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In Praise of the GI Bill

Giving veterans a new start on life.

En español | Editor's note: Signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 22, 1944, the Servicemembers' Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights, is considered one of the most significant pieces of social legislation of the 20th century: it averted a widely feared post-World War II economic depression and greatly expanded the middle class by allowing millions of veterans to obtain college degrees, buy homes, and start businesses.

By the time the original GI Bill ended, in July 1956, 7.8 million World War II veterans had participated in an education or training program, and 2.4 million veterans had home loans backed by the Veterans Administration (which in 1989 was incorporated along with several other agencies into the Department of Veterans Affairs). The GI Bill’s legacy lives on in subsequent veterans’ benefits legislation. Combined, these bills have raised the standard of living for successive generations of veterans and their families, including, to date, 1.1 million Hispanic American veterans.

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See also: Do veterans get special credit for Social Security?

I returned from the Korean War whole in body but wounded in spirit. No one who has ever been in combat emerges from the killing fields without emotional scars. War follows one home in so many ways, casting large shadows over any attempt to adjust to a normal life.

I made it out of Korea in April 1952, after serving 14 months. Married before being shipped overseas, I had an infant daughter when I returned, born after I’d gone to war. We were crammed into a miniscule studio apartment in an unsavory area south of San Francisco’s Market Street without an income or adequate living space. There was no time to celebrate survival.

The GI Bill would ultimately be our salvation.

There was no red carpet for those of us looking for work and better housing. America was tired of armed conflict after the end of World War II, and the “skirmish” on an Asian peninsula far away didn’t stir the blood. We were the abandoned veterans of a forgotten war.

Writing for a newspaper was my life’s ambition, but I was told time and again I needed a college degree to be offered even an interview at any Bay Area journal. Activated as a Marine reservist at the end of my third year at San Francisco State College, I lacked sufficient units to apply for a degree. This was a devastating realization, a barrier to the future that left me frustrated and angry. I couldn’t get the job I wanted because I lacked a college degree, and I couldn’t get a college degree because I didn’t have the money to get me into college.

Then I was reacquainted with friends from my undergraduate days. Most were veterans of the “Big War” who had finished up at State thanks to the GI Bill. It had paid their way through four years of college and was available to Korean War vets. I decided to register for night classes at UC Berkeley, prepared for a maze of paperwork just to get in. But all they needed was my discharge paper. Registering was never easier.

Next: The GI Bill, an emotional and financial boost.>>

I studied political science and photography at UC, then went on to a community college for courses in international politics and the history of China, followed by a study of libel law at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco—all on the GI Bill. By then I had landed a job across the bay at a small daily newspaper in Richmond, a city where Henry Kaiser had turned out fleets of Liberty Ships during the Second World War.

When I was hired, I figured my career had begun, so I never applied for a degree. But what I learned has never been wasted, contributing to the fund of knowledge that a good journalist must possess.

Our living situation was better but still not ideal. Late in 1952, we moved from San Francisco’s cramped studio apartment into what had been temporary war housing for Richmond’s shipyard workers, a series of box-like units spread over an area called Triangle Village. Our new housing was barely adequate, in addition to which it was dangerous and noisy.

Unfenced railroad tracks that ran along the edge of the tract put children, including our daughter Cindy, at risk. The 24-hour-a-day noise of trains roaring by disrupted what serenity Triangle offered and made a full night’s sleep almost impossible. We began looking around for a better, safer place to raise a family; we turned once more to the GI Bill.

After weeks of searching, we found what we wanted under construction in the hills overlooking Richmond. The builder was asking $12,500. Meanwhile, I had applied to the VA for a loan under the GI Bill and on February 18, 1954, received a certificate of eligibility. Improbably, on a newspaper salary of $75 a week we were able to buy the house with no down payment, a loan partially guaranteed by Uncle Sam, and a 4 percent interest rate—all this from a government that I thought had abandoned us. I still have that certificate.

Our second daughter, Linda, was born in the home we occupied for ten years before moving up to a larger place on a two-acre lot at the foot of Mt. Diablo. Our son Allen came along as my career flourished at the Oakland Tribune and reached new heights when I moved on to the Los Angeles Times, where I shared in three Gold Medal Pulitzer Prizes as a reporter and then a columnist.

The GI Bill offered veterans an emotional as well as a financial boost. This was especially true for those of us who fought in the Korean War and returned not to accolades but to silence. It opened the door to a career filled with honors that continued for 57 years. By allowing me to continue my education and to buy a first house, the GI Bill gave my entire family a start. It was America’s ultimate thank-you for a year at war.

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