"Thousands of Veterans Become Students Again…"

December 4, 2006 | In the News

CUNY Matters- December 2006

Thousands of Veterans Become Students Again, Challenging the Colleges to Find Ways of Helping Them

Abdul Montaser (left), who was in the Marines and served in Iraq, is now studying at Kingsborough Community College. He’s pictured here on a fall day, chatting with U.S. military recruiters who were at the campus trying to get students to enlist. There are an estimated 3,000 veterans of the United States military attending CUNY colleges, and many of them have served in Iraq, putting their lives at risk in a way that five years ago — before the events of September 11, 2001 — seemed almost unimaginable.

Some of them had been college students before putting on their uniforms, and so their presence now on campus is like a homecoming, albeit one with special stresses related to their experiences facing death and violence in a war-ripped country.

University administrators and their counterparts at the campuses have been attempting over the past year to put together special programs for the veterans, recognizing their unique backgrounds and their special needs — financial and psychological — as they attempt to resume a measure of normalcy.

At Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, Dean of Students Norman Toback said he anticipates that many thousands of veterans will be returning to the metropolitan area in the next couple of years. He says that Kingsborough is trying to beef up its counseling and other services for them, as a way of enticing them to come and then helping them to succeed once they are there.

“We anticipate there will be 10,000 returning veterans in the metro area in the next couple of years,” Toback said. “And many of them, we anticipate, will want to avail themselves of the educational benefits that they earned as military. So we’re increasing our recruitment and other services… ”

Among the special services being developed at Kingsborough is “a complete one-stop service center,” where the vets can receive health screening, personal counseling and advice about their benefits as veterans.

Over at Brooklyn College, Claudette Guinn, Coordinator of Student Affairs and Veterans Services, has been especially active in helping students who have returned from military duty. In one of many bonding activities, the vets make annual trips to Washington, D. C. to take part in Memorial Day services there. From time to time they gather for enjoyment and to lend each other emotional support.

Sgt. Ariel Luna, a senior at Brooklyn College, who lives in Starrett City, joined the U.S. Army National Guard in 1999. In 2002, his unit based in Jamaica, Queens was called to active duty and Luna spent 11 months in Iraq.

On his tour, Luna often worked 18 hours a day, 6 days a week, driving trucks to maintain supply routes in and out of Baghdad for three weeks at a time. On the fourth week, he worked guard duty — a break considering it was only a 12-hour day.

“It was one hell of an experience,” said Luna, a radio and television major. “Every day something happened…. But compared to other units, we were lucky. We only lost one guy. We had twenty injured.”

Since his return home, Luna has thrown himself into his work as student, at an internship, and in two part-time jobs. “Basically, I like to fill my time with some kind of activity,” said the 25-year-old. “I just have one day off when I sleep — otherwise I like to stay busy.”

Luna said he is grateful that he has been able to cope reasonably well — something he knows other returning soldiers from his unit have had a tough time with. He’s heard stories of soldiers who have drinking or drug problems or scrapes with the law because of domestic battery cases.

“A lot of the guys didn’t come back with a lot of gas,” Luna said. For some them, I think, the war was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Luna said he learned valuable lessons about his own resiliency and his ability to get a lot accomplished in a day. He’s considering going to for a master’s degree, but he said he may just try to get a job after graduation, and go to grad school later.

Meanwhile, either on campus or outside recruiting stations located near the colleges, military recruiters are attempting to entice other students into service, stressing the material benefits, such as pay and tuition assistance, as well as the pride that many members feel in wearing their country’s uniform.

On a recent weekday, a U.S. Army recruiter, Staff Sgt. Rashid Keitt, was at Kingsborough Community College trying to interest students in signing up. Around the country, recruiters have been having a difficult time getting young men and women to enlist, in large part because of the Iraq war and its high death toll, now approaching 3,000 American servicemen and servicewomen.

Keitt conceded that the war has made recruiting tougher and he said he encounters resistance from students and their parents. “They just think if you join the Army you will be sent straight to the war in Iraq,” said Keitt, a 25-year-old from Queens.

Kingsborough Community College student Jesse Campbell, who served four years as an active-duty Marine, but believes he may soon be re-activated and sent to Iraq. Keitt says it’s not true that enlistees will necessarily end up in Iraq or Afghanistan. “…I’ve served for seven years and I’ve been to neither,” he said. But nearby was Jesse Campbell, a 22-year-old student, who was more than a little skeptical.

Campbell, a freshman from Carnasie, joined the Marines a few months after 9/11, angry over the loss of a friend who was killed in the World Trade Center attack. Campbell remained on active duty from 2002 through this year, and he was never called to Iraq or to Afghanistan during that time. He stayed stateside as part of detail working as HAZMAT responders for the Department of Homeland Security.

And so he was able to enroll at Kingsborough, receiving $1,184 toward his tuition and expenses under the GI bill.

But Campbell said that last month he received an email from the Marines that has been causing him great concern, as it advises him of his continuing obligation to the military.

According to the contract he signed at age 17 he has to serve four years active duty and four years inactive duty — meaning he can still be called and sent to Iraq or Afghanistan. He believes he very likely will be.

“The odds are pretty good that I will go because they don’t have enough troops to go,” said Campbell, who was born in Nigeria.

He said he watches the news about Iraq every night with trepidation and was especially frightened upon learning that more than a hundred U.S. servicemen were killed in October alone. What’s worse are the emails he gets from fellow Marines, who give him the inside scoop on what it is like over there.

He said he has refused an invitation to re-enlist, turning down the approximately $30,000 he would get for doing so.

Recruiting at or near campuses, which in the past has caused tensions with anti-war activists, has been occurring quietly and routinely, campus administrators say. At Borough of Manhattan Community in lower Manhattan, for example, recruiters from the services are seen regularly on the sidewalks talking with students and encouraging them to consider signing up.

Figures for the fall of 2006 show there are 31 reservists, 156 regular veterans and eight disabled vets at BMCC. CUNY officials say there are about 1,600 students registered as veterans across the University, but the officials say they believe there are actually about 3,000 veterans in total.

Some of the colleges are in the process of studying the impact of having significant numbers of veterans, some of them war veterans, on their campuses. “As greater numbers of returning veterans are being seen at the Office of the Registrar and the Counseling Department at Queensborough Community College, it became clear that a forum for the veterans on campus would be very beneficial,” says a memo from the college’s counseling office.

The memo, intended to be the basis for further research into the needs of student-veterans, notes that a veterans club was formed at Queensborough in the spring and that the veterans “lack information about where to go for vocational rehabilitation and other support services.” The vets are also seeking “emotional support,” and some veterans have “had to drop their classes because of various stressors and redeployment,” says the memo, sent to CUNY Matters by Andrea Cohen, a counselor at the college’s counseling center.

Abdul Montaser, a 24-year-old student at Kingsborough, wants to be clear that not all veterans are emotional basket cases. Their experiences differed greatly, depending on branch of service, where they were deployed — and when they were deployed.

Montaser, who lives in downtown Brooklyn, joined the Marine reserves after his graduation from high school because he didn’t want “to go the college route” at that time. He figured boot camp would be tough but then the rest would be easy. But after September 11, he was called to active duty to become part of a domestic security detail, serving from 2002 to 2003. During his active stint, he was called to serve in Iraq and spent six months.

His family is from Yemen, so as an Arabic-speaker Montaser mainly served as a translator. The situation in Iraq was not nearly as bad then, in 2003, as it’s been over the past year, with increasing strife between the Sunnis and the Shia, he said.

“It was tough, the weather was so hot and all the equipment you had to wear… but it wasn’t that bad,” said Montaser, who is studying radio broadcasting at Kingsborough and does street promotion for 50 Cent’s record label G-Unit Records.

“I don’t want to glorify what I did there,” Montaser said, “because what the soldiers are going through now is a lot more dangerous than anything I did. The soldiers serving now have a real tough time.”

Hoping to do what it can to ease their transition, New York City College of Technology has launched a new “Project W.I.N.” program. The college says it wants to “promote the academic success of the increasing number of veterans enrolling at the college.”

In comments that recall the tensions of the Vietnam era, Paul Schwartz, a counselor with City Tech’s Counseling Services Center, said that veterans today come equipped with a plethora of skills; but “concerns over growing anti-war sentiment resulting from the U.S. military involvement in Iraq have made some veteran students anxious over how the general school population will receive them.”

City Tech says that Project W.I.N. is designed, in part, to encourage student-veterans “to allay their concerns about openly identifying themselves as veterans.”

Schwartz concludes by saying, “Above all else, we want them to know that they’ll be welcomed at City Tech.”

In the end, it is perhaps precisely that — a nurturing, welcoming attitude — that will make all the difference for veterans, as for other students with special needs. In this regard, the website of CUNY’s Veterans Affairs website ( www.cuny.edu/veterans,) includes, as personal testimony, a statement from recent Hunter graduate John Byrnes.

“In October of 2003, just a few credits shy of a January graduation, I was mobilized for duty in Iraq. It was fifteen months before I was able to return to college,” Byrnes writes.

“The interruptions of schooling caused by my deployments were frustrating, and at times it seemed like no one at school understood the situation. The system wasn’t prepared for military students.

“Through it all, in spite of the frustrations, Hunter College administrators worked with me…When I graduated in June of 2005, Hunter College President Jennifer Raab made a point of telling my story to everyone in attendance.”

Byrnes concludes saying, “As an alumnus and a veteran, I’m now working with the University to help make CUNY an even friendlier place for veterans.”

A Commemoration of ‘Fallen Heroes’
The Rev. Rafael Corniel calls former Borough of Manhattan Community College student Hai Ming Hsia, who was killed in Iraq this summer, a symbol of multi-cultural New York.

Former BMCC student Hai Ming Hsia, killed as a serviceman in Iraq. Hsia, serving as an Army Specialist, was on patrol in the Iraq city of Ramadi when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. He was 37.

Several years ago Hsia had put his dreams of finishing college on hold, as he enlisted in the military to support his growing family. Corniel, a priest at St. James Roman Catholic Church in lower Manhattan, told CUNY Matters that Hsia was “tri-cultural,” and spoke English like a proud New Yorker, but also spoke Spanish and Chinese fluently. His mother was Puerto Rican and his father Chinese.

“It was like losing the Triborough Bridge,” Corniel said.

CUNY’s Veterans Affairs website (www.cuny.edu/veterans) tells visitors about Hsia, saying he “was a real New Yorker, a native of lower Manhattan’s Chinatown.” Hsia “tried his hand at college, attending the Borough of Manhattan Community College, just a short walk from his neighborhood.”

Then, in “2002, a year after the fall of the nearby twin towers, Hai Min Hsia’s wife, Yanisse, gave him the news that they were going to have a child. Realizing that his security job would not provide for three, he suspended his college goals and enlisted in the U.S. Army,” we are told.

The “Fallen Heroes” link on the website pays homage also to four other former CUNY students previously killed while serving in Iraq. They are: Army Spec. Segun Frederick Akintade (New York City College of Technology); Army Pfc. Francis C. Obaji (College of Staten Island); Army Pfc. James E. Prevete (Queens College); and Army Pfc. Min Soo Choi (John Jay College).

University–Wide Push to Recruit and Assist Veterans
The City University of New York has launched several major initiatives aimed at recruiting veterans and assisting them in overcoming educational, financial and other obstacles they face while pursuing a college education.

• All colleges have appointed veterans affairs coordinators to disseminate information to veterans.
•A new website, www.cuny.edu/veterans, with features and information on admissions, finances, and services available to vets, is in operation. On the website, veterans are able to post comments about matters of concern to their community. The CUNY site is also linked to the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs website at www.nyc.gov.
• Special “one-stop” centers, where veterans receive counseling on benefits, and special help in adapting to their lives as students, have opened or are being planned at the campuses.
• CUNY in November participated in a New York Times-sponsored “Salute to Heroes” Recruitment Day, attended by several thousand veterans and active servicemen and servicewoman. University representatives counseled the attendees on opportunities at the colleges and on career paths.

Above is an ad created to encourage veterans to come to CUNY’s colleges. In uniform on the Brooklyn College campus in late September were (left, wearing camouflage) former Army Sgt. Ariel J. Luna and former Marine Cpl. David H. Faed (right, in Marine dress uniform). Both are now Brooklyn College students. In a notable symbolic gesture, the University had a float in this November’s New York City Veterans Day parade. Chancellor Matthew Goldstein said the University has an obligation to help veterans as they re-enter civilian life and begin pondering career options.

“Veterans Day should be observed all year round. We must ensure that veterans can re-enter civilian life and find success through education,” said Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, speaking of the University’s new initiatives.

“Thousands of young men and women are returning to metropolitan New York from military service, and we believe it is our duty to help them find a path to the success,” the Chancellor added.

Robert Ptachik, the University Dean for the Executive Office and Enrollment, has been helping to oversee the expanded efforts for veterans. He’s especially fit to do the job because he’s a veteran who was wounded in the Vietnam War.

Working with him is Christopher Rosa, the University’s coordinator of services to veterans and students with disabilities.

Ptachik said, “For me, this is more than just a professional undertaking. It is emotional. What I would like to see is that men and women who come back to the campus are welcomed and have support in a way that wasn’t true for people of my generation.”

He added, “CUNY is committed to providing returning veterans with a place where they can not only meet their educational and career goals, but where they can be confident that their service to our nation is valued and celebrated.”