It has long been viewed as a military perk worth its weight in gold: Join a branch of the armed forces, and be repaid with a college education when you finish your tour of duty.
Many enlistees say that single benefit helped them decide to join the military.
There's only one problem with that logic: GI's aren't collecting.
In a surprise to military officials, nearly two-thirds of veterans have not used GI Bill money they've set aside since the program was re-established in 1985. Since then, Veterans Administration (VA) statistics show, only 38 percent of the 1.25 million vets eligible have used the benefit.
That number is significantly lower than the usage rate for World War II and Vietnam-era veterans. VA and military officials are somewhat puzzled by the usage rate, especially since the 62 percent of nonusers contributed $1,200 of their own military pay to get nearly $16,000 in educational benefits.
"I was shocked," acknowledges Steve Siegfried, a retired major general who once commanded South Carolina's Fort Jackson, the Army's largest basic training site. "And I don't know the answer to why," says Mr. Siegfried.
The GI Bill dates to World War II, when the government bestowed generous educational funding on young veterans. Almost 80 percent of World War II vets used the GI Bill for college. Nearly half the nation's 16 million World War II veterans went to college or got job training paid for by the government.
ALTHOUGH the usage rate dropped to 45 percent for Korean War vets, it rebounded to 66 percent in the Vietnam era.
Government officials suggest several reasons for today's low usage rate: the erosion of the benefit's value; the difficulty in using the GI Bill's monthly payments, and the changing demographics of today's service members.
"We have done focus groups, and the problem when we talk to people who use the benefit, is it's lost some oomph," says Dennis Douglass of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington.
Today, the GI Bill pays about $440 a month toward college. The way the payments are structured, the government pays the benefits nine months a year for four years. In a single year, that amounts to about $2,000 less than the average cost of a state university, says Steve Kime, director of the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges in Washington.
The payments are also inflexible, Mr. Kime says. Recipients get the payments monthly, making it difficult to pay semester or yearly bills ahead of time.
The low usage rate would seem to run counter to perceptions about why young Americans are joining the service today. The Army's own research shows that many rate education money as the top inducement to military service.
But patriotism is still a big draw, too.
According to some who follow military trends, service to country is a major reason a lot of young adults join the service, though it doesn't necessarily show up in research data.
"The public probably thinks everybody is signing up and using the GI Bill," says David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland.
"But there are many people who come in for patriotic motives," he says.
That doesn't get reflected in some surveys or in casual discussions, Mr. Segal says, for predictable reasons.
"You won't find high school kids talking like that among their peers, or among soldiers. It's not cool," he says.
John Grisillo, a former Army officer who helps place former military members in corporate jobs, believes Segal's perceptions are on target.
From his Charleston, S.C., offices, Mr. Grisillo says people would be surprised how many sign up to serve their country.
"It's a fact," Grisillo says.