The first G.I. Bill, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, allowed millions of military men and women to re-enter civilian life, and — ultimately — reshape America.
It put a college education and homeownership within reach of all World War II vets, creating the white-collar, American middle class and the suburban landscape they inhabited.
Matt Rainey/The Star-LedgerDavid Gisonno, 27, an Iraq war veteran and president of the Montclair State University student veterans group, during a class.
The public colleges they attended, too, grew exponentially, thanks to increased enrollment and the influx of federal G.I. Bill dollars.
"That was when this campus blossomed. It was the beginning of our modern era because it opened up higher education to large groups of people who didn’t have access before," said Helen Paxton, the director of communications at Rutgers-Newark.
The same was true at Montclair State, Newark State (now Kean), William Paterson and other state schools. Prior to World War II, most were small teachers colleges. But the echoes of the World War II generation transformed those colleges into the universities they are today. For the children and grandchildren of those veterans, a college education became an expectation, not a dream, and the state universities grew to meet the demand.
The irony is that when the children of the World War II generation returned from their war — Vietnam — the campuses their fathers built handled them with indifference.
"Vietnam was so unpopular the veterans just wanted to come back, quietly fit in and get on with their lives," said Steve Vence, himself a Vietnam era vet and director of veteran affairs at Kean since 1975.
"I think with this war (Iraq and Afghanistan), there is a lot more information about the hardships the veterans go through and the sacrifices their families make," Vence said. "We see stories about their injuries and post-traumatic stress disorders. We see how the families of reservists are struggling to make bills in these economic times. I think there’s a greater willingness in the county to thank them for their service, and help them back."
The new G.I. Bill — the most sweeping and expensive since the original — takes effect Aug. 1, and the state public universities have worked swiftly to become veteran-friendly.
From G.I. Bill financial aid counseling to medical and psychological services for disabled veterans, Rutgers and the rest of the state universities have launched programs to help the new generation of war-time vets.
"Our presidents are very committed to seeing these veterans succeed," said Wendy Lane, who began organizing the veterans efforts for state college association after President Bush signed the bill last summer. "We’ve talked to veterans, and we’ve asked our institutions to provide what they need. We want to help them anyway we can."
At Montclair State, Karen Pennington, the vice president of student development and campus life, formed a task force last fall to study veterans issues. David Gisonno, a 27-year-old Iraq war veteran, was invited to join, and the result was a better understanding of veterans’ needs, and a rebirth of the student veterans group.
"There are so many other kinds of student groups on campus; veterans should have one, too," said Gisonno, who is president of the group. "We share some common experiences."
Veterans — whether they’ve seen combat or not — are usually older and more focused than other students.
"I grew up a lot faster," said Sgt. Rosalie Martinson, 21, a Montclair student who began in the New Jersey Army National Guard and now looks to go regular Army. In Afghanistan, she saw the poverty and filth in the war-weary country firsthand. "It opened my eyes to a lot of things.
"As veterans, I think we are more mature and goal-oriented," she said. "We speak a different language."
Gisonno, who saw combat as part of the 86th Signal Battalion traveling from Baghdad south, says veterans can relate to experiences other students cannot.
"After the troop surge, things were chaotic," he said. "We’re shelled most everyday. When you come out, you feel a closeness to people who went through the same things."
New veterans student groups have also formed at Rutgers-Newark and Rutgers-Camden.
Rutgers is also starting a marketing campaign aimed veterans. The G.I. Bill is federal tuition money — guaranteed and paid on time. After the bill takes effect, the government will spend $62 billion over 10 years on veteran benefits. If it works like old FDR’s original, it will be an education stimulus (with economic impact) for generations to come. (NJ.com)