Spc. Marco Reininger started the year on the dusty streets of Afghanistan. He'll end it on the campus of Columbia University with the government picking up a large chunk of the $100,000 tab for tuition.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill rolls out on Saturday, just in time for the fall semester for veterans of the recent wars. Reminiscent of the GI education benefits signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt two weeks after D-Day in 1944, the measure is aimed at transforming the lives of a new generation of veterans.
President Barack Obama on Monday will attend a rally at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., in celebration.
In the next decade, $78 billion is expected to be paid out under the new GI Bill, which is the most comprehensive education benefit offered since World War II.
Many veterans who served after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are eligible for full tuition and fees for four years at a state university, a monthly housing stipend and up to $1,000 annually for books. Among those covered are members of the Guard and Reserve who spent three months or more activated for war service, giving them vastly improved benefits.
Veterans offered additional scholarships
If they opt to attend a private institution or graduate program, they can receive aid up to the cost of a public college in the state. About 1,100 schools and colleges are offering additional scholarships for veterans that the VA is matching under a Yellow Ribbon program.
Many veterans say they can't help but be thankful.
"It definitely makes it more valuable," Reininger, 25, a member of the New York Army National Guard, said of his combat experience. "Without that deployment, I couldn't be eligible for anything."
By 1947, nearly half of all college students in America were veterans. The program cost $14.5 billion, and more than half of the nation's 15 million World War II veterans participated in some sort of educational program.
One of them was Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., 85, the child of immigrants from hard-scrabble Paterson, N.J., who fought in Europe at age 18. The GI Bill paid for him to go to Columbia University.
"In a way, I'm not even sure I would've gone to college," Lautenberg said. "The horizon was so limited. I couldn't think in terms of the future."
Lautenberg signed on early to the new GI Bill legislation, which was authored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., 63, a Vietnam veteran whose Marine son fought in Iraq.
School helps with readjustment
Webb attended the U.S. Naval Academy before his war service and Georgetown University's law school afterward. He said paying for education sends a signal about the value of military service and helps veterans with readjustment issues.
"There's a tremendous downstream effect on the emotional well-being on the people who have served if you treat them right," he said.
Webb said he's had success convincing others in Congress of the need for the new GI Bill by showing that when inflation is considered, veterans from the current wars are receiving about 15 percent of what some World War II veterans had received.
Aubrey Arcangel, 27, an Iraq veteran who attends City College of New York, recalls chatting with some of his Army buddies in Iraq worried about finding a job in the recession, and telling them about the new benefit.
"They were worried about getting out and looking for a job, and I said, 'Listen, this new GI Bill will do good for you,'" Arcangel said.
The legislation didn't pass without a fight. Some lawmakers complained about the cost, and the Pentagon expressed concerns that many troops would leave the military to attend college. A popular benefit was added that allowed members of the military to transfer the benefit to spouses or children if they agree to serve an additional four years.
It's anticipated that 485,000 veterans or their family members could participate in the first year. About 112,000 claims have been processed so far, and more than 1 million callers have flooded a VA call center this year with questions. About 25,000 service members have applied to use the transfer benefit.
There are concerns that universities and the VA could be overwhelmed, in part, because the benefit is complex. And, there are complaints that veterans attending private schools in states like California that kept their public tuition low face a major disparity in what they receive.
Keith M. Wilson, education service director at the VA, said agency officials are working with Congress on solutions to potential problems, but the agency overall feels good about its ability to execute the program.
"There's certainly going to be things that will not go as expected. We would expect to be able to learn from those situations and correct them quickly and move on," Wilson said.
GI Bill fix
Veterans from the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which aggressively lobbied for the bill, are back on Capitol Hill pushing for what they call a GI Bill fix. Among other changes, it would seek to solve the disparity in tuition amounts covered and grant new benefits for vocational programs. It would also provide a living allowance for those who live too far from a university and take classes online.
"The benefit is fantastic, it's transformative, it's historic, but we also have serious concerns about where it stands right now," said Paul Rieckhoff, the group's executive director and founder.
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif., said Friday his committee will address the proposed fixes this fall, and he anticipates they will be implemented a year from now.
Iraq veteran Isaac Pacheco, 27, from Union, Ky., a Marine in the Individual Ready Reserve who is publications editor at AMVETS, said he's grateful for the thousands of dollars he's receiving to help pay for a graduate program this fall at Georgetown University.
"Veterans are a really valuable resource to the learning pool, to the marketplace of ideas, so they're going to bring a lot of valuable experience to these universities," Pacheco said.