Student Veterans and Sept. 11

At one community college, students who served in wartime remember their past -- and look to the future.
September 9, 2011

LARGO, Md. -- Blondene Leys isn’t the type to boast or complain.

Not about the fact that she’s an honors college student.

Not about the fact that she’s also a single mother caring for a son who is autistic.

And certainly not about the fact that, following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, she spent a year doing supply runs, maintaining vehicles and working with the infantry in Iraq.

“My main reason for joining the military was so I could get the college benefits,” Leys says. “It kind of changed after 9/11. It was more so about -- I guess it made me proud to be in the military and go to war, and all of the things that came with it.”

What came with it included roadside bomb explosions and grenade attacks on her military compound -- but also a small community of friends with whom she can talk about these things.

Leys is one of hundreds of students here at Prince George’s Community College who, as a decade of war winds down, are enrolling with the help of the benefits they’re entitled to through the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Depending on how long a student spent in active service after 9/11, and how many classes he or she is taking, the program covers up to 100 percent of veterans’ tuition and fees, which it pays directly to institutions.

For Leys, a native of Jamaica, it means that after being out of school for a decade, she can finally pursue a degree. Leys enlisted in the military a year out of high school, spent four years there as a logistical specialist and was in Iraq from April 2003 through 2004. But when she returned to the United States, not everything went according to plan. Instead of starting college, Leys gave birth to her son, who was later diagnosed with autism. She spent five years working and taking care of him before finally enrolling at Prince George’s in fall 2010.

Photo: Joe Clark

Blondene Leys, one of about 700 student veterans receiving benefits through the Post-9/11 GI Bill at Prince George's Community College.

“I try my best, but yeah, sometimes it can be a little bit overwhelming. But I manage,” Leys says of the responsibilities she juggles -- in particular, adjusting to her new life outside the military. “I think that was a good jump-start because now that I’ve gotten through that, school is like, no problem,” she adds with a laugh.

And now, a year into college and a decade after Sept. 11, Leys is honoring the anniversary by appreciating what she has. “For me personally, it’s really just a celebration of, really, my life, and me being here,” she says. “The best thing I can do is just try to live my life to the potential that I see in myself.”

The approaching date is on the minds of veterans at Prince George’s, but the extent to which others are considering it is unclear. The attacks were part of the reason why Byron Johnson, an engineering student, wanted to serve in the military. “It made me just recognize how proud I am to serve my country,” he says. He and Leys agree on that, and on another thing, too: “I haven’t heard anybody but veterans talk about it," Johnson says of the anniversary.

On the Prince George's campus, neither Leys nor Johnson has been met with anything but curiosity, respect and assistance upon revealing their past experiences. Still, the anniversary is yet another example of the ways in which the unique experiences of student veterans shape their daily lives, but can't be understood by most everyone else. (A recent study found that veterans consider and attempt suicide at higher rates than other students.)

“It’s a different world,” Johnson says. “There’s a sense of order in military life that you get used to…. Those details aren’t in civilian life.”

“It was kind of an awakening, or a whole other experience,” says Leys, who added that the GI Bill is the main reason she’s able to afford college.

Veterans also have a three-year period during which they can receive a Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH. The amount varies by location; in Maryland, it amounts to $1,881 per term when students take at least 12 credit hours. That money covers living expenses such as food, rent and transportation. “They need that money to live off of,” says Dwayne Bourgeois, manager of veterans services at Prince George’s.

But Bourgeois also deals regularly with students whose BAH is stalled or revoked because they aren't enrolled in the courses they need to make consistent progress toward a degree, which is required to receive benefits under the GI Bill. (For some students, that means taking classes year-round, even on Sundays.) By noon Wednesday, he had already met with four students who found themselves in such situations.

One was Johnson, who spent nine months working with missiles in the United Arab Emirates before coming to Prince George’s. When registering for his third term at the college, Johnson didn’t realize he’d signed up for classes that weren’t on his degree plan, and his BAH didn’t come through. On Wednesday afternoon, he was working with Bourgeois to get back on track and receive the money on which he and his wife depend.

“Thank God it’s so easy to deal with,” Johnson says of the college’s veterans services office. “You have to have that plan, because you only have 36 months.”

The implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill has been fraught with complications, according to a Government Accountability Office report released in May. Chief among them is a lack of communication between the federal Department of Veterans Affairs – which distributes the benefits to colleges and students – and institutions, recipients and the U.S. Education Department, causing botched payments to eligible and ineligible veterans alike.

“Without critical program information, such as eligibility for benefits or how payments have been calculated, schools will continue to face administrative burdens in administering this program,” the report says. “Schools play a critical role in helping students identify and evaluate the various financial resources available to them. Lacking critical program information, schools may not be able to help students determine the best options to finance their education.”

The benefits awarded under the GI Bill are growing rapidly in response to a nationwide influx of student veterans. From the program’s beginning on August 1, 2009, through fiscal year 2010, it awarded about $5.7 billion to 381,000 veterans, service members and their dependents. This fiscal year that total is expected to grow to nearly $8 billion.

About 700 of the 40,000 students at Prince George’s receive benefits through the GI Bill, and the college created Bourgeois’s position just last month to assist the continually growing student veteran population on campus.

To get their associate degrees or build a foundation to transfer to a university, “they just want to know what they need to do and they’ll do it,” Bourgeois says. While BAH complications are the most common problem Bourgeois hears about from students, he helps them with everything from reconsidering a major to communicating with professors, all with one goal: keeping them on track to graduate.

After earning a degree in English, Leys plans to become a teacher. Seeing her son struggle with autism and the English language made her realize she could help others the way his teachers have helped him.

Johnson wants to transfer to the University of Maryland, where government agencies do heavy recruiting, before ultimately rejoining the military as an officer.

For Bourgeois, a retired 23-year Marine from New Orleans, this coming Sunday is a reminder not just of the tragedy that occurred 10 years ago, but of the sacrifices veterans have made for their country, and continue to make -- even as students.

“There are certain things that you just don’t forget,” he says.


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