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Next Deployment: Moscow

August 1, 2007

The application form asks for the date, location and military operation in which the prospective student was injured.

That's the key question for the University of Idaho, which awards up to full tuition scholarships, as well as personalized support to qualified veterans who have been injured during service since Sept. 11, 2001.

It's a scholarship called Operation Education, and behind the program lies an idea: that soldiers wounded in the line of duty should be supported, once they return, in their efforts to earn a degree and succeed as productive members of society. The idea isn't limited to Idaho residents, either, and organizers are hoping to expand it to other campuses soon.

The program is a collaboration among university administrators, students, the Greek system, the campus ROTC program, faculty and staff -- as well as members of the surrounding community of Moscow, Idaho. A local hospital is offering free physical therapy. An accountant in town will provide free tax assistance for veterans in the program. There's a lawyer giving out free legal advice.

"This is a nice mix of helping somebody who has a disability to be successful but also supporting these men and women who have given so much for our country," said Karen N. White, the chairwoman of the program, whose husband is also the university's president.

That's not always easy, especially for those whose injuries have led to mobility problems or brain trauma and, by extension, a tighter budget. For Tom Prewitt, who was already an enrolled student at the University of Idaho before he applied for the scholarship, the main issue was raising a family with limited income and expanding debt.

Prewitt was part of the first Army unit to enter Afghanistan in 2002, the 101st Airborne -- but it wasn't until a second deployment in 2005, to Fort Jackson in South Carolina, that Prewitt was able to receive a medical exemption from service. Already enrolled in Idaho's wildlife resources program, he was the first student to take part in Operation Education once he returned last year, and the first to receive a diploma.

Although he still suffers from a bad knee, a reconstructed left ankle and torn ligaments, Prewitt attended classes while working part time and helping raise his son along with his wife, a nurse. "It's really catered to the individual as to their specific needs," he said. "In my case, I needed help with child care," so that his wife, Andrea, could go back to work.

In a way, Prewitt was lucky -- he didn't need support for health care, which for him is fully covered by veterans' benefits. But the program, which prides itself on its flexibility, would help those who did.

"What makes it unique is we sit down with each applicant and we think through what he or she may need," White explained. That can run the gamut from tuition assistance to classroom accommodations to help with housing or stipends for books.

The support comes where it's needed, and usually that comes on top of existing benefits. The Montgomery G.I. Bill, for example, offers $1,075 a month for up to 36 months, or $38,700 in all. Operation Education's organizers see the program as a way to fill in the gap between the typical cost of college (which at Idaho could go from at least $17,640 over four years for an in-state, full-time student to more than $57,960 for out of state, not including room and board) and typical veterans' benefits.

At a Senate hearing on Tuesday, panelists spoke to the Committee on Veterans Affairs about efforts to expand and simplify the current G.I. bill, which went into effect in 1985 as an essentially peacetime measure. Some critics of the bill have said that since up to 40 percent of troops in Iraq today are from the reserve or the National Guard -- a relatively recent phenomenon -- benefits and time limits should be adjusted to take into account reservists' various other obligations and their limited schedules at home that may make it more difficult to attend college classes.

As for Operation Education, Prewitt discovered the program at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post; he hadn't heard of the program before, even though he was already enrolled at Idaho. Part of the problem, White said, are health privacy regulations that prevent the university from approaching students and veterans who are already on campus about the scholarship.

"This is not a group that generally asks for help, so we knew we had to be proactive," she added.

The program began as the germ of an idea after a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., by the university's associate director of gift planning, Heidi Linehan. By now it has evolved, after its first year, into a small, individualized scholarship with a target of about three to four students a year.

A few other institutions offer programs for veterans with disabilities, but none are as all-encompassing as Idaho's, which is open to people from across the country -- including spouses. Texas A&M University and the University of Wyoming offer scholarships to state residents, while Dartmouth College will start offering counseling tailored to injured veterans in the fall. There are other efforts sprinkled across the country as well: Northern Essex Community College, in Massachusetts, is organizing an informational fair next month for veterans considering returning to college, for example.

And on the West Coast, the California Veterans Initiative is an effort to help coordinate between the military and the state higher education systems in order to help veterans and reservists better navigate the various options available to them. At the Senate hearing, the assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs at California State University, Allison G. Jones, testified about issues the initiative is tackling, which include ironing out credit transfers and working out how students can arrange travel to and from local military bases.

Like many other scholarship programs, Operation Education is supported through private donations. "It really hasn't been hard to do," White admitted, since donors she contacted -- many of them from families with a history in the military, and most of them Idaho alumni -- showed enthusiasm for the program. White has sent handwritten thank-you letters to each donor over the past year, a number that she said has surpassed a couple of hundred.

That number will only grow as the program expands. One other student besides Prewitt enrolled in the program's first year; another is planned for both the fall and spring. White foresees a maximum of 16 to 20 students at all levels, she said, because the plan was never to operate on a large scale that might betray the program's individualized focus.

But the need for similar programs nationwide will persist, she said, which is why the university is looking for ways to expand the program to other colleges. Timothy P. White, Idaho's president, has even pledged to write a letter to every college and university president in the country.

"We're kind of in the far corner of the country," she said. "If I lived in the southeast part of the country I’d probably want to go to school somewhere closer to home."

Officials haven't worked out the details, but White said she thought other institutions would take the basic concept and personalize it to fit their campuses. The university, meanwhile, would be able to share its processes and experiences with participating colleges.

Back in Idaho, Prewitt is already working full-time as a wildlife habitat biologist with the Coeur d'Alene tribe -- a profession he's always had his eye on -- and his family is on the verge of buying a home.

White said that kind of success is what justifies the program: "We're just beginning to say thank you for what they've done for us."

 

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