Beaverton Navy veteran Robert Thornhill to see his GI Bill enhancement become federal law

When President Obama signs the VA Reform Bill this Thursday, a Beaverton Navy veteran can turn to his next mission.

Part of the package of the legislation that Congress passed before leaving Washington, D.C., for the August recess is a provision that allows surviving spouses to take advantage of educational benefits under the GI Bill – benefits that would otherwise have been lost when the military member was killed.

That provision was cosponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., with Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. In his statement, Merkley said “Americans whose spouses die in the line of duty deserve a fair shot at receiving an education, rebuilding their lives and creating a firm foundation for their families.”

And he added, “I commend Oregon veteran Robert Thornhill for sharing this excellent proposal.”

In Beaverton, Thornhill waves off the compliment. “He probably already had the idea,” he said Tuesday. “He gives me more credit than he should.”

Thornhill, 83, is a vigorous, white-haired retired sailor and civilian Army administrator who spends many days at the Elsie Stuhr Center in Beaverton. He and Atsuko, his wife of 60 years, have settled in the Portland suburb.

A man with a walker glides to the table Tuesday morning. “How are you doing?” he asks, extending his hand. “Still breathing,” booms Thornhill, grasping it.

This is where life’s currents have brought Thornhill, who grew up in Oklahoma. He served during the Korean War years in the north Pacific, then, via a civilian job in the Army and a stint in the Peace Corps, traveled to Japan, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Latvia and Sweden. He found his way to Oregon at least partly because of the influence of a Jesuit teacher he had at Jochi Daigaku, a Japanese university where he put his own GI Bill benefits to use.

The Jesuit told him over and over how wonderful things were in his home state of Oregon. Thornhill made it a point to stop over during a trip in 1999. In his Motel 6 room, he turned on the television and saw an advertisement for census takers. He applied and got a job in Washington County.

He never left.

During a visit to the Portland VA Medical Center, where he was getting a follow-up exam, he saw a table inviting veterans to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He signed up and now is an active member of Post 1442 in Southeast Portland.

“He’s a good speaker. He’s a good writer,” said Post Commander and World War II veteran Marion Ellsworth. “He’s the best we’ve got.”

Thornhill is quick to credit Ellsworth and other members of the VFW for their support and encouragement. They have backed him in multiple efforts, from giving books to elementary school students to going to Salem to testify on veterans issues.

On the GI Bill provision, officially known as the Spouses of Heroes Education Act, Thornhill said it simply makes sense to give a boost to spouses trying to hold their lives together after the death of a servicemember-spouse.

“It just made sense to me that there ought to be some … way to help these people who have, in many cases, lost their breadwinner,” he said. “To the degree we can educate them, it’s good for America.”

The provision has roots in Salem, where Thornhill went to urge the Legislature to adopt it. With the help of then-Sen. Vicki Walker, Sen. Mark Hass, Rep. Jeff Barker and, crucially, then-Speaker Rep. Jeff Merkley, the bill was adopted in 2008.

Merkley then carried the idea to the U.S. Senate after he was elected in 2008.

“Mr. Thornhill is a tenacious advocate for Oregon’s veterans and their families and he’s frequently reached out to Sen. Merkley and our staff over the years,” said Merkley spokesperson Martina McLennan, in an email. “He’s been a terrific partner on the effort to expand educational benefits for Gold Star spouses,” adding that the office was proud of the legislation and grateful to Thornhill.

Thornhill is glad to see the bill become law. But now he’s got other things to focus on. Hiring preferences for veterans, for example. And veterans courts, which can help steer military veterans back into productive lives and away from prison. And collecting more books to give to schoolkids.

“He’s a go-getter,” said Ellsworth, the VFW commander. “He’s so smart.”