In the summer of 2003, my National Guard leadership informally alerted me that my unit would mobilize and deploy to Iraq.
This news put a damper on my plans to finish my last semester and graduate from the City University of New York’s Hunter College. But I was just one of thousands of reservists and members of the National Guard who were being called to serve in even larger numbers than had been since the 2001 Global War on Terror began. We all had lives we were being pulled away from – school, jobs, kids, bills, and yes, student loan debt.
As a response, Congress passed the HEROES Act of 2003 to ensure as these members of our military reserve activated for war, they wouldn’t be unduly burdened by student debt payments looming over their heads at home.
Now the HEROES Act is being used to justify a sweeping student loan “forgiveness” plan from the Biden administration without congressional approval. This is an insult to those the law was meant to help, myself included, but quite frankly, the move is part of a pattern of politicians abusing laws with specific intents so they can take shortcuts to pursue dubious policies or shirk responsibility.
I paid my way through school by serving in the nation’s military. A combination of state and federal education benefits earned through active duty and Guard service ensured me a public education at no additional personal cost. This didn’t mean my service was free.
Like everyone who has ever used the GI Bill, attended a service academy, received an ROTC scholarship, or used state tuition assistance, my education was paid for with service, sweat, and sacrifice. I served overseas and saw comrades bleed in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I served my city and state at ground zero after September 11 and helped to secure airports and the transit system as the war in Afghanistan started. And I’m one of the lucky ones. Some of America’s men and women, including some of my friends, ultimately paid for their education with their lives.
This is why veterans across the country are outraged by President Biden’s use of the HEROES Act to forgive millions of student loans that are in no way affected by military service. It is a slap in the face and an insult to all of America’s veterans for this administration to stretch decades-old emergency measures to erase the debts of non-veterans.
Let’s just call it what it is: An effort to provide a windfall to political allies and garner votes from beneficiaries.
Whether at home or abroad, veterans are fed up with seeing legislation passed as part of the Global War on Terror continue to be misused decades later to enable unrelated and misguided policies without proper oversight from Congress. We see it with the way Congress hasn’t debated or passed a new Authorization for Use of Military Force in over 20 years, but instead allows the executive to apply broad and misguided interpretations of law to unilaterally wage war in dozens of countries around the globe. And now we see it happening with a blatant misuse of the HEROES Act.
Adding injury to insult, this is a bad and incredibly unpopular policy. It will do nothing to solve the problem of the enormous and increasing costs of higher education. It is not just insulting to veterans, but it is unfair to everyone else, especially those who have already paid back their federal loans to the American taxpayer or don’t have college debt and who are now being asked to cover the costs of other borrowers.
In a cycle of high inflation, where the government is continuing to increase spending, and when middle- and working-class families are struggling to afford gas and groceries, it is shortsighted to forego a federal revenue stream that comes from contractual borrowers, may of whom are able to pay their debts. Debt forgiveness is debt addition. This increases the national debt, while inflation rages.
The administration’s attempt to transfer college debt costs to others by the stroke of a pen is a reckless abuse of power. It disregards the intent of a Congress that sought to help our veterans two decades ago when they were suddenly displaced from their civilian lives. Courts may decide this action is illegal after all, but Americans should make their voices heard and tell this administration that political gifts to allies from the American taxpayer are wrong. Increasing debt and spending for the benefit of the few is wrong.
Americans should tell President Biden that using a military relief bill to help civilians, especially the ones whose votes he’s counting on in November, is wrong.
John Byrnes is deputy director for Concerned Veterans for America, and a combat veteran of the United States Marine Corps and Army National Guard.