By Jeanna Packard
U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson spoke about his district service tour and the expanded educational benefits available through a new GI Bill during a recent tour stop in Athens. Nearly 20 veterans, including Ohio University faculty, staff and students, gathered Thursday in Baker University Center to hear Ohio's 6th Congressional District leader discuss upcoming legislative changes.
As a 1964 alumnus, Wilson opened the event by reflecting on his days at Ohio University, referring to it as "the greatest university" and remarking on improvements in the new Baker University Center. He explained his trip to Athens was part of a district tour of service, which arose in response to the difficult economic times.
"We're trying to turn this economy around, and we are seeing people who aren't necessarily looking for a handout but a hand up," Wilson said in light of his recent food bank tours.
He briefly addressed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which creates a National Service Reserve Corps of former national service participants and veterans who will be trained to deploy, in coordination with FEMA, in the event of disasters. The Serve America Act will become effective Oct. 1, 2009.
The legislation also will help students pay for college by allowing high school students the opportunity to serve the community in exchange for credit toward their college tuition.
Wilson then attended to the main topic of concern: the new GI Bill.
Under the Webb-Mitchell GI Bill, which was signed into law at the end of June 2008 and will go into effect on Aug. 1, members of the military who have served on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, are qualified to receive up to four academic years of educational benefits.
Wilson compared the GI Bill's benefits to post-World War II progress in terms of education and job opportunities.
"I think this is one of the things that we can do to show our appreciation to those putting their life on the line for our country," he said.
Wilson highlighted the veteran's assistance, which will create pay raises for military personnel, reduce co-pays for medical assistance, create job opportunities for vets and provide better care for post-traumatic stress disorder.
He also talked about his interactions with active troops during a visit to the Middle East in 2007.
"I saw with my own eyes everything that was going on and I could not have been more proud of our young men and women who are serving," Wilson said.
Wilson then opened the floor to attendees, giving them an opportunity to share military stories and to ask questions about the bill's personal impact.
Many of the vets expressed concern about medical coverage and financial assistance. Veteran assistance was a primary focus of several attending administrators.
University Registrar Debra Benton asked how the new legislation will be implemented and how the registrar's office can help vets understand what they are entitled to.
"At the library we've been talking about veterans on campus, and we want to be a resource and a welcoming place for them," added Alden librarian Joyce Douglas.
Wilson offered encouragement to attending veterans, stressing that necessary improvements are underway.
Shane Leary, a junior cadet in the ROTC and Iraq veteran, said the new proposals sounded promising.
"I believe the GI Bill is huge, and we want to give [veterans] hope and help," Wilson said.