Washington — After 26 years in the military, Carl Swickley found he needed more education to compete in the civilian world. With children of his own in college, the cost of going back to school might have been a problem. But with the GI Bill covering his tuition at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., he soon will have an MBA degree and be ready to start a new career.
''I couldn't do it without the GI Bill,'' says the retired Coast Guard captain.
Since the end of World War II, some 18 million American veterans have received education benefits under the GI Bill. Like housing loans, it was seen as a bright spot in the legacy of war, a way to thank veterans and attract more young men and women to military service.
But GI Bill benefits were eliminated for those who joined the armed forces after 1976. And now, the likelihood of a military manpower crunch has refocused attention on whether a new GI Bill is needed. With an improving economy and a dwindling pool of young people, advocates say, the armed services must find new ways to win recruits, especially those with the potential to keep today's high-technology military running smoothly.
As with any issue involving veterans, large sums of money, and considerable nostalgia, the issue is highly political.
Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan told an American Legion audience in 1980 he favored a new GI Bill, which he described as ''one of the most effective, equitable, and socially important programs ever devised.''
But with President Reagan as their commander in chief, top civilian managers at the Pentagon have been resisting a new GI Bill. They point to today's record-breaking recruiting and retention trends and say current limited education programs are good enough. They note studies showing that a new GI Bill would be very costly and that it might cause what one government expert calls ''a separation incentive'' - the incentive to leave the military after serving the minimum amount of time required to qualify for benefits.
Even the services themselves, faced with the prospect of paying any new education benefits out of their own weapons and operating budgets, have lost enthusiasm. This has left it to congressional advocates to push for a new GI Bill.
An unusual blend of conservatives and liberals ranging from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts to Sen. Paula Hawkins (R) of Florida is fighting to reinstate what Sen. William L. Armstrong (R) of Colorado calls ''an idea we never should have discarded in the first place.''
They note that the number of 18-year-olds will drop 20 percent (about 1.3 million) by 1987. Without a draft, they say, the answer is to attract those with college potential by offering across-the-board education benefits.
The Pentagon's response has been special programs like Veterans' Educational Assistance Program (VEAP). It's a government matching program that provides less than the now-defunct GI Bill and has had only limited success. The Army has ''Ultra-VEAP,'' which adds a substantial education bonus to those in the harder-to-fill combat roles. The Reagan administration has also increased reserve-officer college scholarships, and officials report 10 applicants for every ROTC opening.
''We have in my view right now an excellent program to fill our needs,'' says Lawrence Korb, assistant defense secretary for manpower affairs. ''You can do better with bonuses targeted to specific skills rather than a GI Bill.''
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has found that noncontributory education benefits could (depending on how generous) cost well over $1 billion a year - as much as $200,000 for every additional high-quality Army enlistee attracted by the program. The CBO suggested that more recruiters, better cash reenlistment bonuses, and targeting of education benefits could bring more recruits at less cost than a new GI Bill.
But GI Bill advocates remain unconvinced. ''The recovery has begun, and good economic times traditionally have meant hard times for military recruiters,'' says Senator Armstrong. He is one of the principal sponsors of a proposed new GI Bill that would provide $300 a month to a maximum of 36 months for military personnel completing at least two years of service. Higher benefits would be available to those who enlisted for longer periods or worked in critical jobs. Career military members could also contribute to a 2-for-1 matching program and take time off in mid-career to use their GI Bill benefits. In some cases, the benefits could be transferred to the military man or woman's dependents.
Senator Armstrong figures his bill would cost less than $500 million a year, well below Pentagon and CBO estimates.