Courtesy of FDR Library/

Gov. Ralph Northam has said that we are “fighting a biological war.” President Trump has called himself a “wartime president.” Across the political spectrum, martial metaphors abound when it comes to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since most of us aren’t epidemiologists, the military language is a useful shorthand for understanding the situation we now find ourselves in. However, what if we didn’t take this language figuratively, but more literally? Not in terms of reacting to the virus, but in terms of how we go about thanking our health care workers who have been on “the front lines” of responding to this crisis? They have put their lives in jeopardy on our behalf, no different from soldiers in a war. Turning the Mill Mountain Star blue and white is a nice gesture, but once all this is over, should we do more?

A parade might be a nice idea. But if we look at how the nation has thanked those who fought previous wars, that parade down Jefferson Street is just the beginning, not the ending. The gold standard for thanking veterans remains the GI Bill, the popular name for the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act that Congress passed in 1944 and President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law while World War II was still very much under way, but when you dig deeper into the history, you find that it was Republicans who proposed more generous benefits than the Democrat Roosevelt wanted. Roosevelt wanted benefits only for poor veterans; the American Legion — and Republicans — pushed for full benefits for all, even women and minorities, which was quite radical in those days. The official photo from the bill signing in the Oval Office shows something unusual for the day. Among the phalanx of men was a single woman and she was in a prominent position — leaning over FDR’s shoulder. That was Rep. Edith Rogers, R-Massachusetts, a longtime advocate for veterans issues who became known as the “Mother of the GI Bill.” When Republicans took control of Congress in the 1950s, she served as chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee at a time when seeing a woman in politics, much less in a leadership position, was a rare thing indeed.

She was also one of the first members of Congress to speak out against Hitler’s treatment of Jews and sponsored legislation to allow 20,000 Jewish refugees to settle in the U.S. —at a time when many still opposed their admission. The most recent version of the GI Bill, passed in 2007, commemorates her by naming the scholarship program for those entering science fields after her.

The original GI Bill expired in 1956 but the key parts of it have been incorporated into other veterans’ benefits bills that are often referred to as GI Bills. The revision passed in 2008 has a Virginia connection — one of the early proponents of an update was then-Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia. It’s popular to bash government but here’s one of the most popular —and successful — government programs of all time, trumpeted equally by both left and right alike.

What would a health care workers version of the GI Bill look like? Let’s offer some ideas:

1. Education: One of the most far-reaching impacts of the original GI Bill was that it transformed the American workforce by paying for veterans to go to college or trade schools. In the bill’s first seven years, some 8 million veterans used it to go to school. By the time the bill ran out, that number was 16 million. In Virginia, schools that were previously all-female found themselves accepting male veterans as day students,. Between 1940 and 1950, the number of Americans with college degrees doubled, and then continued to rise. If you’re looking at the grand sweep of history, it’s not too extreme to say that our transformation from an industrial economy to an information economy really began with the GI Bill.

We can’t apply this example to today for this reason: All the doctors and nurses treating COVID-19 patients have already been to college. We could, though, forgive their student loans. The idea of forgiving everyone’s student loans is an idea far more popular on the left than on the right. However, is there any real philosophical difference between paying for a veteran’s education after his or her service and forgiving the student loan of a doctor or nurse after his or her service in the coronavirus war?

Forgiving student loans wouldn’t help all those in the medical field. Those who have already paid off their student loans wouldn’t get anything out of it. But no proposal is ever going to be perfect. World War II veterans who didn’t go to college didn’t benefit from that provision of the GI Bill, either. There are other educational benefits the nation could provide to coronavirus veterans. The certified nursing assistants at a nursing home might want to go to school to become a registered nurse or a doctor or something else entirely. Right now, they probably can’t afford to. With a GI Bill for health care workers, they could.

2. Housing loans. The other big component of the original GI Bill was low-interest, zero down payment home loans. That, more than anything else, fueled the rise of a post-war suburbia. Offering easy home loans for doctors making six-figures may not be politically popular, but what about the all those at the lower-paid rungs of the health care field? What do we owe the CNA who has kept her nursing home patients safe? So far we’ve focused strictly on health care workers but they aren’t the only ones on the front lines here. So, too, are all the grocery store clerks who have suddenly found themselves designed “essential workers” — in effect, first respondes of a different sort. What do we owe them? You can argue that health care workers signed up for this sort of thing. Maybe they didn’t expect a pandemic, but they knew going into the field they’d be dealing with diseases of some sort. The grocery store clerk, though, surely had no such expectations. What do we owe him or her? Simply our thanks? Or something more? Since most of us are stuck at home with nothing to do, there’s plenty of time to think about that question.

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