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Thank you all. And I'm delighted to be here with two members of my Cabinet: Dick Cheney, who's doing an outstanding job leading America's defense forces, and of course, Sam Skinner, our very able Secretary of Transportation. Chairman of our Joint Chiefs is here, General Colin Powell, Secretary Stone, Secretary Rice. General Gray was to be here, and there he is. And I'm going to omit somebody, so I'll stop right there. But just welcome all of you.
And I also want to recognize, single out, so many Members of the United States Congress that are here today. I'm delighted that you are. And, of course, the representatives of the Armed Forces. Most of all, I guess we got to pay tribute to the distinguished Representative from the State of Mississippi, the Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and the Army veteran for whom this historic bill was named, our old friend, my old friend, Sonny Montgomery.
Sonny -- I got to hand it to Sonny. He and I were elected to Congress on exactly the same day many years ago. And he's the one who's got his name on both a major, significant piece of legislation and a gigantic building -- Air National Guard complex down in Mississippi.
But today, I'm very pleased and honored to welcome you to the Rose Garden and to have this opportunity to tell you personally just how important I believe this program is. From the time it was first launched in 1944, the original GI bill was a huge, bold, and successful experiment, an ongoing experiment in which young men and women from all walks of life are given not only a choice but also a chance: a chance for a higher education and their own piece of the American dream.
In 1945, October, Barbara and I joined the ranks of more than 40,000 couples who headed to college that year on the original GI bill. America's schools were soon swamped with prefab housing and trailers. And by 1946 and 1947, the flood tide had crested, and more than 2/2\ million veterans had embarked on getting their education.
The GI bill has special importance to me, and special importance to the peace and prosperity that America has enjoyed during the 46 years since it first began. The GI bill changed the lives of millions by replacing old roadblocks with paths of opportunity. And, in so doing, it boosted America's work force, it boosted America's economy, and really, it changed the life of our nation.
And thanks to people like Congressman Montgomery and other leaders here from both the Senate and the House today, the GI bill has continued to successfully improve and evolve. And I remember some of the tough battles that were fought to get the new bill through Congress. Sonny interrupted one marathon conference session with a rather unique reminder of the needs of the military and of his own commitment to stick it out. He brought in C-rations. Well, I've tried C-rations, and eating them on the Hill is my definition of serious commitment.
The success of Sonny's effort is evidence in the young American heroes we salute today, the men and women here representing America's armed services and symbolizing the one millionth participant in the Montgomery GI bill. Airmen like Alabama's Jeramie Brown, who leaves for Munich tomorrow to help tell the story of America through the Armed Forces Network. The Coast Guard's Keith Pyle, who was part of the honor guard last month at the wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Medical specialists like the Army's Linda Meidling, who's been on the dean's list at Stockton State College since 1987. And reservists like Chicago's Teryl Speights, who puts in time with two jobs: reading x-rays at the West Side V.A. Hospital and reading radar screens at Glenview Naval Air Base. Those are definitely two jobs, Teryl, that you don't want to get mixed up. [Laughter]
But for America, as for these individuals, the payback has been terrific. Today, the Montgomery GI bill ranks among the most practical and cost-efficient programs ever devised and represents one of the best Federal investments since Betsy Ross bought needle and thread.
To begin with, right now the program is more than paying for itself, and even as payouts increase, four decades of experience have taught us that the increased earnings of these educated GI's also mean increased tax revenues for America. And the additional education its participants receive continues to produce a technological gain for our country.
Even more important are the improvements in our Armed Forces. The Montgomery GI bill has been an important component in the success of America's all-volunteer forces. And let me just repeat here what Colin Powell and the other Chiefs have told me over and over again: we have never had better men and women in the Armed Forces than we have today. This program contributes to savings because better educated recruits mean training costs and attrition have gone down, while productivity and morale have gone up.
This bill is playing an important role in promoting excellence in our Armed Forces. And it's also playing an important role in promoting excellence in education. Several of its components -- choice, flexibility, competitiveness -- parallel some of the most important components of the Educational Excellence Act that we sent to the Congress last April, a critical first step in our efforts to revitalize quality in America's schools. It was passed by the Senate in February. And I believe it's time for the House to act now. So, let's make this year of change, a year of progress in education. Let's strike a blow for excellence, and let's get that legislation passed.
Education is our most enduring legacy, vital to everything we are and can become. And the Montgomery GI bill is a powerful example of what is right about education in America. Our Armed Forces and our system of higher education are today the envy of the world. And so, I'm here to thank you for your important work, the work you do in defending our nation's freedom; in educating our nation's youth; and in ensuring that, whether in military might or educational excellence, the United States of America stands second to none.
Thank you for coming to the White House today. And God bless you in your efforts. And God bless the United States of America. Thank you all very, very much.
Note: The President spoke at 11:27 a.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House. In his remarks, the President referred to Secretary of the Army Michael P.W. Stone, Secretary of the Air Force Donald B. Rice, and Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. A.M. Gray, Jr.