I'm going to give you a few names--successful people by any measure, from the worlds of business, journalism, entertainment, and others. Take a quick look. Can you quickly identify the shared experience they all had?

Here are the names:

  • Clint Eastwood, Oscar-winning actor and director
  • Robert McDonald, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs and former CEO of P&G.
  • Johnny Carson, late, great talk show host
  • Harry Belafonte, singer, songwriter and social activist
  • Bob Woodward, Pulitzer-winning journalist and author
  • James Mulva, former CEO of ConocoPhillips, the #4 company on the Fortune 500
  • Kelly Perdew, winner of television's The Apprentice 2
  • Jim Kimsey, founder and former CEO of AOL
  • Scott Painter, CEO of TrueCar
  • Lowell McAdam, CEO of Verizon (#15 on the Fortune 500)
  • Alex Gorsky, CEO of Johnson & Johnson
  • Drew Carey, comedian and game show host

Got it yet? While we're at it, we can add the names of hundreds of thousands if not millions of American engineers, doctors, lawyers, and other successful professionals--to say nothing of entrepreneurs.

Here's what they have in common: they all had their college educations paid for by the United States government, as a result of their service in the U.S. military.

Some of them, like McAdam and Perdew, attended the service academies like West Point and Annapolis. Others, like Woodward and Mulva, were cadets or midshipmen in Army and Navy ROTC. Still others, like Eastwood, Carson and Belafonte, enlisted in the military and went on to college afterward, as veterans whose tuition was paid for by the GI Bill.

Let's talk about that last program. Today marks the 71st anniversary of the day on which President Franklin Roosevelt signed the bill creating the original GI Bill, and it's turned out to be one of America's most effective social programs. Originally offered to every member of the armed forces who served on active duty during World War II, a total of 7.8 million veterans of that war used the GI Bill to attend college or other training programs.

The program has its roots in the fairly despicable way that the United States treated veterans of World War I. (If you haven't heard of the Bonus Marchers, take a minute and read about how the government treated these veterans of the first great conflict of the 20th Century.) Far more soldiers and sailors served in the military in World War II, and politicians recognized both that they deserved gratitude, and that it would be a shock to the economic system after the war ended if they came home without jobs or an immediate way to go on to higher education.

Since then, millions of other veterans have used the GI Bill and its successor laws to attend college. The most recent version, the Post-9/11 GI Bill, has enabled roughly 750,000 veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq to attend college or other training, on terms that are actually better than the original law.

I've written before about the advantages that military experience can give people who later go on to become civilian entrepreneurs and other leaders, but it turns out there's another obvious point. These veterans, who sacrificed in ways large and small for their country, achieved success afterward in part because they didn't have to worry about paying for their education. They were free to pursue their academic interests knowing they were paid for, and so they then parlayed their accomplishments into success in many other fields.

So, happy birthday to the GI Bill, one of the most popular and effective federal programs ever created, which not only improved veterans' lives, but improved the civilian world, too.