The U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs and the university community honored Don A. Balfour, a GW alumnus who was the first in history to receive the GI Bill education benefit.
By Briahnna Brown
Just 23 hours after former President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the 1944 GI Bill of Rights into law, Don A. Balfour, a World War II U.S. Army veteran and George Washington University alumnus, became the first veteran to use the educational benefit.
Mr. Balfour was enrolled at GW when he was approved for the benefit, which afforded him free tuition and $50 a month to fund his studies in foreign commerce, now known as international business. He was active in GW campus life and served as comptroller of the student council, business manager of the drama group and an editorial staff member with The Hatchet.
As a student journalist, Mr. Balfour set up an interview with a federal official the day after the bill—officially known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944—was signed into law. He brought his discharge papers with him to the meeting because he knew he might be able to take advantage of the benefits. The official immediately approved the paperwork and dictated a letter that enrolled Mr. Balfour as the first ever GI Bill recipient.
He graduated from GW and became a federal government employee, an insurance agent and an insurance company owner in the Washington, D.C., area. In an interview with a GW archivist, Mr. Balfour credited the GI Bill for affording him the opportunity to succeed.
Mr. Balfour was the first of millions to use the GI Bill’s benefits to pursue a higher education, and 75 years since the bill was enacted, GW has educated thousands of service members and their families under the GI Bill of 1944, and now the Post 9/11 GI Bill, Provost Forrest Maltzman said.
“These thousands of individuals have started profitable companies, taught students at colleges, universities and schools, continued to serve our country in the armed forces or federal departments and agencies and have been elected to federal, state and local offices– all are activities that have helped our country thrive,” Dr. Maltzman said.
To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the bill that provided numerous benefits for veterans, members of the GW community and the U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs gathered in the Marvin Center Grand Ballroom on Thursday morning for a ceremony to honor the monumental legislation and the family of Mr. Balfour, who died in 2009.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, told stories of veterans throughout history whose lives were changed because of this legislation. In the 75 years after Mr. Balfour became the first to utilize the GI Bill, Mr. Wilkie said, the nation is still reaping the benefits of this far-reaching legislation.
"The GI Bill democratized America,” Mr. Wilkie said. “The GI Bill made a statement that all Americans serve in uniform. That was the first time that any American political leader fulfilled the wishes of the emancipated, that we had a greater duty in the United States, that all Americans are on the same plane, that all Americans deserve the same benefits.”
Jared Lyon, president of Student Veterans of America and a U.S. Navy veteran, said that the GI Bill is a story that helped build a modern America by making higher education accessible to returning service members. Today, there are nearly 1 million people pursuing an education with the support of the GI Bill, Mr. Lyon said, and if not for the success of the original GI bill, the education opportunities available now would not exist for millions of Americans.
“To honor the legacy of the original GI Bill, our country continues to invest in generations of student veterans,” Mr. Lyon said. “Veterans answered our country's call once before, and using their GI Bill, they educate themselves in preparation for a life of continued service [to America].”