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.