The bumpy road home
On the war’s fifth anniversary, vets and service providers struggle to help Iraq and Afghanistan returnees fund education and meet other vital needs
Any way you cut it, Kyle Williams is a success story. He did two tours in Iraq and came back in one piece.
Well, sort of. A mortar attack that threw him into a wall ended his second tour a little early. He had to have surgery to his shoulder and the bottom half of his face. All in all, he looks pretty good.
And now he’s taking advantage of his veteran’s benefits to get an education.
Well, sort of. Last fall, Williams was finishing up at Sierra College and preparing to transfer to UC Davis when SN&R spoke to him about his activities as president of the Sierra College Veterans Club. He’d helped to organize The Road Home: From Combat to College and Beyond, an event to provide information and assistance for veterans who wanted to make use of their educational benefits (see “The war at home,” SN&R News, October 18, 2007).
But Williams’ transition from the two-year program at Sierra College to UC Davis’ bachelor’s program wasn’t all that seamless.
“The problem is at that at UC Davis, they count your G.I. Bill benefits as income on the FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid], and that kind of messes with your financial aid,” Williams told SN&R this week. Because Sierra College is on the semester system and UC Davis is on the quarter system, the money that the UC system counted as income had already been used to finish his work at the community college.
“It really worried me, and I had to take out a loan to get through the first quarter,” he said. “That’s got to cover all the living expenses and tuition, too, because my veteran’s benefits were already used for the last semester.”
Unlike most Americans, Williams hates to be in debt, so he’s trying to keep up with the interest payments. But then, unlike most Americans, he volunteered to serve in the military after the 9/11 attacks.
As the Iraq war marks its fifth anniversary this week, the ongoing problem with paying for veteran’s education has led Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and a number of co-sponsors to introduce the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act. It’s also being called the “G.I. Bill for the 21st century,” because it brings benefits for all service members (including National Guard soldiers) up to the level of those enjoyed by veterans returning from World War II.
While it may seem only fair that education benefits for veterans actually cover tuition, Webb’s bill has come under unexpected fire from the Department of Defense. News reports last week quoted unnamed DOD sources as claiming that the bill might increase recruitment, but it would also devastate retention of trained troops.
Apparently, veterans can’t wait to get an education. Last fall’s Road Home, a combination of keynote speakers on veterans’ issues and a chance to meet with other vet-services providers, was hugely successful. But the real test of any outreach is how well it works down the road.
After all, we’re still busy making veterans. There are currently more than 150,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq, with another 27,000 in Afghanistan, according to reports from news sources and the Department of Defense.
When they get home, those vets have to navigate an often confusing system in order to use the benefits they’ve earned for college. What’s more, veterans are often dealing with other readjustment issues: disability from injuries, including traumatic brain injury, a form of closed head trauma associated with the large number of concussions that soldiers in these wars have received from IED explosions; mental-health issues ranging from combat stress to post-traumatic stress disorder; the difficulty of attempting to get on their feet financially after a long absence from the workforce; family difficulties, beginning with the long absence and exacerbated by the stress of war.
As the experience of Vietnam veterans amply demonstrates, these folks don’t get as much assistance as we might expect a grateful nation would provide. Oh, the services are there—mostly—but vets have to find them. Then they have to jump through the right hoops to make sure that they get all the help they qualify for—and that they don’t get slapped with a bill for it.
Enter the best source of help for a veteran: other veterans. That was the whole theory behind The Road Home last October, and it’s one that works.
Catherine Morris, a veterans counselor with student services at Sierra College, worked with Williams when he was enrolled there. Veterans may start school with difficulties that need to be addressed, Morris told SN&R, but the worst thing possible is to leave them alone to figure it out themselves. A veteran of three branches of service—she stayed out of the Navy because she hates to wear white—Morris said that the “worst thing you can do to a vet is to isolate them.”
“The camaraderie is so critical in the military,” she said. “It’s what keeps you sane. And when you get discharged, it’s just instantly gone.” The goal in serving returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, she said, is to find ways “to provide that sense of camaraderie again, and a place to process and to get professional support if they need it.”
Morris meets with every one of her veteran students at Sierra College for a minimum of an hour, assessing their individual needs. Then she follows up, tracking the support necessary to give them a fighting chance at collegiate success.
What’s more, she works with faculty members to educate them about “what’s going on with veterans.” Morris and her colleagues have held workshops on veterans’ issues for interested faculty members, and it’s already paying off. A professor who’d been through one workshop noticed that a student who was an Iraq vet was doing everything he was supposed to do in class, but seemed to be having problems concentrating. She referred him to Morris, who discovered he’d had three concussions in Iraq.
“So immediately, with the three concussions, I suspect TBI,” Morris said. “I called the VA’s [Veterans Affairs] local OIF/OEF [Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom] coordinator, and he was able to get this young man into the right program right away.”
That’s the sort of assistance veterans need—speedy, but not intrusive. Veterans are sensitive—and rightly so—about the way they’re perceived. The last thing a guy like Williams, or any other veteran, wants is to be thought of as “the psycho vet.”
“The term is ‘broken’ in the military,” said Williams. “And that can mean anything from your leg doesn’t work right to you’re not sleeping at night.” Rather than be identified as broken, a lot of veterans ignore problems or push them away as minor.
“We don’t have to do everything for these vets,” Morris said, pointing out that the men and women who’ve served in the armed forces are among the most competent and resourceful around. “We don’t have to fix them. But if we know how to get them to the right place, they can get what they need.”
Sierra College is only reaching the 225 veterans enrolled there, however. What about the rest? VA statistics show there are more than 22,000 veterans under the age of 40 in the greater Sacramento area.
The good news is that last fall’s Road Home program started the ball rolling for local veterans groups and other service providers. Since then, representatives of these groups have been meeting under the auspices of an umbrella group, the Sacramento Veterans Community Support Network, to communicate with each other and work together to reach out to area veterans. The hope was that, if the issues of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were addressed immediately, crisis situations such as homelessness and severe mental-health problems could be avoided.
Among other things, SVCSN will be making a series out of The Road Home. The next is planned for September 19, at American River College, which has had its enrollment of veterans increase by nearly 17 percent since 2004, according to information obtained from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.
The local support network hopes to generate the sort of quick referrals that Sierra College is able to make for its students, and the service won’t be limited to recent vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. The group is working on a Web site that they hope will help all vets find the right resources just by filling out a questionnaire.
And, of course, as knowledge expands within the veteran community of the services that are available, its ability to help individuals increases as well.
Robert Bradley, the site director for the Sacramento Veterans Resource Center, told SN&R that SVCSN, which was already forming at the time of Sierra College’s Road Home program, saw it as exactly the sort of program that needed to happen regularly. “Instead of having one a year, we need to have one every quarter,” he said. “As this flood of veterans returns from overseas, we need to be ready to meet them with the information and assistance they need.”
The network has involved the Los Rios Community College system, Sac State, the University of Phoenix and several occupational schools in planning. The event in September will be “an opportunity to present administrators and faculty with the particular challenges that this new wave of vets is facing, and really beginning to discuss how we can shape what we’re doing in education to meet these needs,” said Bradley. Future events will focus on strengthening veterans’ clubs on campuses and making sure that each school has a counselor who is a veteran.
Back at UC Davis, Williams is adjusting both to a new, bigger campus and to a higher level of academic demands. He’s pleased that the work he did on The Road Home has borne such fruit, and he intends to become involved with the veterans group at UCD. But for now, he is directing his attention to adjusting to the changes.
And he’s having a little trouble concentrating. “I’m having some problems with attention,” he said. “It was never a problem before I went in the service, but I don’t want to assume it’s related to the head injury.” He lost consciousness in the explosion that disabled him. His face is fine, he says, but he still has problems with his shoulder and “sometimes, I’ll be sitting in class and find I’m not able to concentrate on what’s going on.” He’s quick to assure that “it’s not like flashbacks or all the bad stuff, it’s just a change that concerns me.”
Last fall at the conference, several other vets urged Williams to get checked for TBI. He had too much going on to get in for a CT scan. He’s making appointments with a VA hospital for spring break, when he’ll have time.
Right now, though, he’s got a paper due.