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History of Veterans at PSU


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After World War II ended in 1945, a surge of returning veterans triggered demand for opportunities for higher education in Portland. The result was an institution called Vanport Extension Center, which was established in 1946. Nine years later, after a devastating Memorial Day flood and years of political struggle, Vanport became Portland State College.

Today's Portland State University grew from the convergence of the G.I. Bill of Rights, which gave returning veterans money to help pay for college.

The G.I. Bill has been called one of the most significant pieces of legislation ever produced by the federal government and it is impossible to deny that it has impacted American life socially, economically and politically. While America has an often-deserved reputation of giving those who serve the short end of the stick, the G.I. Bill is one of the gleaming examples of when the American government works in concert to reward those who have sacrificed the most.

The original G.I. Bill of Rights (aka the G.I. Bill) was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 -- commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights -- nearly stalled in Congress as members of the House and Senate debated provisions of the then controversial bill.

Some lawmakers didn’t like the idea of paying unemployed veterans a meager $20 a week because they thought it diminished their incentive to look for work. Others questioned the concept of sending battle-hardened veterans to colleges and universities, a privilege then reserved almost exclusively for the rich and privileged.

Regardless of the details, nearly all lawmakers agreed that something more had to be done for our war veterans than was done for them after World War I – where they were given a pat on the back, $60 cash and a train ticket home for their brave, but mostly meaningless service.

After World War II millions of veterans came home from Europe, the Pacific and Africa and gave Congress a chance at redemption after the fiasco that lead to the “Bonus Army” protests after the World War Adjusted Act of 1924, commonly known as the Bonus Act. The act promised a bonus based on the number of days served with an all-to clever catch: most of the veterans wouldn't see a dime for 20 years.

A large group of veterans marched on the Capitol in the summer of 1932 to demand full payment of their bonuses – and when they didn’t get it, most went home. But some stayed and were later kicked out of town following a bitter standoff with fellow soldiers who no doubt saw the struggles of the present veterans in their immediate future.

The man most responsible for the creation of the G.I. Bill is Harry W. Colmery, a former national commander of the American Legion and former Republican National Chairman. Rumor has it that he actually drew up the initial bill on a hotel napkin while he was at a national American Legion conference. The bill was introduced in the House on Jan. 10, 1944, and in the Senate the following day.

The bill almost died when Senate and House members came together to debate their versions – but ultimately both groups agreed on the education and home loan benefits, but were deadlocked on the unemployment provision.

John Gibson (D, Georgia) can be given a nice “Hoorah” (sorry, I’m an Air Force guy) for casting the tie-breaking vote and the Senate approved the final form of the bill on June 12. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law on June 22, 1944 – a little more than two weeks after the D-Day invasion.

Unfortunately, the Veterans Administration (VA) (I know, sorry, but I deal with them every day) was responsible for carrying out the law's key provisions: education and training, loan guaranty for homes, farms or businesses, and unemployment pay.

Thanks to the G.I. Bill, millions of veterans who would’ve otherwise flooded the job market instead opted for education. In the peak year of 1947, and this is staggering, veterans accounted for 49% of all college admissions. By the time the original GI Bill ended on July 25, 1956, 7.8 million of 16 million World War II veterans had participated in an education or training program.

Millions also took advantage of the GI Bill's home loan guaranty – and I’ve used this benefit as well – it totally works. From 1944 to 1952, VA backed nearly 2.4 million home loans for World War II veterans.

Another ironic twist – the very part of the Bill that nearly led to its death was one of the benefits that nearly none of the veterans used --- less than 20 percent of funds set aside for the unemployment benefit were used.

In 1984, former Mississippi Congressman Gillespie V. “Sonny” Montgomery revamped the G.I. Bill, throwing his name on it and mandated that veterans pay $100 a month for their first years of service and they’d, in turn, receive a monthly check for 36 months (mine was about $950). I used this program to get my degree. You pay $1200 and you get back $40,000. Yeah, thanks Uncle Sugar.

In 2008, the G.I. Bill underwent another facelift. The new benefit now gives veterans with active duty service on, or after, Sept. 11 2001, educational benefits that pay tuition, fees, provide housing (E-5 BAH for the Portland area), $1,000 a year for books and the ability to transfer unused educational benefits to spouses or children.

As you can see, the connection to veterans runs deep here at PSU – and while administrations change and leaders change course, PSU’s dedication to serving those who have served remains to this day.