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Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010

Student Veterans

Education benefits help ease the transition to civilian life

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Although they may not be the most easily identifiable group of students, a growing minority on campuses is made up of returned war veterans.

At UW-Milwaukee alone, more than 1,200 students are veterans, their spouses or their children. That makes UWM the campus with the most student veterans in the state.

“They’re an increasing segment of the student population and we want to welcome them back,” said Jim Schmidt, UWM’s veterans benefits coordinator.

Part of the surge of student veterans can be attributed to more generous educational benefits, both from the federal and state governments. The tight economy and the need for enhanced skills are also driving many veterans to campus.

Jim Duff, coordinator of the Milwaukee County Veterans Service Office, said education benefits are as important to veterans as health benefits.

“A lot of these veterans went out on wartime service and they were sacrificing a lot of their youth and the years that they might have been spending in school,” Duff said.

But many veterans don’t realize that they’re eligible for education aid.

“There are probably large numbers of veterans walking the halls of UW-Milwaukee and MATC who are eligible for veterans benefits and don’t know it,” Duff said.

Benefits There for Those Who Ask

The uptick in veterans’ admissions is the result of the passage of state and federal legislation that provide more benefits to veterans who want to earn a degree, as well as the increased numbers of veterans created by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One major program is the Wisconsin G.I. Bill of 2007, which increased the amount of tuition and fee forgiveness from 50% to 100% for veterans who lived in Wisconsin before joining the military. The veteran is exempt from paying tuition or fees for up to eight full-time semesters or 128 course credits at a school in the University of Wisconsin System or Wisconsin Technical College System. The amount of the tuition and fees waived is based on the length of time served. (For details, go to www.veterans.wisconsin.edu, just launched last week.

The state G.I. Bill is open to all veterans who lived in Wisconsin when they joined the military, so qualifying veterans who served decades ago can use this benefit to attend a state school. Yet many older veterans aren’t aware of this benefit, Duff said, because they believe—erroneously—that their education benefits expired years ago.

“Most veterans would not presume that they could go to school for free right now,” Duff said. “They think, ‘What are the chances that I could go to school for free when I’ve been out of the military for 25 years?’ The obvious conclusion is that it would be impossible. But the reality is that the answer is yes if they were on active duty from Wisconsin.”

But the Wisconsin G.I. Bill is just one program that veterans can utilize. Qualifying veterans can also tap into a federal bill that went into effect last fall—the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which helps to cover tuition and some expenses—or the long-standing Chapter 30 Montgomery G.I. Bill, which provides a monthly stipend for students. Or they can combine benefits from state and federal programs.

Unlike those who use the state G.I. Bill, qualifying veterans for these federal programs can use their education benefits at a wider range of academic institutions, including private schools such as Marquette University and Alverno College. Even some niche institutions—ranging from the Milwaukee Police Academy to the Lakeside School of Massage Therapy and the Medical College of Wisconsin—have approval to participate in this program.

In addition, some spouses and children of veterans may be able to use these benefits to pay for their education as well.

Duff said that the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which is available to those who served at least 90 days after Sept. 11, 2001, is extremely popular—so popular that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs struggled to process all of the applicants when the program began last fall.

The choices can be confusing and very complicated, and veterans’ decisions are final and irrevocable—once a veteran selects an educational track and accepts funds, he or she won’t be able to switch and receive full funding for a different track. Duff urged veterans who want to use these benefits to contact their county’s Veterans Service Office to map out their unique academic strategy. It pays to ask.

“We have to sit down with them individually to determine what they need and what their best options are,” Duff said.

Campus Life Can Be a Challenge

But signing up for tuition and fee benefits is only the beginning of the battle for student veterans. Once accepted by a school, they must try to find their way on campus as nontraditional students—and cope with the emotional and physical effects of war.

“Education is a big piece of the reintegration puzzle,” said Sara Stinski, public affairs officer for the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs.

Heidi Plach, a clinical instructor in UWM’s Department of Occupational Science and Technology, has studied student veterans extensively and is working to address their needs on campus. Plach said recently returned Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have told her that they’re challenged by transitioning to a student role, being older, and having life-and-death experiences that are difficult to discuss.

“Sometimes the skills and leadership that they learned with their military experience doesn’t translate to college credits,” Plach said. “I interviewed someone who was a medic. He was in some sort of health care field on campus. He said, ‘Here I am in a lab using a rubber arm and doing IVs, when I was doing this with crap blowing all over and people’s lives were dependent on my putting that IV in.’”

And what about efforts to create a veterans’ community on campus? That isn’t so easy. Space is crunched on campus, Plach said, so the recently opened Dryhootch coffeehouse on Brady Street has become an invaluable gathering place for student veterans who want a place for themselves.

And many veterans are solely interested in going to school and reconnecting with friends and family and not getting active on campus.

“Veterans are good at camouflage,” said Ryan Greendeer, a 28-year-old recent Army war vet who transferred from UW-Eau Claire to UWM in 2009. “We don’t want to stick out. But we aren’t your typical student. Our focus is to get in and get out so we can finish the life we started.”

That said, veterans do have unique concerns on campus.

Greendeer said some political discussions in the classroom can hit a nerve and graphic representations of violence can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among wartime vets. Greendeer said he has a “visa” that gives him the flexibility to leave a classroom if he isn’t comfortable.

But Greendeer said vets can still be the target of discrimination. One instructor at UW-Eau Claire had called him a “mindless baby killer,” which is why Greendeer left that school.

Another challenge for Greendeer is healing from his wartime injuries, since he has to schedule his surgeries around his school schedule. Some instructors are more understanding than others, he said.

“I still go to the doctor very, very often,” he said. “Being in a war really takes a toll on your body.”

UWM’s Veterans Day observance will be held on Thursday, Nov. 11. From 9-11:30 a.m., representatives from Dryhootch and Guitars for Vets will be at Spaights Plaza, along with the Dryhootch van. A discussion with a student veteran panel and Dr. Michael McBride from the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, part of a program titled “Veterans Day Recognition: Fostering a Connected Campus Community,” will be held at the Zelazo Center from 1 to 3:30 p.m. The public is invited.