From Combat to Classroom

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Thousands of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are taking advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. It pays for all in-state tuition and fees, plus a $1,000 bucks for books and a monthly living allowance. But many vets are struggling to integrate into college life. We talk to four student vets about why many stay quiet about their history. First, though, we take a look at how Colorado colleges and universities are meeting veterans’ needs as they transition from combat to the classroom. It’s part of our series “Coming Home.” Here’s a transcript of CPR’s education reporter Jenny Brundin’s report.

Reporter Jenny Brundin: For veterans attending college, snafus can happen at every turn. Let’s take the case of a veteran we’ll call John. He wanted to be candid about his problems but didn’t want to use his real name. John entered college twelve years ago. But he still doesn’t have a degree. That’s because he spent eight years on call in the National Guard and Reserves. He’d get activated and have to drop out of class.

John: I’m like 32 now, and you feel like you haven’t achieved anything.

Reporter: So finally, John’s come back to CU Denver --this time, to finish. But he’s got bad news. Not all his instructors gave him “incompletes” like they said they would when he was last activated. John ended up with two “F’s. And that’s created a cascading set of problems. It’s dropped his GPA. That jeopardizes his GI benefits and his ability to register.

Cameron Cook: which GI bill are you on? John: Chapter 33…

Reporter: So today John’s come to Cameron Cook, looking for help. Cook directs CU Denver’s Veterans Student Services Office. He helps vets with their paperwork and helps them stay in school.

Cook: So you’re looking for a retroactive withdraw? John: Yes.

Reporter : Cook is cut out for the job. A tall former Marine, he’s passionate about helping his fellow vets. He worries about them, worries about what’s to come as more and more, he notices, are struggling to integrate. His goal is to get more vets involved in veterans’ student groups. But it’s frustrating figuring out how.

Cook: You don’t want to sit in the basement and play video games if you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders. You’ve got to get out and get in the sun and be around people who’ve been there.

Reporter : John’s story represents just a portion of the troubles veterans face trying to transition from soldier to student. All that paperwork. Those years of military service, where you followed orders to a T, now you have to make your own way. And injuries -mental and physical wounds. That national survey of student vets found half report serious symptoms of PTSD. There can be a social clash, too. Many vets say they have problems relating to an 18-year-old complaining about a late bus or a bad cup of coffee. Especially when they’re fresh from trauma on the other side of the world.

Mike Roberts: All the veterans who came to CU in January, 55 percent spent time in combat, that’s a huge amount.

Reporter : That’s Mike Roberts, veterans services manager at CU Boulder. Like his counterparts at other Colorado campuses, Roberts is trying to figure out how to help these veterans overcome the obstacles. The need will only grow. This year there are 20,000 veterans in Colorado schools, that’s up 4,000 from last year. And schools expect thousands more in the coming years as the wars wind down. Mike Roberts says it won’t be easy.

Roberts: How do we have the programs and support measures in place to make sure they’re successful? And can we get their fast enough? That’s the real challenge.

Reporter: Today, college administrators are gathered at CSU at Fort Collins, to exchange ideas on what works to help vets adapt, like a separate orientation.

Panel participant: To teach them about how to handle alcohol and the student conduct code, I mean, all that does is irritate them. (fade under)

Reporter: CSU is considered a leader in the nation because of its range of services for vets, like a separate orientation.. They are set up to give college credit for military experience, and priority registration for veterans. They also have created a special veterans lounge.

Reporter : 31-year-old veteran Jeremy Miller says he didn’t have this kind of support at his community college. Here he finds like-minded people, Internet connection, a place where veterans can help each other out.

Jeremy Miller: What works and what doesn’t work and how to get things done in terms of receiving your benefits.

Reporter: Across from him Joshua Jamison, a Marine Corps vet, is pouring over a book. He’s also a regular.

Joshua Jamison: Every day, this is kind of like a home at school.

Reporter: He says the difference between military and student culture is huge. Jamison says the quiet, adult atmosphere of the lounge helps him with the shift.

Jamison: Guess you feel more like you belong to this school, so it’s very nice to have a place where you feel like you belong.

Reporter: Back at CU Denver, John too, says he feels most comfortable around other veterans,

John: Would that be a medical thing? Would I come talk to you? Cook: so it affected your grades and everything? John: Yeah.

Reporter: Like the advisor Cameron Cook. John’s comfortable enough that he brings up another issue today. Last semester he couldn’t make it through some of his courses because he struggled with PTSD.

John: Seems like my minds always wandering.

Reporter: Certain dates trigger stress, like the anniversary of the death of one of his close military friends. Even where he sits can cause stress.

John: I never like my back to the door. But some of the classes you can’t help it. You’re always looking back at the door.

Reporter: Many veterans don’t like being in groups or crowded places, which classes usually are. John says it’s gotten better with college counseling and medication, but he says, school is still a struggle. Cook assists him with paperwork the issue has caused, and encourages him to stop by, every day if he needs to. Cook says he’ll do what it takes to keep vets in school, especially given that they have a very high drop-out rate nationally.

Cook: I try to let them know they’re wanted here.

Reporter: I ask John if he’s thought of dropping out.

John: Oh plenty of times (laugh).

Reporter: But this time, John says he’s determined to finish his degree in math and economics, in three semesters.

John: It’s definitely hectic but I think in the end, it’ll be worth it.

Reporter: Academic counselor Cameron Cook cheers him on.

Cook: I’m mean you know when you get out of boot camp? John: Yeah. Cook: That’s such a great feeling. And you know when you finish a semester? And you’re like, man, I rocked at that semester. John: Cook. And when you finish your degree, it’s like that exponentially (fade out).

[Photo: CPR]