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Coming Home From War To Hit The Books
Image: – – Veterans Info Site
By David Wallis
FALLING asleep in a crowded lecture hall was never a problem for Adam Connell. Just the opposite.
As a freshman at the University of Iowa in fall 2010, he uneasily eyed his classmates. "I had feelings of bad anxiety," recalled Mr. Connell, 25, a Navy veteran. "When you pull into ports, because terrorism is so high, you are always super-vigilant at all times. In these 300-person lecture halls, you are just surrounded by people you don't know."
Fortunately, he found a port in the storm. Mr. Connell enlisted in "Life After War: Post-Deployment Issues," a three-credit course open only to veterans. The class helps veterans examine their military experiences while honing study skills, like managing test anxiety. "People know where you are coming from," said Mr. Connell, who developed a quick camaraderie with his seven other classmates. "They actually speak your language. It felt really cool."
The war in Iraq is over, and approximately 22,000 troops are scheduled to return home from Afghanistan by the fall. Leon Panetta, the defense secretary, is calling for a "smaller, leaner" military, so colleges and universities are welcoming â€” or in some cases ignoring â€” an invasion of students taking advantage of the modern heir to the G.I. Bill. Despite the influx of former soldiers on campus, a veterans-only class that awards credit is the exception, not the rule.
Asked whether the 6,700 colleges and universities approved as eligible to educate veterans on the G.I. Bill were doing enough to support former troops, Rodrigo Garcia, national chairman of the Student Veterans of America, gave them "an overall C+."
"There are some great colleges and universities that deserve an A+," said Mr. Garcia, a former Marine. "But there are some colleges and universities that perform varying unscrupulous practices, and they deserve an F." An area needing immediate improvement, according to Mr. Garcia, is career counseling. As of January, 9.1 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were unemployed, higher than the national rate of 8.3 percent.
Clearly, some schools deserve high marks for looking out for student-veterans. Columbia University, which banned the Reserve Officers' Training Corps in 1969 and allowed it back only in 2011, now ships out admissions staff members to military bases to recruit students.
And what a difference a war makes at the University of California, Berkeley. Rocked by violent antiwar protests during the Vietnam era, the school currently promotes its "military friendly" designation from G.I. Jobs magazine on its Web site for veterans.
Still, Gene van den Bosch, who founded the Arizona Veterans' Education Foundation, frets that some schools pay student-veterans little more than lip service. "Perhaps some colleges are trying to maximize a public relations benefit and portray themselves as being military- or veteran-friendly," Mr. van den Bosch said. "And yet when you investigate and say, â€˜Define that,' it turns out it may be in many cases, â€˜We have somebody who's going to help them process their G.I. Bill checks.' "
There are plenty of checks to cash. According to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, the number of veterans receiving benefits soared 16-fold â€” to 555,329 â€” within three years of enactment of the so-called post-9/11 G.I. Bill of 2008, which greatly expanded educational and other benefits. Under the latest iteration of the G.I. Bill, signed by President Obama in December 2010 and known as "G.I. Bill 2.0," many enroll in online schools or vocational programs, but a growing number of student-veterans attend traditional colleges and universities.
Among the latter is a former Navy fighter pilot, Jeffery Hensley. As a reservist, he volunteered to serve with an Army civil affairs unit in Iraq in 2006. He had a job as a pilot at United Airlines waiting for him upon his return. But a few months after coming home to Frisco, Tex., in April 2007, he and his wife separated. "I wound up becoming the full-time caregiver for my kids," Mr. Hensley said. The here-today, gone-tomorrow life of a pilot was "a real tough way to raise kids," he said.
Having seen his children flourish in a program providing therapy through horseback riding, Mr. Hensley decided to change careers. He left United and enrolled in the University of North Texas to pursue a master's degree in clinical mental health. He is currently an intern with the Horses for Heroes therapeutic riding program for veterans in Keller, Tex.
Without the new G.I. Bill riding to his rescue, "I would have had to stay at United â€” and I was low down on the seniority list and close to being furloughed," Mr. Hensley said, adding, "There was no way that I could have maintained a schedule that would have allowed me to go to school."
Milton Greenberg, author of "The G.I. Bill: The Law That Changed America," doubts that the new G.I. Bill will have the social impact of the original Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, which soon became known as the G.I. Bill of Rights and enabled millions of veterans to go to college and achieve upward mobility. But he considers the current benefits "pretty damn generous."
The first G.I. Bill allowed record numbers of veterans to go to college and offered recipients up to 52 weeks of unemployment compensation and guaranteed home or business loans. Student-veterans received a monthly subsistence allowance. "With the Korean War, they began reducing the benefits," Mr. Greenberg said. "In Vietnam, they reduced it even more." In 1984, the "Montgomery G.I. Bill," named after former Representative Gillespie V. Montgomery of Mississippi, increased benefits. Student-veterans who had paid a $1,200 enrollment fee could receive up to $300 a month for tuition, fees and living expenses for 36 months (four academic years), an amount subsequently increased several times.
"Before long â€” you know what happened to tuitions â€” it was practically useless," Mr. Greenberg said.
Those who served in the military for at least 90 days from Sept. 11, 2001, onward now qualify for an escalating level of benefits. Veterans with three years or more of service receive 100 percent of in-state tuition and fees at a public school for 36 months, or typically up to $17,500 an academic year if enrolled at private schools. Recipients also receive a substantial housing stipend, adjusted for local conditions. In expensive Midtown Manhattan, for example, the monthly housing allowance is $2,835.
The University of Iowa understands the equation of V.A. = $$. The university's Veterans Task Force Report, published in 2009, refers to veterans as an "excellent revenue source." But the fact that the university evaluated its readiness to serve veterans sets it apart from many other schools. The report still found that the graduation rate for student-veterans at the University of Iowa was 15 percent lower than for other civilian students.
Reliable data about graduation rates is notoriously difficult to find, although Veterans Affairs last fall started to collect graduation figures for veterans on the G.I. Bill and plans to eventually report its findings. (By comparison, there is a wealth of information available about student-athletes.)
A recent study by Operation College Promise and the Pat Tillman Foundation suggests student-veterans thrive in supportive schools. It analyzed the academic progress of 200 veterans attending colleges with "robust" services, like mentoring programs. Participants maintained a 3.04 grade point average and 94 percent stayed in school from fall 2010 to spring 2011, surpassing national rates. The study did not investigate whether veterans prosper in schools without robust services.
Col. David W. Sutherland, special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with a principal focus on warrior and family programs, credits colleges and universities for increasingly creating nurturing communities for veterans.
"When I say community, don't just think geographic," Colonel Sutherland said. "The community of colleges. The community of employers. The community of health care providers. The bonds that exist on the battlefield are unlike any bonds you can imagine. You come home, and those are ripped apart, so you look for meaningful connections."
Asked to play dean for a day, Colonel Sutherland, who commanded a brigade in Iraq, effortlessly barked a few orders:
* "First, establish a Veteran's Resource Center that focuses on the needs of the veteran."
* "No. 2: Establish a student-veterans' association or organization, where the veterans have a place to congregate." Colonel Sutherland said the University of Arizona had a "robust program" aimed at minimizing its dropout problem. "The police come in and bring pizzas on Fridays," he said. "The Fire Department comes in and puts sodas in the fridge. They have graduate students tutoring the undergraduates."
* "No. 3 is changing the culture: faculty development programs." A veteran requires different attention from an 18-year-old just out of high school, Colonel Sutherland said, adding, "I have different experiences, and he's texting, chewing gum, has his pants around his ankles and giggles every time the door slams â€” and I may jump."
Some student-veterans and their advocates argue that the military can do more to prepare soldier-scholars to be all they can be. Six months before demobilization, most service members attend the Transition Assistance Program, three days of workshops focusing mainly on getting a job and to a lesser extent on earning a degree.
Helen Shor, 25, a Marine Corps translator of Arabic from 2004-09 who is now studying for both a bachelor of arts and a master's degree at Columbia University, judges the transition program to be a missed opportunity. She faults instructors for leaving her with "more questions than answers" about her educational opportunities. "They didn't explain the new G.I. Bill," Ms. Shor said. "They couldn't tell us which schools would accept it, how much we would get paid for, whether or not our living expenses would be paid."
Sean O'Doherty, who served in the Army from 2006-10, wished that the program prepared him for collegiate culture. "They should tell you a little more about college," said Mr. O'Doherty, a freshman at the Community College of Baltimore County. For four years, he said, "I was told what to do, I was told where to go, and when I got out here it was kind of like â€˜O.K., you are on your own.' "
Colonel Sutherland defends the Transition Assistance Program, describing its mission as defining the post-military career path. "TAP is not there to hold your hand," he said. He acknowledged, however, that it is being "beefed up."
Though disappointed by the Transition Assistance Program, Mr. Connell, the student-veteran at the University of Iowa who battled anxiety as a freshman, is a satisfied sophomore. He maintains a 4.0 grade point average and has kept up his friendships from the "Life After War" course. To explain his academic success, he borrows a phrase from his time on an aircraft carrier: "Failure is not an option."