College Debt & Military Service

Thomas P. Kilgannon, An injustice against our military and veterans’ communities is being prepared in the halls of Congress at the same time the men and women of the National Guard stand post outside the Capitol building to protect lawmakers from an unexplained threat.

Senator Chuck Schumer is demanding the President forgive up to $50,000 of student debt for some 43 million Americans who borrowed for college beyond their means. More than nine million Americans have defaulted on their education loans, and an estimated one-third of those who borrowed federal money for college never completed their course of study.

President Biden is willing to reward the failures of these students by forgiving up to $10,000 of their loans. He may even up the ante after he and Schumer agree on just how much to put toward this baccalaureate bailout.

It’s bad policy, and morally tone deaf considering the sacrifices others have made for federal education assistance. Originally known as the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the G.I. Bill was enacted to provide veterans with health care, low-interest mortgages, as well as farm and business loans. But it was the educational benefits that defined the World War II and subsequent versions of the bill.

In short, the G.I. Bill was enacted to help those who served and sacrificed for our country. When the troops returned from World War I – more than half of whom were drafted – little consideration was given to the combat scars they carried in their hearts and minds. Known then as shellshock, today it is referred to as Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) which produces anxiety, stress, isolation, and creates an appetite for dangerous vices.

In crafting the G.I. Bill, the American Legion led the effort to ensure the veterans of WWII were better cared for than those who came home from “The War to End All Wars.” Whether it was through persuasion or conscription, the government’s call to service produced hardship for veterans. There was a moral obligation to care for those who were seriously injured. But the G.I. Bill also implicitly recognized a “contractual” obligation to compensate veterans for lost opportunity or new adversities that resulted from their service.

In the January 1969 American Legion magazine, R.B. Pitkin wrote a detailed account of how the G.I. Bill came to be and why it was needed.

Upon completion of their military service, Pitkin explained, veterans “found the world changed, while those who hadn’t gone to war were ahead of them in wealth, training, careers and social advancement.” He noted an account from David Camelon of the Hearst newspapers who described “a shocking, incredible story of disabled men…their minds twisted, bodies torn in battle – shunted out of hospitals, out of the armed forces into a world of callous reality, of heartbreaking delay and neglect.” The G.I. Bill attempted to financially reimburse this difficult reality.

Today’s average college student, for whom loans may soon be forgiven, has made no such sacrifice.

But Brandi Anderson has. She graduated in 2019 at the top of her class from Stetson University in Florida and qualified for the Post 9-11 G.I. Bill’s Fry Scholarship because her father, Michael, was killed in Al Anbar province in Iraq on May 2, 2004. Brandi was seven years old at the time. The provision is named for John David Fry, a Marine Gunnery Sergeant who died in Iraq as he attempted to disarm an explosive to save the lives of his fellow Marines. It provides education assistance to the children and surviving spouses of service-members who died in the line of duty after September 10, 2001.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” Brandi told me referring to Schumer’s proposal to broadly erase college debt. “I lost my father, and my mother lost her husband. I have friends who also lost their fathers. I’m grateful for the assistance I received, but it resulted from a loss that still causes great pain,” she said. To ensure she graduated debt-free, Brandi also studied long hours to receive an academic scholarship from Stetson and worked her senior year and summers.

The Post 9-11 G.I. Bill also helps returning veterans, as previous versions did dating back to WWII. To qualify, an individual must have served at least 36 months of active duty; served and been discharged with a service-connected disability; or received a Purple Heart, i.e., been wounded or killed by an enemy action. That is how veterans qualify for the kind of assistance Senator Schumer wants to provide for tens of millions of borrowers who never served.

When he signed the original G.I. Bill, President Franklin Roosevelt said veterans “have been compelled to make greater economic sacrifice and every other kind of sacrifice than the rest of us, and are entitled to definite action to help take care of their special problems.”

Chuck Schumer’s proposal insults the sacrifice of millions of veterans and children of fallen heroes.

Tom Kilgannon is the President of Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit organization that provides support to America’s military families and advocates for a strong national defense. @TomKilgannon3 on Twitter.