After suffering an injury only two weeks after going to Iraq, Aaron Rice spent months in recovery before he decided to leave the Marines to attend Mississippi State University in January. He later experienced a problem common to many veterans going to college: He didn’t feel that he fit in. Grades were not an issue -- he earned all A's the first semester. But he was a few years older than most of his classmates and his war experiences in Iraq left him feeling disconnected from fellow students.
"It was one of the hardest things I've ever done," he says, explaining his decision to leave the Marines. "I had a hard time with the fact that I got out so soon, and I wanted to go back with my prostethic leg."
To this day, he still cannot explain why he felt different from others, only adding that he felt that they were living a “carefree life.”
“I had this anger inside me,” he says. “I’m not really sure why. I had to work through that.”
But engaging emotionally with peers is only one of many problems that veterans face as they enter college. To help former soldiers transition back to civilian life, Mississippi State has created the Center for America’s Veterans .
The center’s director, Andrew Rendon said that it will offer much more than most colleges, which typically have someone in the admissions office who acts as a liaison to the Department of Veterans Affairs and helps with the paperwork for educational benefits.
The center, by contrast, will be a first-of-its-kind, full-service program to help veterans through their academic years and to attract more returning soldiers to the university. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 280,000 people left the military last year and the department reports spending $3.2 billion in 2005 on educational and vocational benefits for veterans. By 2010, 213,000 people are expected to leave the military and 93,000 of those will fall within the 20-24 age group.
“From what I understand, they are really a unique program,” says Dan Borden, a veterans affairs employee who oversees the state of Mississippi. Borden said that about 1,700 students in Mississippi currently receive veteran’s benefits.
Blake Warren began attending San Diego State recently after five and half years in the Navy and says that the Mississippi State center sounds like something that would also work well at his university. Nearly 600 veterans attend San Diego State, and Warren says that he has helped form a veterans club for these students.
“This program doesn’t have a peer in the country,” says Rendon, a former Blackhawk pilot. Rendon said that the center will focus not only on getting veterans their educational benefits, but also working with them on any problems they might face while attending Mississippi State. Once they graduate, he says the center will provide advice about employers who seek out veterans.
The center just started running a few weeks ago and was established by Mississippi State's new president, Robert Foglesong, a retired four-star general who commanded U.S. Air Force operations in Europe. In an interview this month, Foglesong says that he wants to make Mississippi State a destination university for returning veterans. Rendon said that Mississippi State now has about 400 students who are veterans and that the current benefits liaison has time only to process paperwork and cannot provide other services.
“There will be needs for veterans that veterans can better provide,” says Mike White, dean of student affairs and a veteran of the Vietnam War. White says that Iraqi veterans are going to college in a political environment that is friendlier to former soldiers than when he returned from service. However, soldiers still retain many of the characteristics of his generation. Veterans are older, more responsible, and more likely to graduate than classmates who are just out of high school. Foglesong adds that veterans also have educational financial benefits from the military that make them highly desirable as students.
But veterans are more likely to need help finding a job for spouses, and a percentage of them will have problems dealing with emotional issues related to combat experience. “We plan to do a much better job today of separating the war from the warrior,” Foglesong says. “We take this quite personally. It’s a passion and I’m excited.”
Rendon says that the center will hire a counselor soon to provide a host of services such as helping potential students apply to the university. Once the students are enrolled, they can then come to the center to find sources of financial aid or get advice for dealing with problems such jobs for spouses or, if necessary, handling deployment back into combat. The counselor will also refer veterans to psychologists if they need assistance with any lingering issues from combat stress.
With the center now running, Rendon says that he is reaching out to various veterans groups to let them know about the center. Once the program is fully staffed within the next couple of months, he plans to visit a different base, somewhere in the U.S., every other week to recruit soldiers who are processing out of the military.
“The plan is to go to the base’s staff and educate them, brief them, and they will hopefully relay that information.” Eventually, he says that he wants to also reach out to soldiers stationed at bases overseas, and expects to double the veteran population on the campus by 2009.
Rice says that he will probably not use the center because he feels that he has incorporated himself into the student body, but he expects that having a staff dedicated to veterans could prove helpful. His brother is in the Marine reserves, and when his unit deployed to Iraq at the end of one semester, professors made him take his finals early, according to Mississippi State's rules. Rice spent some time investigating on the Internet and found that the policy by Mississippi's Board of Trustees of State Institutions for Higher learning allows soldiers who are called to active duty and who have finished three quarters of the semester to skip the final. After being released from duty, the soldier can then make up the final.
“I found out that he didn’t have to take the finals,” says Rice. “It was a really stressful time for him and he shouldn’t have to take them.”
Rice also described the situation of another veteran who had returned to Mississippi State after spending a year in Iraq. Because the student had received pay while in the military, he no longer qualified for traditional financial aid when he returned to school. University officials had to work with the student so that he could qualify again for the money.
“It can’t hurt,” says Rice of the new center. “Time will tell how much it can help.”