Veterans and their families are cheering the new $78 billion “Post 9/11 GI Bill of Rights” just signed into law by President Obama. It will allow hundreds of thousands of veterans to obtain a college degree.

The president, flanked by former Sen. John Warner, R-Va., and current Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., announced the new veterans benefit package in a speech at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Aug. 3.

“We do this not just to meet our moral obligation,” Obama said. “We do it because these men and women must be prepared…to fill the jobs of tomorrow.”

The program is modeled on the GI Bill that enabled millions of veterans of World War II to attend college.

“By 1947,” Obama said, “half of all students enrolled in colleges and universities were on the GI Bill.” He called it the “backbone” in building “the biggest middle class in U.S. history,” adding, “I would not be standing here today,” if not for the fact that his grandfather went to college on the GI Bill.

The new program extends full benefits to reservists and National Guard vets and also allows eligible vets to transfer their benefit to wives and children, Obama said.

Paul Rieckoff, executive director and founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association, said the new GI Bill is the “largest investment in veterans education since World War II, covering the full cost of an undergraduate education at any public university or college.”

He added, “The GI Bill is a promise we made to the veterans of World War II: That those who defend our country should be able to take advantage of America’s opportunity. This new bill fulfills that promise” and can “change the course of an entire generation” of new veterans.

It discards the old Cold War Montgomery-style program that required service men and women to contribute from their meager pay to receive matching funds from the Pentagon for college benefits. The old plan offered no living expenses and had punitive loopholes such as requiring full-time enrollment, impossible for any vet who was married with children and could only attend college part time.

The new plan, “replaces it with a World War II-style GI Bill that provides upfront tuition payments directly to the school, a monthly living allowance, and a book stipend of $1,000 per year,” according to the synopsis posted on the IAVA web-site.

Chrissie Brooks, a staff worker at Veterans for Peace headquarters in St. Louis hailed the new GI Bill. She told the World she and her husband, Matthew Soukup, a combat veteran, are studying the new program in hopes he will qualify for benefits.

“We have been working with Iraq Veterans Against the War, seeing what these young soldiers are going through, a back-door draft, soldiers returning from two or three tours of duty, diagnosed with post traumatic stress. I will be 30 in January. I have watched all this unfold. What really astounds me is that aside from the soldiers actually engaged, there is no war. It is a really screwed up system: Tens of thousands of veterans are returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, this GI Bill is the absolute least we can do for them.”

Her husband served six and a half years including combat in Bosnia and deployment to South Korea. He was released from the U.S. Army just three days before President George W. Bush ordered the attack on Iraq. Her husband is a licensed helicopter pilot but is training now to become a helicopter pilot instructor, she said.

“He was laid off from a manufacturing job in January,” she said. “He was hired through a temp agency so there were no benefits. Here in St. Louis where we live, there are no jobs out there. He has not had a single interview.”

After a struggle, he managed to get a Sallie Mae loan to enroll in the helicopter training program. “It was like pulling teeth to apply for that,” she said. “After the financial crisis, all hell broke lose. They were yanking funding out from under people. The cost of an hour of flight time zoomed from about $200 an hour to $350 an hour.”

“The best thing about this new GI Bill is the fact that the benefits are transferable to other family members. The downside is that it does not cover job training programs.”

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