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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

Thank you, Harry

Harry Colmery
Harry Colmery
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Tuesday, July 25, 2017 09:22 am

Want to hear some good news about Congress, about how it can get something done, even act in an overwhelmingly bipartisan manner? Granted, it doesn't happen very often, but it is possible. The House just passed— unanimously! — the Forever GI Bill, the first major update to that World War II-era legislation in over a decade. The Senate is expected to follow suit and put the bill on President Trump's desk.

The bill does several things, but a couple stand out. Gone is the 15-year time limit a veteran has to take advantage of his or her educational benefits — they'd be good for life. And the minimum three-years-of-service requirement would be waived for any Purple Heart recipient.

In today's climate, it would be very easy to be cynical about the legislation. Tom Temin of Federal News Radio says the bill shows the basic characteristic of Congress:

"It's relatively efficient when dealing with discrete problems in a single agency. But the greater the scope the less effective it becomes. Thus the federal government operating budget, unsustainable entitlement costs, military strategy, health insurance policy, and tax policy linger or go haphazardly addressed year after year.

It's as if, in VA, Congress found a broken window. Legislatively, it's sent in carpenters, glaziers, insulators, paint-and-caulkers, and decorators. But the building is on fire.

The VA certainly has a lot of problems these days, starting with its hospital system and an entrenched bureaucracy that hasn't been held accountable for its incompetence and indifference. But that shouldn't keep us from celebrating this good news. Something good is happening for people who deserve it — who have earned it with their service to the country — and will make much better use of federal assistance than most people who receive it.

The GI Bill was such a big force in helping me build the life I wanted that I'm not sure what I would have done without it. I dropped out of IPFW after a year and a half because trying to go to school full-time and work full-time — the only way I could afford school — was running me ragged. With nothing on the horizon and the draft staring me in the face, I enlisted in the Army. After my service, the GI Bill enabled me to finish up at Ball State, getting a degree without accumulating any student-loan debt, a minor miracle even way back then.

And it didn't just change individual lives like mine. It changed the whole country.

More than 50 percent of World War II veterans — 7.8 million men and women — used the education benefits, according to the book “Soldiers to Citizens” by Suzanne Mettler. By 1947, veterans were 49 percent of America's college students. Ten years after the war ended, 2.2 million had attended college through the G.I. Bill.

More than double that number used the vocational, apprenticeship and other non-college trainings offered under the bill. Compared with nonveterans, veterans' income grew 40 percent from 1944 to 1951, according to census data.

No one fathomed the bill would be as popular as it was, and universities were overwhelmed with new students.

But for the first time in American history, a college education became something that was widely attainable, not reserved for America's elite, but by anyone who had served for more than 90 days and was honorably discharged.

Many World War II veterans simply could not have done it on their own. They weren't of the social class that attended college in that era. Nor could many have afforded new homes without the low interest the G.I Bill afforded them. That aspect of the bill enabled a massive building boom. It fueled a migration out of cities, becoming the foundation for suburban America today, with its strong public school districts and prosperous outer-ring cities that make up every metropolitan area in the nation.\

The GI Bill is why we have the middle class we have today. It is why we have the country we have today. And it was largely due to the efforts of one man, Topeka, Kansas, attorney Harry W. Colmery.

A World I veteran, he became active in the American Legion, which gave him first-hand knowledge of the struggles of returning vets to find work. The Great Depression only added to their troubles. 

In 1932, 20,000 unemployed veterans had marched to Washington, seeking promised compensation for their service that had never materialized. President Herbert Hoover called out federal troops, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and ran them off.

The image is said to have greatly offended and haunted Colmery, but he also knew that the numbers of returning military from World War II were vast — 15 million soldiers and another 10 million civilians who had been employed in wartime jobs. What would happen if all tried to re-enter the job market at once?

Enter Colmery:

Originally called the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, the GI bill was first thought up in order to help solve the problem of reintegrating soldiers into civilian life.  A Kansan, Harry Walter Colmery, was the brain behind the bill and drew up its first drafts in 1944.  Colmery had been in army during WWI, and after the war moved to Topeka where he became a lawyer. Along with practicing law Colmery was also the commander of the American Legion. After scribling the first drafts of the GI bill, Colmery introduced the bill to the House on January 10, 1944. The key provisions of the bill were; education, loan guarantees, and 200 dollars a week in unemployment pay for those who qualified. Not everyone in Congress supported the bill however, and it took nearly six months for President Roosevelt to sign it into law.   Finally on June 22 1944, Roosevelt signed the bill into law and immediately millions of veterans began utilizing the benefits the bill created for them.

Colmery's name is on the bill now going through Congress. It seems like the least we can do to thank him. Efforts have been under way for years to get a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to him, so far to no avail. He died in 1979.

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