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To mark the end of combat in Iraq and the return of U.S. troops in time for the holidays, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Dec. 14, 2011.
Michelle Obama thanked service members and their families for their sacrifices and touted her husband’s work in supporting returning veterans.
She mentioned improved mental health care for veterans and tax cuts for businesses that hire veterans. She also said this of her husband: "He's helped more than half a million veterans and military family members go to college through the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill."
That makes it sound like the G.I. Bill was a major initiative of President Obama. But it was actually signed into law by his predecessor.
The new GI Bill
The bill, officially called the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, was introduced by Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia and Vietnam War veteran. It paid for veterans who served at least three years after Sept. 11, 2001, to attend a public college or university for free for four years, provided a monthly housing stipend and covered up to $1,000 a year for books.
Service members who agreed to serve four more years in the military had the option of transferring the benefit to their spouses or children. With the backing of numerous veterans groups, the bill was hailed as the most comprehensive educational benefits program since the original G.I. Bill was enacted in the World War II era.
Obama, then a senator campaigning for president, supported the bill, along with most other members of Congress. It was opposed by President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, who feared the generous education perk might hurt military retention.
Obama voted for it when it came up in the Senate in May 2008, McCain was absent, and Bush ended up signing it into law.
The benefits kicked in Aug. 1, 2009, after Obama had moved into the White House. As expected, tens of thousands of service members took advantage, and the Department of Veterans Affairs quickly fell behind in covering payments. Veterans reported having to take out loans to cover education costs while they waited for their checks from the government.
According to news reports, the VA had mostly cleared the backlog by February of 2010.
In December 2010, Congress passed another bill that enhanced the benefits of the new G.I. Bill. Dubbed "G.I. Bill 2.0," it expanded eligibility for reserve members and National Guard members who were activated after 9/11, allowed tuition benefits to be used beyond college campuses at vocational and on-the-job training programs and expanded the housing allowance to distance learners.
The bill, the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Improvements Act of 2010, was signed by Obama on Jan. 4, 2011.
When we contacted the White House for documentation of Michelle Obama’s statement, a spokesman provided us statistics on the 2008 law:
* Approximately $15.02 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit payments.
* 649,573 individuals have received benefits since August 1, 2009.
* Fall enrollment is 428,870 individuals.
Who gets the credit?
Our key question about this claim is not whether veterans have been helped by the law, but whether Obama is the chief helper, as the First Lady's speech implied.
We contacted veterans groups for their input. All agreed with the 500,000-plus figure Mrs. Obama mentioned.
"In general, the numbers have gone up dramatically," said Robert Norton, a retired Army colonel and deputy director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America.
He noted that the legislation had broad bipartisan support in Congress and that Bush ended up supporting it because of the provision allowing benefits to be transferred to family members.
But at that time, Obama was just one vote. Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America, said Obama "can take as much credit as every other politician in Congress in ‘07. (The new G.I. Bill) was supported by virtually everyone."
He said it's a stretch to suggest Obama was the driving force.
"It’s not appropriate. He doesn’t deserve that," Dakduk said.
Tom Tarantino, senior legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, focused on the 2011 law. He said "it is fair to say that the president has been supportive of expanding benefits."
Tarantino also credited the Obama administration with helping clear the backlog at the VA that left veterans waiting for their money.
"When VA checks were late in the first semester, it was the White House that pressured (or directed) the VA to provide advances to veterans waiting for their living stipend. The White House has also been a driving force behind modernizing the VA benefits process that has resulted in an automated NGIB process that has had little to no late payments this school year," Tarantino said.
Michelle Obama said her husband has "helped more than half a million veterans and military family members go to college through the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill."
Michelle Obama made it sound like the bill was a major legislative priority for him, but it was signed by his predecessor.
Senator Obama voted for the new G.I. Bill. (And he wasn’t exactly going out on a political limb by favoring a law that enhanced benefits for military service members in the midst of two wars.)
However, Obama did sign another bill in 2011 expanding benefits. The two laws together have helped more than 600,000 men and women returning from war find their way toward new careers, according to the VA. Obama deserves some credit for that achievement, but he's just one of many. We rate Michelle Obama's statement Half True.
Remarks by the President and First Lady on the End of the War in Iraq, Fort Bragg, N.C., Dec. 14, 2011
Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008
"Fear of Troop Exodus Fuels Debate on G.I. Bill," New York Times, May 22, 2008, accessed via Nexis
"Veterans' Benefits Bill Wins Approval in Senate," New York Times, June 19, 2008, accessed via Nexis
"House Leaders Reach Deal On Top Spending Measure," New York Times, June 19, 2008, accessed via Nexis
"The New G.I. Bill: A Primer," New York Times, Nov. 2, 2008, accessed via Nexis
"Obama calls new GI Bill an investment in leaders," Associated Press, Aug. 4, 2009, accessed via Nexis
"Tuition flowing as VA unclogs GI Bill pipeline," Feb. 12, 2010, Chicago Tribune, accessed via Nexis
"Congress helps veterans with college tuition, job training," Sacramento Bee, Dec. 16, 2010, accessed via Nexis
"What the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Bill Means for Our Veterans," White House blog, Jan. 11, 2011
Interview with Michael Dakduk, Student Veterans of America, Dec. 15, 2011
E-mail interview with Tom Tarantino, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Dec. 15, 2011
E-mail interview with Robert Norton, Military Officers Association of America, Dec. 15, 2011
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