2008-04-11 / Editorial/Opinion

It's My Turn

America Needs An Historic Investment
By Marty Conatser National Commander The American Legion

In his book, "Making the Corps," former Wall Street Journal correspondent, Thomas E. Ricks, describes a night patrol he went on in Somalia led by a young Marine. "As we walked in single file, with red and green tracer fire arcing across the black sky over the city, I realized that I had placed my life in the hands of the young corporal leading the patrol, the 22-year-old Marine.

In my office, back in Washington, we wouldn't let a 22-year-old run the copying machine without adult supervision. Here, after just two days on the ground in Africa, the corporal was leading his squad into unknown territory, with a confidence that was contagious."

Ricks' account is not the least bit surprising to those of us who have served in the U.S. military.

The confidence and maturity of that Marine corporal is shared by the young soldier in Baghdad, the sailor directing traffic on an aircraft carrier, the Air Force medic in Afghanistan and the Coast Guard diver rescuing flood victims. What is surprising is that employers are not taking advantage of either the maturity or skills offered by these outstanding young men and women.

A report by the Department of Labor's Veterans Employment and Training Service finds that 11.3 percent of veterans, ages 20-24, were unemployed in 2007, compared to only 8.1 percent of non-veterans in the same age group. Moreover, a separate report by the Department of Veterans Affairs shows a rise in the figure for those who stopped looking for work because they couldn't find jobs or return to school, from just 10 percent of young veterans in 2000 to 23 percent in 2005.

Education is great. But how does a young father or mother attend school full time in today's economy of $4-pergallon gas, soaring tuition and frequent foreclosures? It doesn't take a Peter Drucker to realize that a fouryear veteran of Fort Benning might offer some valuable skills and life lessons that the typical four-year alum of Princeton doesn't possess.

GI Bill 2-2-2-2-2

Business leaders shouldn't just hire veterans simply out of gratitude. They should hire veterans because it is smart business.

Most young veterans are highly disciplined, in good physical condition and have been stress tested in ways that would dwarf most workplace challenges.

They served their country out of a sense of patriotism and duty - the same loyalty that they can bring to their civilian employers.

As leader of the nation's largest military veterans' organization, I am proud of the many employment programs and job fairs sponsored by The American Legion. But the problem is bigger than the assistance that we are currently providing. The war on ter- rorism is long, bloody and global. We don't need a program - we need a transformation.

When The American Legion wrote the first draft of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, it changed the course of American history. Ageneration of heroes was able to join the middle class, achieve home ownership, earn higher education and live the American dream.

More famously known as the GI Bill, it was hailed by many as the greatest legislation ever.

Sadly, as the generations passed and memories dimmed, the GI Bill benefits were so drastically reduced that many veterans either declined or were denied even the opportunity to participate in the program.

Few veterans today have the luxury of attending school without also holding a job, and many colleges are totally out of reach.

We need to change history again. Washington doesn't need to give veterans another program. Washington needs to make an investment. Senators Jim Webb, D-VA, Chuck Hagel, R-NE, John Warner, R-VA and Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, have introduced the "Post 9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act," which is, in essence, a 21st century GI Bill. Under the bill, service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan could earn up to 36 months of benefits, equivalent to four academic years. Benefits would cover charges for established programs, including the cost of the most expensive instate public schools, monthly stipends equivalent to housing costs in their area and a stipend for books.

The bill also provides equity among active-duty members by adjusting the benefit scale based on cumulative active service.

Like its World War II predecessor, this GI Bill would not be cheap. But the best investments rarely are. It's the pay-off that counts and history proves that one can never go wrong by betting on American GIs. And employers rarely go wrong by hiring veterans.

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