Article, "The Rocky Road from Combat to College"

January 11, 2008 | Other News



December 27, 2007 Thursday

The rocky road from combat to college

By Mary Beth Marklein

STARKVILLE, Miss. – By the time he completed his four-year stint in the military three summers ago, Frank Wills had gotten used to taking orders, carrying a rifle and taking pictures of the dead as a combat photographer.

He knew how to be a Marine. He hadn’t a clue how a Marine becomes a college student.

Neither, it seemed, did anyone else on campus. Advisers at one school Wills attended gave him incorrect information. Officials at a second offered no help at all. Often, he says, he felt like “the new kid who didn’t fit in.”

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill, helped turn a college education into a right of middle-class America. It covered the cost for millions of World War II veterans as compensation for having disrupted their lives to serve.

Today, with tuition climbing and a college degree increasingly seen as the ticket to economic security, the promise of money for education is no less important to service members. The Department of Defense says 95% of Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force and U.S. Coast Guard sign up for the GI Bill when they enlist.

For many, like Wills, 28, it is the reason they join. Yet his experience and those of other recent veterans suggest that in many cases, the road from combat to college can be riddled with potholes.

There are myriad opportunities for missteps: For starters, today’s GI Bill is far more complicated and less generous than it was during World War II or even Vietnam. Colleges today face an unprecedented challenge in trying to manage the disruption, academically and otherwise, of National Guard and reservists, who are called to serve while enrolled in school.

And while there are a smattering of support programs, including one by the Department of Education, no central authority offers comprehensive information.

True, veterans can make matters worse for themselves. “Some of them have a real short fuse and can’t deal with it,” says Vietnam War veteran Jack Mordente, who directs an office for veterans services at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven — a rarity in higher education, he says. Some campuses have responded more quickly than others. But he and others say colleges must be better prepared.

“We owe veterans. They have to be thought of as a special population,” says Gwendolyn Dungy, executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. “We’re sitting here and we are not ready for them.”

More are seeking benefits

For Wills, who was part of the initial 2003 invasion into Iraq, persistence paid off. Here, at Mississippi State University, he found refuge in the school’s Center for American Veterans. Created last year, it offers everything from a sympathetic ear to help applying for federal GI Bill education benefits to finding money to pay for books while awaiting the GI Bill funds.

This is a sharp contrast to his earlier experiences. When he left the Marines, he enrolled in a community college in Florida. The GI Bill barely covered his needs, but he later learned about a loophole that probably would have enabled Wills to get additional financial aid.

At his second school, academic counselors erred in advising his class choices, Wills says. “I could have transferred (to a four-year university) a semester earlier if my advising would have been accurate.”

To Vietnam War veteran Chuck Goranson, Wills’ story rings all too familiar. He has been helping veterans cut through the red tape at the University of Wisconsin in Madison since 1972 through a student group called Vets for Vets.

Though the number of recent combat veterans pales compared with Vietnam — about 1.6 million have been deployed so far vs. 8.7 million back then — the paperwork has grown far more complex. Until this spring, even the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs were giving conflicting information about eligibility requirements for one benefit.

In the Vietnam era, “there was essentially just one kind of GI Bill, and you signed up for it and you got it,” he says. Now, there is a GI Bill for members of the regular military, another for Reserve forces, including the National Guard, and additional benefits for Reserve members who have served at least 90 days in combat after 9/11. That’s not to mention vocational training for disabled veterans and tuition waivers offered by some states.

Some veterans may be eligible for more than one benefit, “and the rules are different on all of them,” Goranson says.

All those rules can be perplexing not only to veterans, but often also to university clerical workers faced with the paperwork.

“They don’t have time to keep up with the intricacies,” says Mordente, president of the National Association of Veterans’ Program Administrators, whose members represent about 300 colleges.

Nearly 440,000 service members attending about 6,800 institutions ranging from truck-driving academies to graduate programs are expected to seek the benefit this year. That’s up 24% since 2001. Numbers were flat between 1995 and 2001.

The bureaucracy at the Department of Veterans Affairs also can contribute to frustrations. Keith Wilson, the VA’s director of Education Service, says the increase in claims, along with staff cuts, led to delays in turnaround time. And efforts to fix the problem late last year created a Catch-22, he says; staffers who had been taking toll-free calls from veterans were reassigned, and less knowledgeable contractors handled the phones from last October to March. Since then, Wilson says, the amount of time to process claims has dropped from 46 days to 20 days. He would like to whittle that to 10 days.

Meanwhile, many National Guard and Reserve members called up to serve while attending college face another challenge. A Government Accountability Office report issued last year estimated that 82% of the nation’s colleges enroll such students and most (though not all) have policies in place to help them. But it also chastised the Department of Education for failing to take steps to determine whether eligible service members are getting help.

When Dan Rosenthal, 24, and about 70 other National Guard members wanted to resume their studies at Florida State University in 2004 after an Iraq deployment, for example, they were told they would have to reapply. A call from the state National Guard’s top brass to then-governor Jeb Bush solved that problem in time for the summer semester.

Though more colleges may adapt as more veterans return, the transition has left some bitter. For Maine Air National Guard member George Eaton, 28, of Bangor, the headaches started with a “nasty letter” he received in 2002 while serving in a hostile fire zone in Oman. It said he owed money to the University of Maine in Orono, from which he had withdrawn.

During a later deployment, he thought he had arranged with a professor at the university’s Augusta campus to receive an incomplete for a course, which would allow him to make up the work without penalty. But his transcript said “stopped attending,” which he says triggered a suspension of his GI Bill payments. He got no credit or refund.

“Let’s just say it has been quite a road,” Eaton says.

Things are improving

Sometimes, even well-intended gestures can rankle. After the names of fallen service members appeared in chalk this spring on a University of Kansas walkway, a group of veterans thanked the unidentified scrawlers for their concern in a letter to the student newspaper, but added, “Watching oblivious students walk on these names while talking on cellphones or listening to iPods evoked feelings of anger and rage.”

And Warren and Michele Persak of Mechanicsburg, Pa., were incensed by the treatment their son Bryan received when he returned to Virginia Tech from Iraq in spring 2005. Bryan, an Army reservist who had withdrawn in fall 2004, moved back in with college roommates in Blacksburg and planned to resume courses that fall. On the advice of a counselor who treated him for post-traumatic stress disorder, he wanted to pick up where he left off.

But when he tried to buy coveted Hokies football season tickets in advance with his buddies, he was told that because he was not taking classes, he would have to wait till fall, just as a recently admitted high school senior would have to wait.

“My husband was actually told that there is no difference between (Bryan) … and an incoming freshman,” says Michele Persak, who appealed to the provost to no avail. “We, and everyone we told that story to, were shocked. He was in an active war zone serving our country … not attending the senior prom.”

Bryan Persak, 24, who graduated in May, snared tickets on his own, but, he says, “it’s more than just the tickets. The school just seemed not to care, and that really bothered me.”

Not everyone hits a snag. Natalie Rooker, 25, of Manchester, Mo., spent her last three months in the Navy on a ship in the Pacific Ocean. She applied for the GI Bill online and had no hassles getting her benefits or registering for classes. She started at a local community college in June.

For those who do get tangled in the process, things are starting to change.

Next month, two national associations, working together, plan to survey campuses nationwide to determine what services are available to veterans. Some campuses — notably, public institutions in Minnesota and California — are beefing up advising or outreach to veterans as more of them return from service overseas.

And veterans themselves are working to change the federal landscape. A proposal scheduled to be discussed at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in January that would toughen up the federal law, for example, was drafted by a veteran, Patrick Campbell, 29. He spent his first semester back from Iraq in October 2005 haggling with a student lender who insisted he had defaulted on his loan.

The proposal from Campbell, legislative director of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, a non-profit group in Washington, would require, rather than encourage, colleges to refund 100% of a student’s tuition and fees and guarantee that students who serve can re-enter with the same educational and academic status they had when they left for duty.

In recent years, veterans on dozens of campuses, ranging from the University of Iowa to Columbia University in New York to Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla., have founded groups similar to Madison’s 25-year-old Vets for Vets.

Colleges also are starting to respond. In California, to which about 27,000 veterans migrate each year, heads of the state’s three public higher education systems, along with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, last year launched an initiative. While it gets no additional funding, it is aimed at making the state a leader in providing veterans with educational opportunities and assistance.

At Citrus College in Glendora, Calif., a new course called “From Boots to Books” helps veterans adjust to civilian life, academically or otherwise. Coordinators plan to add counseling services for post-traumatic stress disorder next semester.

Army veteran Andrew Davis, 26, who founded a veterans group at the University of Minnesota in 2005, worked with state lawmakers to push through legislation last year that, among other things, requires state colleges and universities to provide office space for representatives of a newly enacted veterans assistance program. The program was expanded this year.

A veteran also was behind the new center at Mississippi State, where Frank Wills and about 400 other veterans make up about 2.5% of the student population.

The campus, about 32 miles from Columbus Air Force Base, has a rich military legacy: One of its most famous alumni is G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery, father of the 1985 version of the GI Bill, which updated the legislation to cover an all-volunteer force.

Last year, retired Air Force general Robert “Doc” Foglesong became the university’s new president. He’s responsible for the Center for American Veterans, which offers a place where vets can “come back and just unscrew themselves,” he says.

“When I got out, there was a void in my life,” Foglesong says. “If we’re serious about our vets, we’ve got to accommodate those vets in a different way.”

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