Will Hubbard was 17 years old when he started talking to Marine recruiters about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As he learned more, the Illinois native who was drawn toward wonky policy issues felt like lawmakers on Capitol Hill were making decisions about the military, but they didn’t understand anything about it.
“How many members of Congress know what it’s like to polish a doorjamb with Brasso?” Hubbard, now a Marine staff sergeant, said. “Very few. And even outside of the Marine Corps, very few.”
“It’s small things like that, and the level of attention to detail that military training and the idea of service engenders in you — it’s a completely different understanding of how the world works and gives a greater appreciation for the freedom that we have … and seeing what that commitment actually takes.”
“I wanted to personally understand,” said Hubbard, a Marine reservist who also serves as the vice president of government affairs for Student Veterans of America.
Hubbard has spent the past several years working to bridge that gap between the military and Capitol Hill. His work in Washington has helped to transform veterans’ benefits for higher education by pushing for the creation of the “Forever GI Bill.” Passed in 2017, the law got rid of the expiration date on GI benefits, among other things.
For his extraordinary work that has brought expanded benefits for thousands of veterans, Hubbard will receive an honorable mention at this year’s Marine Corps Times Service Members of the Year award ceremony in July.
Hubbard said his desire to understand the military and a deeper belief that “service to the country was paramount” led him to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserve in 2006.
He chose the reserves because he also wanted to go to college, and thought “this was the perfect option.” He started at community college, and ended up at American University in Washington, earning a degree in international relations (or “the poli-sci of the world,” as he likes to say).
As a reservist, Hubbard’s overseas deployments include Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Haiti.
It was in Haiti in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew that he and fellow reservists started realizing their orders were causing problems by not giving them eligibility for most GI benefits: “The deployments were being recognized like a long drill weekend.”
This realization led SVA and Hubbard to a larger conversation about the GI Bill.
He and an SVA counterpart were what he calls the “co-pilots of the effort.” They worked closely with a “tiger team” of six organizations “that really made it all happen.”
The headliner was removing a 15-year timeline on the GI Bill, which Hubbard says didn’t reflect modern reality for service members.
The new GI Bill also allows those who have received a Purple Heart on or after 9/11 to receive full benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
“We thought it was an absolute tragedy that you would serve your country, sustain injuries in action and then come home to not have the opportunity to go to school,” Hubbard said.
Their $3.45 billion GI Bill expansion was passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate in three weeks.
What’s next for Hubbard? He has a lot of reading on his plate and a few Virginia wineries to enjoy, not to mention an impending nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.
After that, it’s back to work on what Hubbard says is his calling: fighting for veterans, especially in the realm of higher education policy.
“I think we’re on the cusp of a new wave of American leadership,” he said.“Given the major challenges that are facing the world today, I truly believe that it’s going to be this generation of veterans in the United States that leads the way.”
Andrea Scott is editor of Marine Corps Times.