Military veterans seek help from colleges

As new students thronged on Anne Arundel Community College on the first day of the semester, some trickled into a tiny office with a big American flag on a cinderblock wall. They wanted to know when their promised government would aid arrive, how they would for pay for books and housing, and why their reimbursements were short or late.

They were part of a wave of hundreds of thousands of students with unique concerns landing in U.S. colleges: military veterans aided by an expanded G.I. Bill. Like Roger Parker

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, many crave more help on campus navigating the bureaucracy of government and higher education.

“I did everything my country asked of me,” Parker said. The 51-year-old wears an Army football jersey, an airborne unit baseball cap and camouflage backpack like a résuméof his 30 years in the Army, from which he retired as a sergeant major. He did three tours in Iraq, two in Afghanistan and one in Bosnia, and he is using the G.I. Bill to study health, fitness and nutrition at the Anne Arundel campus in Arnold.

But Parker also carries around a bill he received from the college for the difference between the cost of his courses and what the Department of Veterans Affairs paid out. The unexplained shortfall: $6. The sum isn’t what bothers him, he said. It’s the principle.

“No one told me that when I came out of one hostile environment, I would end up in another hostile environment, fighting for my benefits.”

Two years after a broadened G.I. Bill took effect for veterans who served on or after Sept. 11, 2001, growing numbers are claiming benefits worth up to the full cost of the highest in-state tuition at a public university, plus stipends for books and living expenses. There were nearly 800,000 G.I. Bill beneficiaries last year, up more than 40 percent from the year before. Schools recruit such students because the veterans bring with them $11 billion a year in federal aid.

But veterans and their advocates say colleges need to step up efforts to help students adjust to campus life. Some of the veteran students are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries or other disabilities. Many are returning to school with full-time jobs and families to support on top of the usual demands of college.

Anne Arundel, with 692 veterans at a school of more than 17,000 students, does more than many colleges. It has a Veterans’ Resource Center with a few chairs and tables, some brochures and a part-time coordinator who is a student veteran. Brian Hobson, 46, an ex-Army combat engineer who suffered a traumatic brain injury, stopped in on the first day of classes last month. He said the college world can be challenging for veterans.

“The military is K.I.S.S.: Keep it simple and stupid — whereas here, it’s fathoms above your head,” Hobson said. “They need someone who’s going to represent the veteran.”

Colby Howard, a Marine Corps veteran who served two tours in Iraq, heads a group called Georgetown University Student Veterans of America. The group is pushing for a full-time coordinator to serve 331 veterans on Georgetown’s main campus. It is also pushing the university to follow through on a plan to add a coordinator this fall at the School of Continuing Studies, which enrolls many veterans.

The G.I. Bill “should be a win-win” for students and colleges, Colby said. “It’s guaranteed revenue for the school. But there’s a lot of concern that the recruitment doesn’t come with the support.”

At American University, a group called AUVets is pushing the school to hire a full-time coordinator for more than 200 veteran students.

“You learn a lot of skills in the military — how to be part of a team, how to take orders, how to give orders,” said AUVets president John Kamin, who served two tours with the Army in Iraq. “But there’s one thing they don’t teach you how to do, which is how to look out for Number One. Then you come to an environment like a university, where you have all this bureaucracy, and there’s no one looking after you but yourself. You’re on your own, and that can be a really isolating experience for veterans.”

American University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said that the university “pledges to work with our student veterans’ groups to seek an appropriate solution.” Georgetown spokeswoman Maggie Moore said that the university is considering “the best ways to allocate our resources to meeting the needs of these students.”

Veterans are more likely to enroll part time or transfer among schools and generally don’t feel supported or understood, according to a survey by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. They’re twice as likely as other students to have disabilities and to spend more time working or raising families. Thirty-eight percent have trouble figuring out their benefits, according to a survey by the American Council on Education.

There has been some progress. The government’s average processing time for benefit applications has fallen from 60 days two years ago to 12, said Keith Wilson, director of the Education Service at Veterans Affairs. The department is testing a program called VetSuccess — offering counseling and personal assistance to student veterans — at Texas A&M, San Diego State, the University of South Florida and five other campuses. There are plans to expand to nine more schools next year.

The presidents of public colleges in Maryland — spurred by Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D), an Army veteran who served in Iraq — have signed an agreement to make veterans’ services a priority. Representatives of the schools are scheduled to meet Sept. 23 to work out details.

The federal government doesn’t require universities to hire veteran coordinators, but the issue is drawing federal attention.

Col. David Sutherland, special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and director of the Office of Warrior and Family Support at the Pentagon, has been visiting campuses and advocating for veterans to receive more services. “What I’ve found is that when the veterans feel connected to the institution, they thrive,” Sutherland said. “When they’re at a university that thinks they will do fine [on their own], they don’t seem to do as well.”

Wilson, of Veterans Affairs, said: “Higher education is a difficult environment. What veterans need is somebody to be a single point of contact.”

This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

 
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