On Sunday, June 22, the Department of Veterans Affairs celebrated the 70th anniversary of the GI Bill. On Monday, the Veterans Benefits Administration hosted a student roundtable—moderated by Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.—to discuss GI Bill experiences, suggestions for improvements, and Veteran reintegration into the classroom.
There I caught up with and spoke to a Kansas City, Missouri, Veteran with an extraordinary, multi-generational GI Bill story.
A Young Man’s Hero
Jeremy Adkins didn’t know much about his Grandpa Joe’s wartime experience, but while snooping one day in his bedroom–and getting caught red-handed–the young Adkins found the Veteran B-24 pilot’s Distinguished Flying Cross.
“Well, I guess I can tell you about that,” Adkins remembers his grandfather saying.
That day, and in the years that followed, Grandpa Joe told Jeremy about his 25 combat missions over Italy, Austria and southern Germany during World War II with the 15th Air Corps. Each successive family dinner or get-together brought new stories: the times that Grandpa Joe worked with the Tuskegee Airmen P-51 “Red Tail” escorts; his fear of enemy strafing (attack of a ground target with a machine gun or cannon fire from low-flying aircraft); the incredible speed of enemy aircraft; and the size of the “fireballs” from those wounded planes that never landed.
“He didn’t talk about some of the more harrowing stories,” Adkins said, “but I’d always try to at least get something out of him. Most of the time he just handed me some history books.”
Adkins’ favorite story though was how Grandpa Joe got his men home safely during one flight when two of his bomber’s four engines blew out over Austria. That’s how he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and from that moment on, Adkins knew that 1st Lt. Joseph Kuestersteffen was a hero.
In His Footsteps
Those history books and Grandpa Joe’s stories were the foundation for Jeremy Adkins’ lifelong desire to serve. In 2006, just two weeks after his high school graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Army—while his country was at war in two faraway places. It was more than symbolic to Adkins that he was following in Grandpa Joe’s footsteps; he would soon find himself in Iraq as a medic with the 10th Mountain Division.
Five years later, now out of the Army and still fascinated with those history books, Adkins is double-majoring in history and secondary education at Rockhurst University, a private Jesuit college in Kansas City, where, 68 years before, Grandpa Joe had used the original GI Bill to earn his bachelor of science in physics.
“[In the beginning] I had no idea what I was doing,” said Adkins. “[Before Rockhurst] I showed up to the community college in my Army uniform, and I had no idea where to go. Finally someone asked me, ‘You look lost. Can I help you?'”
Later Adkins’ Grandma Shirley helped him decide to transfer to Rockhurst. In fact, it wasn’t even on his radar until she campaigned for him to apply.
“That’s when I found out Grandpa Joe went there,” Adkins recalled. “Grandma brought me the brochure and a newsletter and told me to get … to the admissions office. In the newsletter, the university’s president talks about Rockhurst’s character; and there was a slogan. It said, ‘It is deeds, not words.’ That was [also] my unit motto when I was in 10th Mountain. It was like a sign from God; so I made an appointment and was accepted that day with the news that the GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon Program were going to cover it.”
Now and Then
Adkins calls the Post-9/11 GI Bill a “godsend.”
“I never thought I was smart enough for Rockhurst, or that I’d ever be able to afford it,” he explained. “I’d never be where I am today without it.”
Grandpa Joe told Adkins that his own GI Bill was a wonderful deal. It paid his tuition and gave him a $50-per-month stipend for food and living, which he stretched pretty far, because “he added milk and sugar to his coffee,” which he says was “like half a meal!”
Adkins said he can relate. The Post-9/11 GI Bill’s monthly housing allowance helps him and his family to get by, but Adkins also works as a tutor in the campus learning center to supplement his stipend; Grandpa Joe did the same. He worked in the kitchen back when Rockhurst mandated student employment for attending the university.
Now the younger Adkins attends classes in those same university rooms and buildings, just like his grandpa decades before. He expects to graduate in 2016. In the meantime, Adkins plans to take Grandpa Joe back to Rockhurst later this summer, where he met Grandma Shirley more than 65 years ago.
“Grandma Shirley died two days before last Christmas,” Adkins said, “but I know she’d be excited for me. She’d probably tell me, ‘I told you so!’ Grandpa Joe used to tell me, ‘Work hard and love,’ and that’s what I’m doing.”