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The law that gave the average GI a leg up

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When a bill becomes a law, more often than not it leaves unintended consequences in its wake. That was certainly true of the GI Bill of Rights, passed in 1944 as World War II began to draw to a close. In the case of this law, however, the unintended consequences were mostly positive.

Some authors overstate the importance of their topics, but in Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream, journalist Edward Humes provides ample evidence for statements such as: "If the bill's transformation of college in America from an elite bastion to a virtual entitlement proved revolutionary, its home loan provisions were nothing short of radical."

The last time Humes wrote about the US military, the year was 1989. Then a newspaper reporter at the Orange County Register in southern California, Humes showed the link between fatal military helicopter crashes and faulty night vision devices known by the Pentagon to operate poorly despite their huge price tag.

Here, Humes has written a very different book involving the US military, one more historical in nature, and largely upbeat.

Humes opens "Over Here" – an examination of one of the most remarkable social engineering efforts in US history – with the story of Allan Howerton, a recently discharged GI now trying to rediscover his place in American society after fighting the Nazis.

Rather than allowing the crush of returning veterans to dampen his spirit, Howerton decides – with the help of the GI Bill – to enroll in college and earn a degree while he sorts out his employment options. As he exits a crowded, creaky trolley car in an unfamiliar city, he sees a sign confirming that he has reached his destination: the University of Denver. With a deep, nervous breath, Howerton – who, before the war, had been hustling burgers on the night shift at a White Castle in New Jersey – heads off to freshman enrollment.

For a man like Howerton, as Humes notes, the college experience "was as much about healing as it was about learning, as much about getting over being a G.I. as it was about using the G.I. Bill."

Of the 200 men in his combat division, 42 died under fire. "When he came home and found his way to Denver, he considered himself blessed, hale and hearty. In truth, Howerton would later realize, he was 'torn up inside.' It took time for that to change."

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