Weekly Columns

Our nation has a responsibility to honor our promise to the men and women who selflessly place themselves in harm’s way. Throughout our history, that hasn’t always been easy. 

Stories of veterans and the federal government at odds over benefits go all the way back to the demobilization of the Continental Army in the late 1700’s. During the height of the Great Depression, World War I veterans gathered in Washington, D.C. to demand immediate cash payment of their bonuses. The ensuing protest led to an ugly clash with authorities that resulted in the deaths of two veterans.

After World War II, the nation turned a corner. While there have been stumbles along the way—the treatment of veterans returning from the Vietnam War was certainly a dark chapter—it was the passage of the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly referred to as the GI Bill, that helped us change the dynamic for the better.   

The GI Bill gave servicemen and women returning home from the battlefield the building blocks they needed to succeed after leaving the military. It enabled a smooth transition into civilian life by offering veterans college education and low-cost loans to buy a home.     

The man largely responsible for shaping the GI Bill is Harry Colmery, an Army Air Service veteran and former national commander of the American Legion. Inspired by his own transition struggles, Colmery was so committed to helping make the move to civilian life smoother for veterans returning from the battlefields of WWII that he hand-wrote the GI Bill while holed up in a Washington, D.C. hotel for five months.

The latest substantial update to the GI Bill has been named in Colmery’s honor. The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 aims to improve veterans’ education benefits and enhance the post-9/11 GI Bill by making much-needed updates for veterans and their surviving family members. It also provides increased resources and authority for educational assistance to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs, computer programming and career technical training. 

The comprehensive, bipartisan bill includes two provisions that I worked hard to get included. The first one is language from a bill I authored to expand and strengthen a successful pilot program that covers the costs for non-traditional technology education programs to allow veterans to learn valuable 21st century workforce skills such as computer coding and programming. The second provision is language from a bill I introduced with Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) that seeks to ensure wounded members of the National Guard and Reserve receive the education benefits they earned through the GI Bill. 

These two provisions make an already impressive package of reforms even stronger. Modernizing education benefits to allow veterans to learn technical skills is a win-win for veterans and employers. Ensuring wounded Guard and Reserve members are eligible for the same GI Bill benefits as active duty members of the military is an overdue correction to an unfortunate injustice. 

There is a great deal of momentum behind this effort to continue modernizing the GI Bill. The bill recently cleared the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and an identical version already passed the U.S. House of Representatives. It is my hope that we can finish the job and pass this bill on the floor of the Senate to allow the GI Bill to better serve the needs of today’s veterans.