At the Least, Today's Veterans Deserve an Updated GI Bill

Like many soldiers who die on the battlefield, Marine Lance Cpl. Donald Cline of Sparks, Nev., left behind a young widow. The United States government extended a helping hand to Tina Cline, paying her a small death benefit of $6,000. With the other hand, however, Uncle Sam was reaching into her pocketbook to tax the same benefit.

As outrageous as it may be, taxing death benefits is just a symptom of a larger problem: our failure to provide adequate benefits and incentives for the veterans and current troops of an all-volunteer military.

Fifty-nine years ago, we passed the GI Bill for the 16 million veterans who served in World War II. Most of them wore the uniform for only a couple of years, as the U.S. mobilized on a scale we hope to never see again. The GI Bill helped these veterans return to civilian life by providing opportunities for education and housing that they would not have otherwise enjoyed.

Today our military is different. We rely on volunteers, and our security depends on our ability to maintain a steady force by recruiting and retaining good troops. It is in our national interest to keep turnover to a minimum and encourage reenlistment. How are we trying to accomplish this? Certainly not with fat paychecks. I heard from a constituent who was shocked that the Army had included applications for food stamps in the orientation material for his son-in-law, a sergeant with a young family.

The fact is, soldiers' pay is barely adequate for subsistence. Of course, nobody joins the military to get rich. Volunteers want to serve their country, and they appreciate the well-defined framework of military life. But in return for keeping our nation secure, they deserve some security of their own. To provide that security, we need a new GI Bill that offers tax breaks, better health care and expanded education benefits to veterans and military families.

The Senate and House both passed military tax reform last week. President Bush should sign it into law as quickly as possible. These bills would double the death benefit to survivors to $12,000 and make it tax-free. They would also allow military personnel to sell their homes without paying capital gains taxes, regardless of whether they had lived in the houses long enough to claim a standard exemption.

But the bill is not all-encompassing. We need to extend the child tax credit for working families so more military families will qualify. And we must change the policy that deducts veterans' disability benefits from their military retirement pay. This amounts to an unfair tax on disabled veterans. We haven't kept up with the health-care needs of our veterans, especially in fast-growing retirement states like Nevada. Veterans have already put their lives on the line for our country; they shouldn't have to risk their health by waiting months to see a Veterans Affairs doctor. Meanwhile, the families of many reservists and inactive National Guardsmen lack health insurance.

We also must renew the commitment we made in the original GI Bill by updating education benefits for veterans. When we opened the door of education to our veterans in 1944, we changed their lives and our nation for the better. We can't let that door slam shut because of a failure to keep pace with rising college costs. We need more grants to cover the actual costs of a college education today.

Taking care of our veterans and military families should be just as high a priority for our nation as rebuilding Iraq. It is the key to maintaining well-trained volunteer fighting forces in today's dangerous world.

Harry Reid is the assistant Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate, where he represents Nevada.

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