Bonded by their common interests, a growing number of veterans at Elgin Community College recently formed a new club at the school: Military Branches United.
But what is new is really old.
Not only have veterans had a presence at the college before, they have been a major factor in its formation. It's a group whose enrollment has been buoyed by the G.I. Bill of Rights, then as now.
"The original G.I. Bill was historic and one of two of the best pieces of legislation ever passed, the second being the G.I. Home Loan program, said John Carr, superintendent of the Kane County Veterans Assistance Commission. "This G.I. Bill allowed the returning World War II vets the opportunity to attend college, which up to that point only the elite could afford to attend, and was instrumental in building the economic engine that made the United States a world power."
According to information on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website, the G.I. Bill of Rights or Veterans Readjustment Act of 1944 allowed all honorably discharged veterans who served at least 90 days to have their tuition, books and fees paid, as well as receive a monthly stipend. No preference was given to rank, no financial test was applied, and there was a minimum of red tape.
Locally, the University of Illinois met this growing need by establishing about 30 branch campuses across the state, according to "The Community College: 60 Years of Elgin Community College" published in 2009 for the college's 60th anniversary. One of these branches opened at Elgin High School in 1946.
"There's a sizable number of veterans who are working in business or industry who have asked for some kind of educational training," said the District U46 superintendent of schools in a newspaper report of the time. Offerings included classes in "Electricity," "Machine Shop," "Drafting," and "Theory of Machines." There were also some veterans interested in classes which would lead to a high school diploma, he added.
Newspapers said 206 students enrolled in the program. Gil Renner, an instructor who would later become a longtime ECC president after a one year stint by Dean Charles Evans, reported that all but 20 were veterans.
The University of Illinois extension program continued through 1948, and in 1949 Elgin Community College was formed under the umbrella of the local school district to carry forward the educational mission.
"I don't recommend starting a war and a college at the same time," Renner said about the institution's beginning at the start of the Korean War.
Veteran enrollment continued to be strong in the years ahead, according to the college's 60th anniversary publication. Renner added veterans were generally more mature and serious about their education than other students.
Public Law 550, known as the Korean G.I. Bill, allowed veterans to use their educational allowance in any manner they chose. This anniversary publication added that this allowed community colleges with their lower cost to gain in popularity because it let veterans use their benefits for other living expenses.
While the exact number of veterans wasn't officially tracked until this past decade, college records show a veterans club existed in 1959 and another was begun in 1968. School newspapers provided by administrative assistants Marge Rowe and Armando Trejo of the college's library show the club had a baseball team, sponsored a Battle of the Bands, and participated in a Hike for Hunger. Veterans also helped at the Larkin Home and visited patients at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital.
Unlike those that attended before them, the anniversary publication indicates the process of obtaining benefits during this era was cumbersome, multi-step, and fraught with delays. One ECC administrator indicated that the delay of four to five months would cause some to drop out of college because they could not afford to attend.
In 1984, a former Mississippi congressman Gillespie V. "Sonny" Montgomery revamped the G.I. Bill which has since been known as the "Montgomery G.I. Bill." Two years ago the G.I. Bill was updated again.
"The current G.I. Bill expands the eligibility period to use this benefit from 10 to 15 years from the date of discharge and provides for the first time ever to the veteran the ability to transfer entitlement to their spouse or dependent children," Carr said.
"The new G.I. Bill that went into effect on Aug. 1, 2009 is really great for recently separated veterans who served after 9/11," added Jake Zimmerman, president of the college's new Military Branches United.
"They can go to school and like the Montgomery G.I. Bill, have the Department of Veterans Affairs pays for it and also pays a monthly stipend for housing. Someone that goes to ECC receives $1,689 while in school," Zimmerman explained.
"This is especially helpful for veterans who are unemployed. For those who stay in the military for 10 years or more, they can give their benefits to their dependents to use."
"I think the statistics really back up the fact that it encourages veterans to go to college," Zimmerman said.
Data provided by Kris Owens of the marketing and communications Department at ECC supports Zimmerman's claim.
College information on veterans going back to 1989 show there were no veterans registered during that year. Over the next 10 years veteran enrollment varied from as few as four to as many as 65 per semester.
In spring 2001 veteran enrollment jumped to 112. In subsequent years it would vary with a peak enrollment of 139 during 2002. This past spring there were 113 veterans registered for classes.
This rising veteran enrollment year gave birth this past year to Military Branches United a veterans club at the college. Members include veterans from all branches of the military, both male and female as well as spouses and supporters of veterans.
In addition to Zimmerman, officers include Bethanie Block, vice-president, who also served as the first president, and Sabrina Visconti, as secretary, and Nicole Beyer, as treasurer. The club has about two dozen members. Assisting the group are Anitra King, career and veteran specialist and faculty advisers George Rosas and Andrew Erbach.
Club activities have included raising money for the American Cancer Society, selling ribbons and bracelets for troops overseas and assisted the Elgin Marine Corps and their Toys for Tots program. The group has also planned events for Patriot's Day and Veterans Day, and plans to join the Elgin Patriotic Memorial Association which organizes Elgin's Memorial Day activities.
"We hope to achieve many things and make our presence stronger on campus," said Zimmerman of the club. This club is here to help us support each other together and to bridge the gap between the military and civilians." And, most of us probably wouldn't be here without the G.I. Bill," he added.
For information, visit militarybranchesunited.webs.com.