FLORENCE — The original GI Bill was 75 years old in June, but instead of tapering off or fading away, its role is as important as ever in helping veterans reestablish themselves in civilian life.
“There has been an incredible return on investment of the original GI Bill,” said Leanna DeKing, director of the Arizona State Approving Agency for education and training programs. “Veterans transitioning out of service often need assistance moving forward with a career outside of the service. The important benefits embedded within the GI Bill offer that assistance,” King told PinalCentral by email.
Veteran and veterans advocate Edward Besta Jr. said that in his personal opinion, “We (the federal government) are doing an adequate job at best for our nation’s veterans, especially when compared to the national taxpayer expense of supporting other initiatives that do not directly benefit the interests of lawful, tax-paying citizens.
“Based on my personal experience, veterans benefits for education, health care and disability have seen incremental, measurable improvement over the past decade, although there is still much work to do,” he told PinalCentral by email.
Many veterans from World War II to the present tell how the GI Bill helped them make a new start. Besta, who served more than 25 years in the Air Force before retiring in 2014, had 100 percent of his tuition and fees covered in his Executive MBA program at the University of Arizona.
“It also provided a tax-free monthly housing allowance for the 16-plus months I was enrolled and in good standing with the MBA program — approximately $30,000 in tax-free housing allowance in total. There was also a tax-free book stipend of $1,000 per year, paid incrementally on a prorated basis.
“In sum, I leveraged GI Bill benefits to earn a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees,” he said. He has been employed by American Express since 2016.
The original GI Bill (formally known as The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) provided a range of benefits to help returning veterans go to school, buy homes or start businesses. It expired in 1956, but federal programs to assist U.S. veterans continue to be called the “GI Bill.”
U.S. Sen. Ernest McFarland of Arizona, a former Florence lawyer and Pinal County Superior Court judge, was instrumental in writing the legislation, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law on June 22, 1944. Florence celebrated the anniversary of the bill with a parade and speeches at the end of March. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, marked the occasion with a website, https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/75th-anniversary.asp.
Today, “Each veteran has individual and different needs to be met,” DeKing said. “For one veteran it may be the transfer of benefits to a dependent for their education, for another it may be vocational training to help them move forward with a career as an EMT, chef or barber. Still, others may want to participate in on-the-job training or apprenticeship to become a firefighter, policeman, welder or carpenter. Others want to further their education and perhaps become a doctor, lawyer, accountant or pilot. That is the beauty of the GI Bill — there are so many opportunities available to our veterans because of the GI Bill.”
Besides education benefits and free or affordable high-quality health care, today’s veterans may also receive post-military transition services and support and mental health services, Besta said.
Besta represents Support Education and Employment for Vets (S.E.E.4Vets) https://see4vets.org/ as a member of the Executive Board since 2015. He is also the volunteer chairman of the seventh annual Glendale Stand Up for Veterans Committee (https://glendalestandup.org/) with an event set for Sept. 21 at Glendale Community College. He’s a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Air Force Association and the Military Officers Association.