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military man holding schoolbooks

This past weekend my old Army unit, 326th Engineer Battalion – 101st Airborne Division held its first reunion. I was unable to attend; however, I have enjoyed looking at the photos and videos of my brothers in arms that have been posted to Facebook. What has struck me as we have reconnected after all of these years is that the sense of camaraderie is still there. It also hit home after I read a report that returning veterans were struggling with college in their post service life. I can relate—I also struggled with school in my post Army life. The statistics aren't good:

Among the approximately 800,000 military veterans now attending U.S. colleges, an estimated 88 percent drop out of school during their first year and only 3 percent graduate, according a report forwarded by the University of Colorado Denver, citing the analysis by U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education and Labor and Pensions.
While (pdf) this may seem to be something that is specific to today’s veterans I can assure you it is not. On average between 1985 and 1995 only 8 percent of eligible veterans used all of their GI Bill. And between 1995 and 2001 only 3 percent of college freshman veterans earned a four-year degree in five years or less. (Note: I recommend reading the entire pdf file).

I am one of those statistics. I was honorably discharged from the United States Army in the summer 1989. I started college as a freshman in the fall of 1990. I made it three and half semesters. As I like to say, I pissed away my GI Bill.

Navy Corpsman Lucas Velasquez left the Navy and started college at the age of 23, failing his first six classes,

At 19, I was in combat as opposed to trying to go find a party. They really don’t realize how precious life can be, how it can go away in the drop of a dime. They’re more worried about what they’re going to be wearing to school tomorrow, or the spring break that’s coming up. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just two different people.
While I did not see combat during my time in service I can relate to what Mr. Velasquez is saying. At 19 I was guarding the East/West German border. I saw men my age lose their lives in training accidents. I was used to a rigorous training regimen where failure was not an option. When I was 23 and starting college, five years older, and much more mature than the vast majority of my classmates. I could not relate to my fellow students; however, I could relate to my fellow veteran students ... and that was not a good thing. We were all in the same boat; we all had been out of school for four or five years and had no idea of how to study. We also all had one thing in common. We were not used to the amount of freedom we had. At noon everyday we left campus and went to a little bar across the street to "study."

We did not study; we drank beer all afternoon and regaled each other with tall tales of our military exploits. In other words we got drunk and bullshitted each other. But it was the only time we felt like we fit in anywhere in our post military lives. Out of that group of ten vets, one graduated from college within five years, and it was not me (I am only the second of the 10 to receive a college degree).

My Montgomery GI Bill ran out in 1999. I had not finished school and used but a fraction of the $25,000 I had earned for my service. In 2001 I was married and had a child and was downsized out of a low wage retail job. I had to go back to school. I ended up at a for-profit school and while I did get a decent education and a Bachelors degree in Information Technology I also ended up with a pile of debt because I had to pay for my (overpriced) education on my own. My GI Bill was gone. Two weeks after I completed my degree, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle passed the Wisconsin GI Bill and any veteran going to a state school would not have to pay any tuition. Three years later I went back to school to pursue my Masters in Technical and Professional Writing from the University of Wisconsin – Stout.

Stories like mine can be prevented. First, the military and the VA need to do a better job at transitioning soldiers out of the military and into the civilian world. As I recall during my ETS (End Term of Service) briefing the VA Man just called us all a bunch of idiots for getting out of the Army. Second, the college I attended had one veterans assistance officer and all she helped with was making sure the school got its money. Schools need to work with veterans and the special needs they have; President Obama is taking steps to improve this situation. These needs can be anything from just adjusting to civilian life, PTSD, to having lost a limb. Schools need to provide tutors/mentors, preferably veteran students who are further along in their studies to provide guidance to the incoming veterans, this can even be done via a veteran's only lounge (No alcohol!). Third, there should be no time limit on GI Bill benefits. Ten years was not enough time for me. I was not ready to go back to school when I did. Eleven years later I was. What clicked for me was treating the syllabus as a mission ... and the mission had to be completed.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Labor on Fri Jul 06, 2012 at 01:12 PM PDT.

Also republished by Military Community Members of Daily Kos.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (14+ / 0-)

    "Republicans only care about the rich" - My late Father (-8.25, -7.85)

    by Mark E Andersen on Fri Jul 06, 2012 at 01:12:24 PM PDT

  •  I've had veterans with PTSD in my office (7+ / 0-)

    In tears because the noisiness of the students freaked them out so badly.

    Because of the cutback in services for students---all students, not just veterans---I was the closest thing to a counselor available.

    I am not qualified in any way shape or form except insofar as I'm an empathetic person willing to listen and believe.

    The VA, sad to say, hasn't been much better help. I've called other schools with vet programs---even Veterans ±Upward Bound---desperate to find services for vets, and although the vets in those programs themselves were more than willing to help, it hasn't been enough.

    These vets are being failed. Understatement, and a heartbreaking one.

  •  I appreciate this info. Thanks. (4+ / 0-)

    I hadn't thought much about the basic adjustment aspect of going to college as a vet and an older student. I popped into a recruitment center to discuss GI Bill issues with a recruiter. All I got was the standard happy talk when what I wanted was to learn something about the difficulties and pending solutions. I startled the poor man, and as a middle aged woman, he wasn't sure what to make of it all!

    Is it true that the GI can't take a summer break, and that they must push through year round, semester after semester? I don't recall where I heard that, but if true, that in itself creates undue hardship.

    "Mitt Romney seems like the kind of man who immediately rushes off to wash his hands after sex. Really. Don't you think so?" My mother in law!

    by lexalou on Fri Jul 06, 2012 at 01:28:01 PM PDT

  •  we all know the answer to this, don't we? (2+ / 0-)

    Nobody fails in this culture or society...they are only let down.

    Oregon: Sure...it's cold. But it's a damp cold.

    by Keith930 on Fri Jul 06, 2012 at 01:58:18 PM PDT

  •  Many thanks for this important diary. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lexalou, Sunspots, mimi, Glen The Plumber

    We don't see a lot of returning vets at our university, but it seems to me that vets need support, guidance, and counseling. This may be harder and harder to find as universities, colleges, and community colleges receive less and less funding from cash-strapped states.

    •  One thing I found lacking... (3+ / 0-)

      ...is that sense of camaraderie and for lack of a better term, "unit pride." There is an awful of identity in a soldier's unit and when you leave the military you lose that part of your identity. Even though I have been out of the Army for 23 years I still identify as a member of the 101st Airborne Division.

      "Republicans only care about the rich" - My late Father (-8.25, -7.85)

      by Mark E Andersen on Fri Jul 06, 2012 at 03:52:42 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Don't forget (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lexalou

    For Tea Party types, academia is a conspiracy. Caring about art or the Humanities or literature just isn't "butch." There's a big hurdle there in terms of getting a big chunk of military folks to really want to be a part of academia in a way that will lead to success in school.

    Many are always going to be pushing away.

    Also, many in the military went into the military because academics was never really their thing and they couldn't achieve for whatever reason. It may be intelligence, or it may also be family background, behavior problems, etc. They just may not come from families that ever really understood academia or valued it correctly.

    It's always going to be tough for former military people and not just for PTSD reasons. There are a lot of reservists who never saw anything even close to battle, but school is still tough for them too.

    It's probably a lot like sports stars in college. For many, it's a matter of subsidizing their time in school because academics was never something they either focused on or achieved at. Getting soldiers college degrees is probably the same sort of challenge - ie how do you get people who may not really belong in school to do well regardless - because we want these people to benefit from school even if their grades were never up to snuff.

    •  This is an awfully big... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      indubitably, Glen The Plumber

      ...stereotypical brushstroke. The Military is really just a microcosm of US Society as a whole. There are some very smart people in the enlisted ranks, I was a 12B, Engineer,  considered to be just a step above 11B, Infantry, and I and many of my fellow 12Bs had to do math that the average person did not see until college for explosives calculations and for bridge weight calculations.  

      "Republicans only care about the rich" - My late Father (-8.25, -7.85)

      by Mark E Andersen on Fri Jul 06, 2012 at 03:59:43 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Exactly, I think it is a microcosm (0+ / 0-)

        Which is why I think for many former military folks it's a bit like being a student athlete. Everyone's getting a chance to go to college, even people for whom academics might not be a lifelong priority... so it's tough for them. Maybe tougher, because I bet many schools still grease the skids for student athletes in terms of their academic performance. Of course in that microcosm are also very smart people.

  •  Rules from the VA and the Colleges conflict (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    indubitably

    there are major things I would like to see changed for Veterans returning (especially for the older ones -over thirty let's say) from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, who qualify for the post 9/11 GI bill. (they must have been combat Veterans for the post 9/11 GI bill)

    1. Get rid of the school's ruling that in the first year a student has to pay out-of state tuition. The GI bill does pay only in-state tuition and the Veteran has to pay the difference out of his own pocket. In addition some schools request that a student is not allowed to study full-time and can only take less than five credits in the first year and has to pay this tuition out of his own pocket. This means the already elder Veteran students are forced to loose one full year of full-time classes.

    In addition his school rules conflict  directly with the demand of the post 9/11 GI bill to be a full-time student in order to get the benefits. Many Veterans didn't know about this rule (apparently introduced somewhere in 2010 or 2011)  and started full-time in their first year and paid all 12 credits as an out-of state student out of their own pocket, assuming that after one year, they would be considered in-state resident student, and would have to pay instate tuition only and could count on having the tuition paid in full by the GI bill.

    But instead, after the first year having paid out of state tuition, they just got the answer from the school that they were not allowed in the first year to take more than 5 credit hours and had to prove that they paid it all out of their own pocket to be recognized as in-state student.

    Now obviously there were Veterans who had proven that they paid the out-of-state tuition out of their own pocket for one year, but they had paid for too many credit hours.They got punished for that, because they were supposed to take less credt hours. This whole situation was especially confusing for Veterans, who changed from the Montgomery GI bill to the post 9/11 GI bill, when it was introduced, because they wanted to take advantage of the new introduced living allowance benefits that the Montgomery GI bill didn't offer. Under the Montgomery GI bill only your tuitions get paid, independently of how many classes you take. So most Veterans start out as full-time students.

    This conflicting rules between the VA and the schools have very much stressed out Veterans, usually people, who struggle on their own completely, and thrown them in temper tantrums you don't want to know about. Most of them are so pissed off and broke or discouraged, they don't return.

    You know soldiers serve in a Federal institution, they should be considered at any school as resident of the United States. The notiion that Veterns have to be a residents of the US state of their chosen school and have to wait a year for that, including not able to start their classes at a full-time student level is annoying to say the least.

    The soldiers served to protect any US state's freedoms and security, not just the particular US state they happen to end up, when they return to civilian life.

    Often Veterans have to move from the base they were released from into another state, sometimes they have to move again to another school realizing that they can't find work to live on their own and have to return into a family's or friends house.

    The living allowance isn't sufficient to pay today's high rents in many places. On the other hand for a Veteran to live on campus means that they have to share a tiny room with a roommate stacked bunk-bed style.

    So, imagine you have still a lot of PTSD problems, one of which is having sleeping disorders, then imagine that on the average Veterans might be well more than ten years older than the usual young highschool graduate kid.

    It's not the easiest thing to face to not have your own little room you can lock up and be left in peace for a Veteran, who is older.

    The living allowance of the post 9/11 GI bill is paid out pro-rated. So, when a semester starts at the 9th of the month, your living allowance will be reduced accordingly. Obviously your monthly rent doesn't go down and so you are short on money.

    If you have to be full-time student to get the living allowance, don't think that it is easy to find any employment and be able to juggle the employer's working hours he demands from you with the class schedule of your full-time Veteran student. Which means you still don't have enough money, even with the living allowance. You either loose your job or the GI benefits and sometimes both and are timewise stressed out that you risk to fail classes.

    1. I think Veterans should be allowed to live on campus in their own room and the living allowance of the post 9/11 GI bill should cover the cost for room and board on campus for the whole year.  Period, simple and straight forward.

    2. I think Veterans should be allowed to pay in-state tuition at any school from the moment the register as a student on the GI bill. Period, simple and straigth forward and deserved.

    These two regulations would help immensly to take the stress over financial worries out of the student.

    I think it is absolutely no wonder, that only a small fractions of Veterans make use of the GI bill. From what I have observed, it's the Veteran, who enlisted already having a  Bachelor Degree going into the military, or at least have a substantial amount of class work done at college level (three years or so) beforehand, who are able to pick up on that foundation, when they return into civilian life after their enlistment, and manage to get a Master Degree and/or finish what was missing for their Bachelors.

    So, basically it means that the people who needed the education most, fall through the cracks again. I also witness that many immigrants enlist with a green card and no US education into the military service, motivated by the chance to become US citizen as reward for their service. Again, those are poor and had no education beforehand. Only a fraction of them I assume will be able to make use of the GI bill.

    As most of the Veterans were poor to begin with (and one of their motivators to enlist IS the GI bill and the fact that they didn't expect to find jobs as highschool graduates, nor be able to ever attend college), and as most Veterans are older and burdened, when they return after their enlistments into civilian life, they should get the benefit of the doubt that they deserve a financially stress-free time when they go to school and try to "learn something out of books" for a change, because they had done their "real life learning" already more than any highschool kid could ever have done.

    •  All of your observations are true. I think most of (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mimi

      your prescriptions are right on too. The addition of a full time staff member for a veterans drop-in center at each school would also make a huge difference because there is a need for   a place to meet with others who understand what they are facing and a pro who can serve as an ombudsman.

      I'd tip you but they cut off my tip box. "There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.” - Frank Zappa

      by OHdog on Fri Jul 06, 2012 at 03:27:48 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  This, many times this (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    indubitably
    First, the military and the VA need to do a better job at transitioning soldiers out of the military and into the civilian world.
    The military spends months converting civilians to soldiers, sailors and marines. They least the could do is use a fraction of that time preparing soldiers sailors and marines to return to civilian life.

    It's a far larger divide than it looks, even for for those who served in peacetime.

    Try to shout at the right buildings for a few months.

    by nickrud on Fri Jul 06, 2012 at 04:02:54 PM PDT

  •  I have donated to these people before: (0+ / 0-)

    Team Rubicon  Sometimes you can watch the twitter feed on social and find out about veterans helping veterans.  Maybe there's more, but it looks like a very valid organization.  Something to think about.

    There is enough on Earth for everybody's need, but not enough for everybody's greed. - M. Gandhi

    by Singing Lizard on Fri Jul 06, 2012 at 05:27:40 PM PDT

  •  I don't understand it. (0+ / 0-)

    My friends all seem to be doing fine, though we have all had varying experiences getting our funding (for example, my school had a great veteran's resource center and they did ALL the paperwork-- I just had to zip in and fill out a card with my courses on it.  My friend lives in SE Oklahoma and is going to a much smaller school than I. His school has no resource officer, and he had to do ALL the paperwork himself and as a result it took 3x longer to process than mine.)

    I joined the Army at 20, and was an 11B.  After two tours in Iraq, and a long break after my discharge in 2007, I returned to school Jan. 2010.  I just earned my bachelor's in Criminal Justice and was accepted to a top level PhD program.

    My transition was weird. I really treated college like a job, and tended to ignore the other students.  Most were, as the post noted much younger than I with no similar experiences at all.  A few I really liked, most were veterans (well, to be fair almost all were vets).  

    I think that more should be done on ETS, but I don't know how much it would help. My last 3 weeks in the Army were a blur, I wasn't thinking about anything but freedom.  I think the best thing that we can do for our brothers(and sisters)-at-arms is to speak candidly about what to expect and give good advice.  I tell people to think long and hard BEFORE they go to school and find a degree that fits them.  I also advise people (esp. those with no dependents) to not work while they go to school.  Take advantage of the GI Bill and focus on their studies, find internships, maximize their GPA, and build relationships with faculty.  

    While it's true that vets and typical college students have very little in common, the post-9/11 GI Bill gives vets a unique opportunity to devote themselves fully to their studies.  Combined with military mentality that's quite an edge (and anyone that's been to a military school knows what I mean... it's amazing what the military crams into your brain in a short period of time).

    "I try to keep an open mind, but not so open my brains fall out." ~ Judge Harry Stone

    by chris m on Tue Jul 10, 2012 at 11:18:46 PM PDT

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