Soldiers to Students: The G.I. Bill’s Legacy

 

Sometimes Cheryl and I talked about her seven months, about the wives left behind, about her family, her job, her boss. Sometimes she’d ask little questions. Sometimes I’d answer. And glad as I was to be in the States, and even though I hated the past seven months and the only thing that keep me going was the Marines I served with and the thought of coming home, I started feeling like I wanted to go back. Because fuck all this.

from “Redeployment,” the title story in Phil Klay’s award-winning 2014 collection

The G.I. Bill (formally, the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act) was signed into law on June 22, 1944. Regarded as one of the most successful and far-reaching political measures in postwar America, the G.I. Bill provided a range of financial and educational support, and over the next decade almost 9 million veterans went to college or into training programs. When those veteran-students joined the workforce, getting the skilled jobs needed to support their growing families, the nation’s economic and social landscape was transformed. This portrait of the Greatest Generation, proudly returned from war and pursuing unlimited opportunities, is sometimes offered (for example in Suzanne Mettler’s Soldiers to Citizens) as the last available snapshot of a cohesive nation striding confidently towards domestic prosperity and international power.

Phil Klay served in the Marines, and after returning from Afghanistan used the G.I. Bill to get a degree in creative writing. His Redeployment transforms raw experience into fiction; in See Me for Who I Am we get the raw experience itself, as told by others who have studied under the G.I. Bill. The collection is the product of a veterans-only freshman seminar taught by David Chrisinger, a lecturer at University of Wisconsin−Stevens Point. Chrisinger describes the work of his student-veterans as an attempt to bridge the soldier-civilian divide by describing “what it’s actually like to be in the military, to go to war, and to come home.” In “The Fires That Mold Men into Weapons,” Chase Vuchetich traces his decision to enlist to his childhood memory of “sitting next to my dad at his reloading bench, where he would make ammunition and listen to George Thorogood and the Destroyers’ ‘Bad to the Bone.’ ” For a ten-year-old with a “warrior class” childhood, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center felt like “someone had just poured gasoline on my pile of wood.” He dropped out of high school in his junior year to join the Marines and was soon in Sangin, Afghanistan, his education there beginning with a late-night seminar from the soldiers he and the others were replacing — survivors going home the next day, giving a crash course in survival to the new recruits:

“I want you guys to understand.” He stared at the wall as the lights on our headlamps flickered. “You might have to kill women and children . . . Can you do that?” His fire was out; even with the light on his face, his eyes were black as if there was no soul left inside. He was twenty-one years old. His clothes were filthy and tattered. Although he couldn’t grow much more that a ratty mustache, he looked like an old man, tired and beaten down

In Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger cites anthropological and behavioral evidence indicating that the most important factor in the readjustment process is not how a soldier responds to what he did in war but how his society responds to his return. The process of transitioning from a close-knit platoon back to life at home requires “social resilience” — a network of meaningful social connections, readily available in some communities (Junger offers kibbutz settlements in Israel as an example) but hard to find in America:

Resources are not shared equally, a quarter of children live in poverty, jobs are hard to get, and minimum wage is almost impossible to live on. Instead of being able to work and contribute to society — a highly therapeutic thing to do — a large percentage of veterans are just offered lifelong disability payments.

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