National Guard November 2011 : Page 30

Back to School By Ron Jensen The new Post-9/11 GI Bill, several other programs and a diffi cult job market have Guardsmen and other new combat veterans hitting the books in record numbers 30 USTIN WHITAKER MAY be the only biology major at Western Illinois Univer-sity versed in searching for the nearly invisible wire that can deto-nate a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. The 26-year-old Iowa Army National Guard sergeant also may be the only animal-science minor at the school in Macomb, Ill., who has had a piece of shrapnel slice through his leg, although it’s doubtful he’s the only student among the nearly 14,000 on campus with a Purple Heart. “I do feel a little diff erent than most D | Na tional Guard

Back To School

Ron Jensen

The new Post-9/11 GI Bill, several other programs and a difficult job market have Guardsmen and other new combat veterans hitting the books in record numbers<br /> <br /> DUSTIN WHITAKER MAY be the only biology major at Western Illinois University versed in searching for the nearly invisible wire that can detonate a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.<br /> <br /> The 26-year-old Iowa Army National Guard sergeant also may be the only animal-science minor at the school in Macomb, Ill., who has had a piece of shrapnel slice through his leg, although it’s doubtful he’s the only student among the nearly 14,000 on campus with a Purple Heart.<br /> <br /> “I do feel a little different People,” he says. “They’re young. They take things for granted.”<br /> <br /> He goes to class every day, he says, which sets him apart from his fellow students, who may spend more time partying than studying.<br /> <br /> “If I didn’t go overseas and get a diff erent perspective on life, I’d probably be out partying, too,” he admits.<br /> <br /> College campuses have welcomed plenty of people lately with perspectives on life uncharacteristic of typical college students. The nomenclature has thickened with the term “college student/combat veteran” more so than At any time since the end of World War II, perhaps.<br /> <br /> The reasons include a long, long war, generous benefits and an ailing job market.<br /> <br /> Whitaker’s experiences may be unique to his job as a combat engineer tasked with clearing roads of deadly bombs, but he’s not alone at WIU in knowing what combat sounds like and feels like.<br /> <br /> Hayley Westart Clayton, 25, a specialist with the Illinois Army National Guard, deployed for several months with her military police company to a remote outpost in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009.<br /> <br /> “We had quite a few injuries, but, thank God, we didn’t lose anybody,” she says.<br /> <br /> Her military experience sets her apart from the more traditional students at the school, she says.<br /> <br /> “It’s hard to identify with people,” she says.<br /> <br /> Asked if she sometimes shakes her head in disbelief at the antics of her fellow students, she says, “All the time.<br /> <br /> All the time.” One of those head shakes took place after she heard a student call home and ask her parents for “beer money.”<br /> <br /> Clayton attended the school for two years before joining the Guard.Now she’s back, older and probably wiser beyond her years thanks to her time in Paktika Province.<br /> <br /> “You feel that you can’t go back to the stupidity part of college,” she says.<br /> <br /> Whitaker and Clayton may feel a bit out of place, but they are right where their country wants them to be. That’s why service members and veterans are offered a generous education benefit for spending time in the uniform of their country.<br /> <br /> It’s why the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which many current students are using, was created.<br /> <br /> “That’s what we wanted—for them to graduate and get good jobs,” says Keith Wilson, the director of education services at the Department of Veterans affairs (VA), which oversees the GI Bill and other federal benefits for military members and retirees.<br /> <br /> Wilson says the current GI Bill has been a whale of a success. In one year, the number of students using the benefit shot up from 560,000 to 800,000.<br /> <br /> “It’s definitely a matter of ‘If you build it, they will come,’” he says.<br /> <br /> A version of the GI Bill has been serving veterans since before the end of World War II when President Franklin Roosevelt in June 1944 signed the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, also called the GI Bill of Rights.The bill provided education benefits,But also unemployment pay and guaranteed loans.<br /> <br /> Three years later, 49 percent of college students were former Gis using the new benefits. When the original law expired in 1956, nearly half of the 16 million World War II veterans had used the education benefit of the GI Bill. It’s credited with helping fueling the nation’s economic boom in the 1950s.<br /> <br /> Subsequent versions of the bill were less helpful than the original.Benefits were slashed by Congress as college costs rose. In 1984, Rep.Gillespie V. “Sonny” Montgomery of Mississippi introduced what became known as the Montgomery GI Bill to give veterans a better deal.<br /> <br /> Wilson says that GI Bill served its purpose, but it, too, was falling behind the marketplace. It was not “robust” enough, he says.<br /> <br /> In August 2009, a new version of The bill with the post-9/11 label went into effect. Its passage was pushed hard by NGAUS, which also fought for an expanded version of that bill, which went into effect Oct. 1.<br /> <br /> “The financial benefit is much more robust,” Wilson says. “The program is designed to match what the costs are.”<br /> <br /> Plus, it provides benefits for students of nondegree-granting institutions, like a beautician school, for example. It also pays for on-the job training and provides a housing allowance to students enrolled in distance learning.<br /> <br /> The details of the program are found at www.gibill.va.gov or by calling 1-888-GIBILL1 (442-4551).<br /> <br /> The benefit is enticing. It provided a major push for Mitchell Bohlke, 19, to join the Minnesota Army National Guard in April 2010. The private first Class is now enrolled at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minn.<br /> <br /> “I don’t want to come out of college with a loan to pay off,” he says. “I don’t want to worry about that.” <br /> <br /> He was upfront with the recruiter about his reasons for joining, he says, and the recruiter was knowledgeable about the benefits that could meet his desires.<br /> <br /> “He helped me out a lot,” he says.Jason Nienaber, 24, joined the Minnesota Army National Guard in 2008 and is a junior at the university in Mankato.<br /> <br /> He wanted to join the Guard anyway, but the education benefit figured in his decision.<br /> <br /> “These benefits are outrageous,” he says. “College is pretty damn pricey.” <br /> <br /> Phil Cleary joined the Minnesota National Guard the day after Osama bin Laden was killed May 2 by a Navy SEAL team in Pakistan.<br /> <br /> “That was just a coincidence, but it makes for a fun story,” says the political-science major at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.<br /> <br /> He obviously hasn’t deployed, but his service does set him slightly apart from his peers.<br /> <br /> “Not a whole lot different other than I’ve made a commitment for the next eight years of my life that a lot of students don’t make,” he says. “A big part of my future is in the hands of somebody else.”<br /> <br /> And like every student interviewed for this story, he is using several programs to pay for his education.The GI Bill is not the only education benefit available for military members who want to be college students. Most states have tuition programs and there are federal programs and grants available for qualified applicants.<br /> <br /> In fact, the plethora of programs Can sometimes be a problem. Students apply for the same type of assistance— tuition, for example—from multiple sources and wind up deluged with money earmarked for the same purpose.<br /> <br /> “They just assume if they qualify for all four programs, they will get all that money,” says Kathy Meyers, assistant director of the Veterans Resource Center at WIU.<br /> <br /> The result is a bit of turmoil at university admission offices around the country, but it is often straightened out with the help of the campus vet center.<br /> <br /> But the multitude of dollars available for college is getting scrutiny back in Washington. Tougher fiscal times has the Pentagon tightening the rules for its tuition assistance programs and some lawmakers (story, page 16) looking to cut some veterans’ education benefits as a way to help Trim the budget.<br /> <br /> Meanwhile, back on college campuses vet centers are getting greater visbility. With the influx of veterans, schools have provided a place for them to gather and meet people with shared experiences and to have a resource for problems unique to a military member or veteran.<br /> <br /> Meyers says WIU used a state grant to put a VA satellite center on campus.<br /> Veterans use it to link by video with the closest VA hospital in Iowa City, Iowa, 150 miles away. A VA nurse works part-time on campus, too.<br /> <br /> “The needs of the student veteran are different than they were 10 years ago, 15 years ago,” she says.<br /> <br /> Nicholas Hawkins is president of the Student Veterans Organization at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas. He was in the active component for five years, but joined the Texas National Guard three years ago and deployed to Iraq in 2008.<br /> <br /> He says the school plans to construct a building to house a veterans’ center and also bring a fulltime VA psychologist to the campus.<br /> <br /> Hawkins is in a graduate program now in the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the university.<br /> <br /> “I felt really awkward [as an undergraduate],” he says. “There was no one who could share your experiences.”<br /> <br /> The veterans’ organization solved that problem. With 300 veterans on the organization’s mailing list, there are people with similar stories to tell.<br /> <br /> Clayton is lucky. Five members of her unit are attending WIU.<br /> <br /> “I’m surrounded by people I was with. If anything is bothering me, I have that base of support,” she says.<br /> <br /> The combat veterans hang out “on a regular basis,” she says.<br /> <br /> And unlike their fellow students, the conversation is less about parties and weekend plans than recollections about a long tough year in a faraway land.<br /> <br /> Clayton says, “We talk about it all the time.”<br /> <br /> Ron Jensen can be contacted at (202) 408-5885 or at ron.jensen@ngaus.org.

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