November 12, 2014 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Armed Forces

Giving Thanks to Our Veterans

It’s always heartening when Veterans Day rolls around each November to see our nation pay tribute to those who have served so nobly in our armed forces.

We often do it in small ways. My wife and I recently noticed, for example, that a local supermarket had set aside a pair of parking spaces marked “reserved for veterans” in a spot close to the door. Many people also say “thank you” when they see those in uniform out in public. Others donate to veterans’ relief groups.

We also pay tribute in large ways. Take the GI Bill.

It was born of an uneasy national history. Our country gave generous land grants to veterans of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. It was stingy, though, toward World War I veterans, from whom Congress long withheld promised bonuses. In 1932, a vast “Bonus Army” of angry veterans descended on Washington, demanding their due, only to be roughly dispersed by federal troops.

It was an embarrassment that President Franklin Roosevelt had no intention of repeating. In 1944, he signed the GI Bill of Rights, a multibillion-dollar commitment to provide free college education and low-cost housing loans to what ultimately amounted to 13 million returning World War II veterans.

Some lawmakers and college presidents objected, but it was a case of sound federal action. America was correct to show its gratitude to veterans who had risked their lives to save the world from totalitarianism.

Most important, the bill was crafted in a way that empowered our returning veterans to improve their lives. Instead of simply providing them with a benefit to create a dependency on government, the bill gave veterans the chance to achieve for themselves the independence and rewards of freedom they had fought to preserve.

Because the pressures of war demanded instant leaders, veterans of every service had learned that hard, smart work earned quick promotion. Now, as civilians eager to both move ahead and make up for lost time, a whole generation seized the previously unthinkable notion of going to college — and they worked hard to succeed.

The GI Bill did more than turn veterans into doctors, lawyers and engineers. It launched a social revolution and transformed our country’s expectations. Within five years after the war had ended, the number of U.S. college graduates had doubled, and college soon replaced high school as the national rite of passage.

Moreover, the GI Bill that paid veterans to go to college now gave them low-cost loans to buy houses and start businesses — an opportunity that transformed about 12 million families from city renters to suburban property owners. Unlike many of their parents, these new middle-class Americans owned homes in places where their children could attend good schools aimed at preparing them for college.

The GI Bill, and the self-reliance it brought, undeniably altered the way Americans live, work and aspire to better futures for their children. To imagine the United States without the GI Bill — perhaps the most successful piece of social legislation in our nation’s history — is sobering.

A nation cannot stake a claim to greatness if it fails to treat its war veterans with dignity. Americans should be proud of the way we welcomed our “greatest generation” home after it defeated Nazism and fascism.

Our troops risked their lives and made enormous sacrifices that all of us might continue to live free. The sacrifice we made in return by enacting the GI Bill of Rights was a well-deserved reward that gave our national heroes a chance to lift themselves, and their posterity, to a better life.

May we always remember to say thank you, very sincerely, to the men and women who help protect our freedoms, both on this day “reserved for veterans” — and every day.

 - Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

Originally appeared in The Washington Times