- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Former Rep. Gillespie V. “Sonny” Montgomery, who during his 30 years in Congress pushed through a modernized GI Bill that boosted recruiting for the all-volunteer force, died yesterday. He was 85.

Mr. Montgomery died at Jeff Anderson Regional Medical Center in his native Meridian, Miss., after a lengthy illness, said Kyle Steward, the former congressman’s spokesman. He had been hospitalized since Sunday.

Gov. Haley Barbour called Mr. Montgomery “a giant” among Mississippi congressmen.

“The good he did for veterans is a national accomplishment, but he accomplished so much in so many areas that all Mississippians are grateful for his service and leadership,” the governor said.

On Thursday, the House voted to name a national defense authorization bill in his honor.

A conservative Democrat, Mr. Montgomery represented an east-central Mississippi district in Congress from 1967 to 1997, and for 13 years chaired the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

He was a 35-year military veteran. He served in the Army in Europe during World War II, then returned to active duty during the Korean War as part of the National Guard. He retired from the Mississippi National Guard in 1980 with the rank of major general.

The GI Bill — which has existed in some form since 1944, when it was passed to provide education and other benefits for returning WWII veterans — was modernized for a peacetime volunteer force as the Montgomery GI Bill in 1984. It provided roughly $17,000 of benefits to veterans with two years of active service and introduced them to National Guard and Reserve personnel.

“He was a friend of every man and woman who served in the military. If we needed him, he was there,” said Maj. Gen. Harold Cross, adjutant general for Mississippi. “He was called ‘Mr. Veteran’ and ‘Mr. National Guard’ for good reason.”

In a 1990 White House ceremony attended by Mr. Montgomery, the first President Bush, who was a good friend, called the 1984 bill an important component of the all-volunteer military and “among the most practical and cost-efficient programs ever devised.”

Mr. Montgomery was part of a largely Southern group of conservative Democrats, dubbed the Boll Weevils for the tiny beetle that devours cotton plants, who helped Republican President Reagan enact his economic agenda.

He helped establish the House Prayer Breakfast Group and joined its weekly gatherings for more than 35 years. The Capitol meeting room the group used is named in his honor.

During and after the Vietnam War, Mr. Montgomery made 14 trips to Southeast Asia to support the troops and later to determine the fate of POWs and MIAs.

In 1990, he was part of a congressional delegation that went to Korea to receive the bodies of five American servicemen killed in the Korean War in the early 1950s. The event was widely seen as a gesture by communist North Korea to improve relations with the United States.

Born in Meridian in 1920, Mr. Montgomery joined the Army immediately after graduating from Mississippi State College (now University) in 1943. He received a Bronze Star while serving in Europe in WWII. He ran a successful insurance business in Meridian before being elected in 1956 to the state Senate.

Mr. Montgomery never married. Funeral services were planned for 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Temple Theater in Meridian.

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