Ryan Walblay said he’d be smiling as he walked out of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, smiling so hard even being hit by a brick couldn't break his mood. Having sustained a severe leg injury and months upon months of recovery after being hit in August by an improvised explosive device in Ramadi, Iraq, the 21-year-old from Kentucky was at long last to be discharged Thursday with Florida -- and Florida Atlantic University -- on his mind.
“I had plenty of time to think about college while I was over there, and that’s what I wanted to do,” said Walblay, a Lance Corporeal in the Marine Corps who served two tours of duty in Iraq and has plans to study business as an undergraduate this fall. “If you’re doing tours in Iraq, college seems like it would be absolutely easy. And fun.”
Walblay is one of about 100 new veterans whose college plans have been shaped, to varying degrees, with help from the American Council on Education’s Severely Injured Military Veterans: Fulfilling Their Dreams pilot program , an academic advising service begun in February.
“What we’ve found is not necessarily the need for different and new programs, but to create awareness of the programs that already exist ,” said Jim Selbe, director of program evaluations for ACE, the national umbrella group for higher education.
“This allows us to fill a gap," Selbe said. "The Department of Defense, they invest heavily in promoting the value of higher education, and they put a like investment in putting in the resources to ensure access and success in quality higher education programs. The participation is so high that a service member doesn’t need to look far to find someone who can provide them with advice and counsel and the like.
“But once they leave active duty, they lose the convenience and the access to those sorts of advisers.”
The initiative was inspired by James Wright, Dartmouth College's president and a Marine Corps veteran, who first approached the council about beginning such a program after noting a need for greater educational guidance on his regular visits to service members at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital, both in the Washington, D.C., area.
Wright played a prominent role in raising more than $300,000 from private sources to allow ACE to hire two full-time educational advisers. One of them, Heather Bernard, the mother of an Iraq War veteran, works with service members at Walter Reed and Bethesda. Jeff Stevens, a disabled Vietnam veteran with a doctorate from Texas A&M University, just began working with service members at Brooks Army Hospital in San Antonio three weeks ago.
The advisers work one-on-one with recovering veterans to find educational programs that match their goals, locate legitimate distance learning providers while identifying and avoiding diploma mills, navigate the college application and financial aid process, request transcripts and make plans to take any applicable standardized tests, and assess what it will take them to succeed academically. After helping the veterans get on their way, the advisers typically refer them for further assistance to their college of choice, a Department of Education-funded Veterans Upward Bound  counselor, or an educational opportunity center.
“These tend to be pretty seriously wounded people," Wright said of the soldiers he encountered on his visits to military hospitals, which began in the summer of 2005. "Many of them were missing major limbs, body parts that they had left back in Iraq. I sort of went bed to bed and told them that I had joined the Marines when I was 17, right out of high school, because I didn’t think going to college was an option for me. No one in my family had done that."
“I encouraged them to pursue their own educations. I had individual conversations with a number of people; most of them were interested in going to school, or had expressed an interest and some of them had very specific questions they would ask me," Wright said. Though he initially tried to answer them himself, he quickly realized, he said, that that wasn't an adequate solution.
The pilot is funded for two years, and is designed with the aim of gaining a better sense of the needs of returning service members so that other initiatives dealing with injured and non-injured veterans alike can build on that knowledge in the coming years (although Wright pointed out it's his hope that there won't be a supply of wounded veterans coming home in two years to begin with).
"The needs of [non-injured] returning veterans are nearly identical to the needs of our severely injured veterans, in terms of creating informed decision makers in regards to their academic programs of study," said Selbe -- who added that, since September 11, he has seen a groundswell of college presidents coming to ACE for guidance on how to better reach and assist all of the newest veterans.
“Our intention is to learn from this pilot and to take the lessons that we’ve learned and share them with our ACE member presidents, so that they can begin to create similar programs either within their own campuses or their states or their regions."