Amid the agonizing realities of war - death and maiming; horrible emotional and psychological scars; severe hardships on families and loved ones - a nation is compelled to grapple with ways in which it can repay its debt to those who have sacrificed so much toward protecting their fellow citizens and preserving our precious democratic republic.
"The contributions that our servicemen and women can make to this nation do not end when they take off that uniform," President Barack Obama said Monday in announcing the launch of a new comprehensive GI Bill. "We owe a debt to all who serve. And when we repay that debt to those bravest Americans among us, then we are investing in our future - not just their future, but the future of the country."
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood that when creating the first GI Bill, under which almost 8 million Americans were educated. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of doctors, scientists, engineers and nurses who benefited under the legislation, Obama noted that the bill helped prepare "three presidents, three Supreme Court justices, 14 Nobel Prize winners and two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners."
The latest legislation, co-sponsored by Obama when he was in the Senate, is known as the post-9-11 GI Bill and goes farther than any similar measure that preceded it. Iraq and Afghanistan military personnel who served after Sept. 11, 2001, will be provided free college education at any state school.
Benefits under the bill would also apply to National Guard members and reservists who were mobilized for duty. Many veterans will also be able to transfer their unused benefits to a spouse or a child.
"And we are including those who pay the ultimate price," Obama said, "by making this benefit available to the children of those who lost their life in service to this country."
Veterans have 15 years to complete the program after active duty.
The government expects to spend more than $75 billion over the life of the bill, just over an estimated $7 billion of it in the first year. While that is a lot of money, the dollar cost is a small price to pay for the immeasurable contributions and the unselfish dedication of the outstanding men and women who volunteered their service for this country.
Few anticipated at the beginning of either of the current wars that they would have lasted so long, subjected so many military personnel to multiple tours of duty or that the physical and mental toll would have been so great. Of course, the one sure thing about war is its unpredictability.
What must never be unpredictable again, when it comes to U.S. servicemen and women, is how they will be treated on their return from war. They must never be rejected or abandoned, and they must always be given the respect and opportunity they are due.
We owe them that. The new post-9-11 GI Bill is just another payment on that debt.