education of a society. That all has an awful lot to do with the national security of a nation.

This makes sense. This bill makes sense. It makes sense on this supplemental. This isn't divorced from that. This isn't an add-on to that. This isn't something we just invented. This is part of a larger context of service and earned benefits for those who serve.

I am very pleased that we are finding more and more ways to enlist more individuals in this effort. I think with what the Senator from Virginia noted as to an add-on on transferability, it makes it more attractive. The senior Senator from Virginia, I assume, is going to speak to that when he takes the floor in a moment. I think when we frame up all of this, as the Senator from Virginia noted, this is the product of a composite of contributions from many individuals, from almost every veterans group I am aware of, from people who care about their country, who care about the veterans who serve this country, and care about our future.

I appreciate the leadership of the junior Senator from Virginia.

I understand in our series of colloquies that the senior Senator from Virginia is prepared to make some comments.

I yield the floor.

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