Twenty-five years ago this month, President Reagan signed legislation making the Montgomery G.I. Bill a permanent benefit for American service members. More than 2.6 million veterans have been helped through this program, named for my friend, former Mississippi Congressman G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery, who authored the updated legislation.
The first G.I. Bill was created in 1944 to help returning World War II veterans achieve a goal many thought was impossible before the war -- a college education. By 1947, veterans accounted for 47 percent of college admissions, providing the nation with a well-educated, experienced workforce for years to come. The program also made home loan guaranties available to those who qualified.
Similar programs were created for soldiers following the Korean and Vietnam wars, but these did not prove to be sufficient incentives for military recruitment and retention efforts. With the transition to an all-volunteer force, an updated G.I. Bill was needed.
Congressman Montgomery, who was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, led an effort to strengthen the program for all of the Armed Forces, including Reserve and National Guard members. He had been helped directly by the program, using it to help purchase a home in Meridian after returning from fighting in Europe. Sonny said, "Smart, motivated young men and women just weren't going into the military," but his work would change that.
Highly-qualified personnel were essential to the military's future, and Sonny understood that enlisting and keeping that force required innovative approaches. As Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, he ensured the education programs and home loan guaranty would be available for future generations. By 1987, he had achieved enough support to make the program permanent.
The Montgomery G.I. Bill has proven to be an essential recruiting tool for the military and an important benefit for millions of American veterans. Montgomery came to be known as "Mr. Veteran" on Capitol Hill because of his tireless advocacy for those who had served, and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 2005. His legacy continues through the Montgomery G.I. Bill.
The G.I. Bill's Future is Secure
In 2008, I proudly supported important additions to G.I. benefits. The bipartisan legislation increased education payments and career counseling services for returning veterans, especially those wounded in combat. Under the law, the VA provides either the average cost of four years at a public college or up to $17,500 per year at a private institution, along with stipends for housing, books, and supplies. The law also allows members of the military to transfer their unused educational benefits to a spouse or children for the first time, bolstering retention benefits for those who want to make a career out of serving their country.
President Reagan called the G.I. Bill the "best investment America has ever made." Today, our nation has the best trained and best educated military the world has ever known. The work by Sonny Montgomery and others ensures that this critical investment continues. As a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, I remain committed to upholding Mississippi's proud tradition of supporting those who have served.