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A bill will soon be sitting before President Bush, probably the most important piece of domestic legislation he will have the opportunity to sign in his tenure. Although it’s attached to a larger $162 billion funding proposal, this particular piece deals only with VA benefits. It brought in elements of a bipartisan agreement known as the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act while adding additional flexibility for families. The improved copy was approved overwhelmingly by the House — 416 for with only 12 against — and passed the Senate with an equally impressive 92-6 vote.

This bill increases the monthly benefits for servicemembers from approximately $1,100 to $1,900, a figure set based on a national average of public university tuition. In addition, it provides for a monthly stipend — based on the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) of a married E-5 for the local area — to cover living expenses. Added to the newest version is a transferability option; those serving more than six years can choose to cede the benefits to their spouse. Anyone serving more than 10 years can also choose a son or daughter, so long as that person is younger than 26.

Many in the defense community fear this bill, primarily because of the projected impact on retention. They rightly wonder where the incentive is for a young man or woman in the military to stay knowing they have significant financial support for four years of "the easy life." The answer is quite simple: There isn’t one. But has there ever been much of a fiscal draw to the military? Has the senior leadership stuck around simply because the pay was so good? What is it keeping people in the service?

People join the American military for a variety of reasons; many young recruits would probably stumble through an answer if you demanded one on the spot. One thing they would definitely tell you: Almost no one joins for the pay.

There is, however, a whole basket of services provided for those in the military and their dependents. A part of being in the service is knowing you and your family will be taken care of if something happens to any of you, and no price can be placed on the confidence. Nothing in this bill would change services offered to separated servicemembers; the uneven performance of the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system is being fixed independently and will continue regardless of its passage.

So for the average person serving this country, it’s not a question of money. It’s fair to say most people who stay in the military know they could be earning significantly more elsewhere, particularly those in highly specialized fields. They choose to stay in for love of country, love of a job, love of their friends and the companionship, for the distinct opportunities offered in the military, for their family, or just because it’s what they’re used to.

The original GI Bill offered a variety of impressive benefits, but the first on that list — in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words — was "[i]t gives servicemen and women the opportunity of resuming their education or technical training after discharge ... with the right to receive a monthly living allowance while pursuing their studies." That is the first benefit listed in the original Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944; along with the home loan program, it is widely credited with helping usher in one of the longest periods of economic growth in our country’s history.

But does our current GI Bill meet these goals? Can someone recently separated from the military afford to live on his or her own, possibly with a family, while paying for tuition, books, insurance and food while receiving a monthly check for about $1,100? Of course not, even with a job on the side. We are no longer giving servicemembers the opportunity FDR spoke of.

The new VA benefits offered in this bill hark back to the political discussion at the end of World War II when the United States was struggling to find a way to properly reward its veterans. Although unprecedented and controversial at the time, it came to be recognized as one of the hallmark pieces of American legislation. Now some of the same arguments about expense and military repercussions are being used against its contemporary successor. But our national leaders have again risen above partisan politics and come together across their ideological divide in recognition of a sorely needed law; now all that remains is the signature of one man to again fulfill a distinctly American legacy of generous benefits for its uniformed men and women.

Like all great ideals, the just compensation for those who voluntarily risk their lives to preserve our way of life cannot be measured in dollars and cents. It cannot be reduced to terms like "incentives" and "retention." The costs are paltry compared to the trillions of dollars stacked up in the federal budget. As a country, we have asked the members of our military to be all things at once — enforcer, protector, humanitarian, teacher and friend — and only now recognize the demand it has placed on them. This bill must be signed into law; it is the right thing to do.

Sgt. William A. Treseder is serving in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.


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