JACKSON, Miss. – 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 Friday. He was 85.
Montgomery, who underwent surgery for a bowel obstruction in December, died at Jeff Anderson Regional Medical Center in his native Meridian after a lengthy illness, said Kyle Steward, the former congressman's spokesman. He had been hospitalized since Sunday.
On Thursday, the House voted to name a national defense authorization bill in his honor.
Gov. Haley Barbour called 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.
A conservative Democrat, Montgomery represented an east-central Mississippi district in Congress from 1967 to 1997, and for 13 years chaired the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
He himself was a 35-year military veteran, serving 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. Among other things, it introduced education benefits 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 1993 speech, Montgomery recalled the struggle to get the bill passed. He said that while all the GI bills have helped veterans readjust to civilian life, his has the added purpose of being "a tremendous incentive for bright young men and women to join our armed forces."
"Smart, motivated young men and women just weren't going into the military," he said.
He recalled telling a bill opponent during a late-night House-Senate conference that "if I had packaged this program like a missile, shaped it like a cone, filled it with gunpowder and stuck a fuse on it so it could blow up the world, it would pass this conference in a minute."
Montgomery won the day, and President Reagan signed the bill into law in October 1984.
Under the New GI Bill, veterans with two years of active service who contributed $1,200 of their own money were eligible to receive tuition payments of $300 a month for 36 months. The Army and Navy then kicked in an additional payment to bring the total benefits to roughly $17,000. The payments have been raised since then.
In a 1990 White House ceremony attended by 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."
During and after the Vietnam War, Montgomery made 14 trips to Southeast Asia to support the troops and later to determine the fate of POW/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.
"This is a historic occasion ... recognition for Americans who fought in Korea, recognition that has not come for 40 years," Montgomery said at the time.
Montgomery was also 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.
Montgomery, then a state lawmaker, was elected to the U.S. House in 1966, defeating three Democrats in the primary and two opponents in the general election. He succeeded Rep. Prentiss Walker, who ran for U.S. Senate.
He easily won 14 more terms, usually getting more than 80 percent of the vote. But over the years the district — overwhelmingly Democratic in the old days of the "Solid South" — became heavily Republican. Even Montgomery's winning total dropped to 68 percent in 1994 from 81 percent two years earlier. In 1996, a Republican, Chip Pickering, was elected to replace him.
Pickering paid tribute to him Friday. "His legacy of public service stretches across generations and across party lines and is a testimony to his vision of strong America that honors our commitments to military service," Pickering said.
In 2005, Montgomery was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the second President Bush.
Born in Meridian in 1920, 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.
Montgomery never married, and during his travels always considered Meridian his true home.
"I've been active and have not walked away from Meridian. I plan to be buried here — but not yet," he said in 1999.
Montgomery operated a lobbying firm in Washington after leaving Congress in 1997. He retired in 2004 and returned to Meridian.
In Jackson, the Veterans Affairs Hospital bears his name, and last year an Army gunnery range at Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg was named for him.
Funeral services were planned for 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Temple Theater in Meridian.