It’s got to be heartbreaking for President Bush and John McCain to be on the wrong side of the GI Bill debate. Interestingly, their position exemplifies what Democrats have failed to recognize in the nearly 2 years since taking over Congress: responsibility brings with it the requirement to do unpleasant things. Mark Kleiman says that McCain’s position and his annoyance at Barack Obama’s posturing make him look like a grumpy, less-than-presidential old man. Not true. Grammar aside, McCain’s statement about Senator Webb’s bill was right on the money.
It is typical, but no less offensive that Senator Obama uses the Senate floor to take cheap shots at an opponent and easy advantage of an issue he has less than zero understanding of. Let me say first in response to Senator Obama, running for President is different than serving as President. The office comes with responsibilities so serious that the occupant can’t always take the politically easy route without hurting the country he is sworn to defend. Unlike Senator Obama, my admiration, respect and deep gratitude for America’s veterans is something more than a convenient campaign pledge. I think I have earned the right to make that claim.
When I was five years old, a car pulled up in front of our house in New London, Connecticut, and a Navy officer rolled down the window, and shouted at my father that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. My father immediately left for the submarine base where he was stationed. I rarely saw him again for four years. My grandfather, who commanded the fast carrier task force under Admiral Halsey, came home from the war exhausted from the burdens he had borne, and died the next day. I grew up in the Navy; served for twenty-two years as a naval officer; and, like Senator Webb, personally experienced the terrible costs war imposes on the veteran. The friendships I formed in war remain among the closest relationships in my life. The Navy is still the world I know best and love most. In Vietnam, where I formed the closest friendships of my life, some of those friends never came home to the country they loved so well .
But I am running for the office of Commander-in-Chief. That is the highest privilege in this country, and it imposes the greatest responsibilities. It would be easier politically for me to have joined Senator Webb in offering his legislation. More importantly, I feel just as he does, that we owe veterans the respect and generosity of a great nation because no matter how generously we show our gratitude it will never compensate them fully for all the sacrifices they have borne on our behalf.
Senators Graham, Burr and I have offered legislation that would provide veterans with a substantial increase in educational benefits. The bill we have sponsored would increase monthly education benefits to $1500; eliminate the $1200 enrollment fee; and offer a $1000 annually for books and supplies. Importantly, we would allow veterans to transfer those benefits to their spouses or dependent children or use a part of them to pay down existing student loans. We also increase benefits to the Guard and Reserve, and even more generously to those who serve in the Selected Reserve.
I know that my friend and fellow veteran, Senator Jim Webb, an honorable man who takes his responsibility to veterans very seriously, has offered legislation with very generous benefits. I respect and admire his position, and I would never suggest that he has anything other than the best of intentions to honor the service of deserving veterans. Both Senator Webb and I are united in our deep appreciation for the men and women who risk their lives so that the rest of us may be secure in our freedom. And I take a backseat to no one in my affection, respect and devotion to veterans. And I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did.
The most important difference between our two approaches is that Senator Webb offers veterans who served one enlistment the same benefits as those offered veterans who have re-enlisted several times. Our bill has a sliding scale that offers generous benefits to all veterans, but increases those benefits according to the veteran’s length of service. I think it is important to do that because, otherwise, we will encourage more people to leave the military after they have completed one enlistment. At a time when the United States military is fighting in two wars, and as we finally are beginning the long overdue and very urgent necessity of increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps, one study estimates that Senator Webb’s bill will reduce retention rates by 16%.
Most worrying to me, is that by hurting retention we will reduce the numbers of men and women who we train to become the backbone of all the services, the noncommissioned officer. In my life, I have learned more from noncommissioned officers I have known and served with than anyone else outside my family. And in combat, no one is more important to their soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen, and to the officers who command them, than the sergeant and petty officer. They are very hard to replace. Encouraging people not to choose to become noncommissioned officers would hurt the military and our country very badly. As I said, the office of President, which I am seeking, is a great honor, indeed, but it imposes serious responsibilities. How faithfully the President discharges those responsibilities will determine whether he or she deserves the honor. I can only tell you I intend to deserve the honor if I am fortunate to receive it, even if it means I must take politically unpopular positions at times and disagree with people for whom I have the highest respect and affection.
Perhaps, if Senator Obama would take the time and trouble to understand this issue he would learn to debate an honest disagreement respectfully. But, as he always does, he prefers impugning the motives of his opponent, and exploiting a thoughtful difference of opinion to advance his own ambitions. If that is how he would behave as President, the country would regret his election.
The last phrase is certainly true.
Politics aside, America should find a way to reward the men and women who have fought, are fighting, and will continue to fight overseas. As Jim Webb knows this is incredibly important, far more so than virtually all other government spending programs, and Congress should put aside their differences and pass a bill that rewards our military personnel fairly while maintaining force strength.
A GI Bill that reduces readiness while America is engaged with the enemy is a bad idea and, if pursued with that motive in mind, a cynical, underhanded way to reduce the nation’s ability to continue the struggle in Iraq. Not saying that’s what Webb is doing, but if McCain’s figures are correct then a vote for the bill is a vote against national security and therefore unjustifiable at this time.