They're coming home, the lucky ones are, pulling their lives back together after harrowing times in the war zone.

And the GI Bill is there to help them, same as it was for "the greatest generation," who returned to civilian society after World War II.

Um, well, not exactly.

American vets now coming back from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are facing an ugly surprise — and I don't just mean the iffy health care at their local VA hospital. The educational benefits that sounded so alluring in those upbeat recruiting ads? They don't come close to covering the real costs of college.

"Four hundred dollars? Are you kidding?" Army Reserve Spc. Sheila Pion said of her monthly stipend. "Just my textbooks cost $410."

A seven-year reservist back home in Long Island City, N.Y., and attending John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Pion served at an Army hospital in Kuwait, tending to wounded soldiers. "It was important duty," said Pion, 24. "I was happy to do it. But the whole point of me joining the military was to pay for my education. And the educational benefits are nothing like they lead you to believe."

"Be all that you can be" — deep in credit-card debt!

"The few, the proud" — the never able to graduate!

Members of Congress from both parties are constantly saying how much they support the troops. So this is what they mean by support? Sending our soldiers back to society in the civilian equivalent of un-armored Humvees?

Wall Street legend Jerome Kohlberg is sure that isn't right. The 81-year-old billionaire, who co-founded the Kohlberg Kravis Roberts private-equity firm, served in the Navy in World War II. He knows something about the GI Bill. It helped him get three degrees — from Swarthmore College, Harvard Business School and Columbia Law School.

"I benefited tremendously," Kohlberg recalled Tuesday. "It enabled me to broaden my experience and background and make me valuable to a series of employers and legal firms."

Just like it did for 8 million other World War II vets. "Those people really made the middle class," Kohlberg said. "Just think if they hadn't gone to school what their leadership and earning potential would have been."

Under today's GI Bill, regular-service combat vets get $1,101 a month, far less for fighting members of the National Guard and Reserve. No one's going to Harvard or Columbia on that kind of money. And even to qualify, today's soldiers are required to deposit $100 a month into their own education fund, months or years before they ever get a nickel back.

"A combat tax," the troops have starting calling these paycheck deductions.

"I happen to be against this war," Kohlberg said. "But we can't ignore this. It's very difficult, the entrance back to civilian life. The best thing we can do, not only for the veterans but for our country, is to help these men and women get an education."

Kohlberg isn't just talking. He has taken $4 million and set up a Fund for Veterans Education, awarding scholarships to two veterans in every state. Pion is one of the New Yorkers. A junior at John Jay, she said she's hoping for a law enforcement career, perhaps with the federal Witness Security Program.

She says her $3,000-a-semester stipend "will make a huge difference for me. My senior year, I was going to have to put on a credit card." Pion said she's still glad she served. "I would never tell someone not to join the military," she said. "But if you're doing it for the education benefit, you really have to think twice."

Kohlberg said he understands his gift won't alone meet such a massive challenge, even if other private donors jump aboard. Washington has to step up, too.

But that is a possibility. Sens. Jim Webb and Chuck Hagel, both infantry-combat veterans from Vietnam, called recently for a post-Iraq GI bill that is far less stingy. They, like Kohlberg, believe that "supporting the troops" should be more than just a slogan.

"You've listened to Sheila Pion," the Wall Street and Navy veteran said. "Think of what this new generation can do. Veterans will be the backbone of this country, the same as they were before. We just have to help a little."

Ellis Henican is a columnist for Newsday. Readers may send him e-mail at