Bernie Machen: Veterans helped build middle class, equalize society
This op-ed appeared Nov. 13 in the Gainesville Sun.
By: Bernie Machen
University of Florida President Bernie Machen gave the following speech to University of Florida student veterans at a reception in their honor on Tuesday evening at the President’s House.
I am honored to have this opportunity to be with you. It is great to see you and great to have the chance to meet with you on this eve of Veterans Day.
I know you share my sadness about last week’s terrible events at Fort Hood. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the deceased and injured.
Much is said on Veterans Day about the sacrifices of our men and women on the battlefield. This is exactly as it should be. We owe everything — our country, our freedoms, our security — to our brave men and women in uniform in past and present conflicts.
But here is something less often noted: Veterans have done much more than defend our country. They also have reshaped it for the better.
We have a great case in point right here in student veterans at the University of Florida.
Before World War II, education here and at other public universities was a privilege of the upper-middle class and wealthy. The G.I. Bill opened the door to students from far more modest backgrounds. They came in far greater numbers than anyone anticipated.
We never had more than 3,500 students before the war. By 1950, enrollment reached 10,000. As a result of the huge influx of veterans at UF and elsewhere, in other words, public higher education became truly “public.”
Before the war, we were an all-male school. But veterans wanted their wives and girlfriends here, and young women wanted the same opportunities as men. UF already was on the path toward opening its doors to women, but veterans accelerated the process. Two years after the war, UF went co-ed.
Veterans from this era — the “greatest generation” — went on to build the most prosperous, equitable, open country this world had ever seen. Today, we think of a college education as an opportunity that everyone deserves. And we treasure our country’s large middle class.
These are the legacies of World War II student veterans. They made the most of the freedoms they fought for in Europe and the Pacific.
Black student veterans did their best to be included. A country that asked its men to make the ultimate sacrifice could not continue to force some into second-class citizenship. Although discrimination remained widespread, numbers of black college students increased after the war.
The military became an early leader in integration. President Harry Truman ordered the military desegregated in 1948. It took many years to accomplish, but that order is seen as a first step toward racial equality in this country.
It is no coincidence that many veterans were prominent leaders in the civil rights movement. Our own George Starke Jr. served in the Air Force. In 1958, Mr. Starke became the first black student to enter UF.
Veterans democratized higher education, built our economic prosperity, equalized our society. Our current 23.2 million veterans continue to enrich American life. The story of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans has only just begun, but already, they are making their influence known. For example, voters have elected at least four Iraq war veterans to Congress.
Many of you are skilled at working with people from vastly different cultures, tackling tasks as a diverse team and handling jobs that are highly technical. These are precisely the skills America needs to pull out of its slump, compete globally and spread our democratic values.
President Obama said in a speech this year that G.I. Bill veterans produced three presidents, three Supreme Court justices, 14 Nobel Prize winners and two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners. I have no doubt your future also will see such achievement.
On this Veterans Day, I want to thank you for all that you have done for your country — and all that you will do!