Five years after lawmakers expanded the GI Bill, the Department of Veterans Affairs has identified the one millionth veteran to use the educational benefit to attend school after military service.
The former service member, Steven Ferraro of Edison, N.J., is studying communications at Middlesex County College on Staten Island, N.Y., and possibly looking for a career in public affairs.
"I've always wanted to go to college to further my career, but the GI Bill has made it a lot easier," the 10-year Army veteran said Friday during a press conference arranged by the VA.
The Post 9/11 GI Bill, the most generous education benefits package for American veterans since the original World War II GI Bill, was introduced into Congress in 2007 by then-newly elected Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a Vietnam combat veteran and former Secretary of the Navy during Ronald Reagan's administration.
Like the decades-old version of the legislation, the benefits package championed by Webb and other advocates has been praised as an important program to help returning veterans advance in their careers after the military.
Derek Bennett, chief of staff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, welcomed the VA program's milestone.
"We think it's fantastic -- the fact that one million [veterans] have been served," he said. "Not only veterans, but spouses and even children of veterans, since they can pass it on."
About $30 billion has been spent on GI Bill benefits to date, Bennett said. There will be a good return on investment as these veterans join and move up in the workforce, he said.
According to the VA, about half of the 16 million World War II veterans used their benefits to go on to school, subsequently helping to rejuvenate the economy.
Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden and a community college professor, said veterans are good students.
"I've seen it in my own classroom," she said. "Veterans bring the same determination and focus to their studies that they used serving our country. And it's great for our country because highly skilled, trained veterans will make our nation's workforce stronger."
Allison Hickey, under secretary for benefits at the VA, said the department has also been working to make sure schools and colleges vying for veterans using the GI Bill offer valuable programs, support and degrees.
Congressional investigations in recent years have found numerous cases of for-profit schools targeting vets by luring them in with good-sounding programs and offers that, ultimately, prove worthless. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., in June said many for-profit schools consider the GI Bill and its tuition assistance "the military gravy train."
VA spokesman Josh Taylor said that everyone applying for GI Bill benefits -- starting with the first -- was numbered as they entered the system, and that Ferraro "was 1 million on the nose."
Ferraro said he chose Middlesex because his brother used the GI Bill to go there, and his sister went to the school, as well.
"I I figure with my family going here it would be an easy transition from full-time soldier to full-time student," he said.