Community Columns

GI Bill’s 75th anniversary hits home for Valley veterans

Like many who left the military for civilian life, Arthur Matedne wanted to return to college. The Navy veteran from Stockton was aware of the GI Bill and that he should take advantage of his earned benefits, but knew little about them. “Not a lot at all,” said Matedne, a 32-year-old who spent four years as a hospital corpsman. “I didn’t start using them for a long time. I stayed home the first year-and-a-half after I got out.”

Eventually, he went to the Leo P. Burke Veterans Resource Center at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, where 388 veterans and six dependents are certified to attend classes. The center is where military service members, veterans and their families come to inquire about their GI Bill benefits and to begin navigating the certification process. They are frequently assisted by other veterans, including Matedne, who now guides them through it, just as other veterans helped him when he first arrived.

John Ervin, a Modesto City Schools board member, is manager of Delta’s Veterans Resource Center. He believes the college possesses perhaps stronger ties to the GI Bill than any other in the state.

Across campus sits the 1,400-seat Warren Atherton Auditorium, named for the man who wrote the legislation that became the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, known as the GI Bill, and was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 22, 1944 – 75 years ago.

Atherton worked in a Stockton law office from 1911 until serving under General John J. Pershing during World War I. He returned when the war ended and married the daughter of Benjamin Holt, founder of Caterpillar, Inc. He served as general counsel for the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) from 1935 until 1960.

But his legacy is the GI Bill. Several iterations later, the GI Bill provides service members and veterans not only with pathways for obtaining higher education, but also with a Basic Allowance for Housing or BAH, that enables them to pay the rent and put food on the table while doing so. It can also provide benefits to spouses and dependent children, if the service members elects to transfer the benefit prior to separating from the service.

The original GI Bill didn’t happen without a fight. Atherton, who also served as the national commander of the American Legion, had to overcome opposition by Rep. John Rankin. The Mississippi Democrat and segregationist claimed African-American veterans would abuse the bill, using it simply as a form of welfare. He also didn’t think African-American veterans deserved the same benefits as whites. Rankin did get a major concession that turned control of implementation over to state and local levels. This led to discrimination and became a contributing factor to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Women veterans also were eligible for benefits, but found barriers to utilizing the GI Bill They were subjected to caps on admissions by race and gender at colleges, and were often incorrectly told that they were not eligible for GI Bill benefits.

The GI Bill eventually became a huge driver in the American economy in the post-World War II years, helping create a thriving middle class into the early 1960s. It was updated in 1984 and in 2008, the latter allowing transfer of benefits to veterans’ spouses or dependent children.

That a local man played such a pivotal role is a source of pride that John Ervin loves to share with veterans who come to the center.

As of November 2018, there is no time limit for using GI Bill benefits after leaving military service. The Forever GI Bill expanded benefits while eliminating the 15-year timeframe during which they had to be used.

“In about an hour, we can show them what types of benefits they are eligible for and teach them how to navigate the (federal VA’s) eBenefits portal,” said Ervin.

Consider the GI Bill as the nation’s way of saying thank you to service members, veterans, and their families for their sacrifice and for jobs well done. And the veterans at Delta College know they have an extra connection: The GI Bill exists in large part due to the gentleman whose name graces the theater just yards away.

Jeff Jardine is a CalVet information officer and a former Modesto Bee columnist. He wrote this for Connect CalVet.