My father went to college on the GI Bill, graduating from Tuskegee University - then Tuskegee Institute - with a bachelor's degree in 1951. He was part of a giant wave of returning veterans who took advantage of the benefits offered to those who had served the country in World War II.
The nation's foresight in paying for generous benefits for veterans had far-reaching consequences, helping not just individuals but also the country as a whole. About half of the 15 million returning vets took advantage of postsecondary training. They vastly increased the nation's share of college-educated workers and formed the foundation of a broad middle class.
Now, Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, joined by Republican colleagues John W. Warner of Virginia and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, wants to give veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan a similar package of benefits, because those young men and women, like the vets of the "greatest generation," have made enormous sacrifices for their country. But their proposal has met stiff opposition from the White House and from Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.
Mr. McCain claims the proposal is too expensive; he has offered a scaled-down version of the plan. Mr. Webb's new GI Bill, which covers the entire cost for a veteran attending a public college, would require about $5 billion a year. The continued U.S. troop presence in Iraq costs much, much more - about $144 billion a year. Surely, the nation can afford to give a fraction of that to the troops.
Perhaps the real reason for Mr. McCain's refusal to support more generous college benefits lies in a letter Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates wrote to Congress a few weeks ago: The Pentagon fears the plan would lure soldiers away from re-enlistment and back into civilian life.
Revelations like that always give me a shudder. Aren't we the nation that claims we absolutely support the troops, that we will never dishonor their service again, that we all should be wearing flag pins to show our pride and patriotism?
It's no coincidence that precious few politicians in high office - from the Bush administration to the House of Representatives - have spouses or children who have seen combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. For all the enthusiastic public support for the invasion of Iraq way back in 2003, only a small percentage of Americans were asked to make any real sacrifice. (Both Mr. McCain and Mr. Webb have sons who have seen active duty.)
Now, the Bush administration continues to stiff that small group - with "stop-loss" orders that keep them from leaving the military when their tours of duty are up; with stingy medical care that doesn't provide the long-term treatment they need; and now, with resistance to generous educational benefits. Of course, President Bush has proudly reported that he gave up golf to show his solidarity with the troops.
Mr. Webb has proposed paying for the new GI Bill with increased taxes on the wealthy, and that's a good idea. With so few bearing the burden for the rest of us, we ought to be proud to support them by paying for their college educations.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears regularly in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.