Top guns on campus

February 16, 2007

Many GIs who served in Iraq are now using their military benefits to enter higher education. Stephen Phillips reports on how they adjust to studying after the adrenalin rush of combat

Andy Davis has little patience with his fellow University of Minnesota students' worries about a test next month. Coming under hostile fire puts cramming into perspective, says Davis, 25, a former staff sergeant in the US Army.

Davis, who parachuted into Iraq on the first day of the US-led invasion in April 2003 after two stints in Afghanistan, is part of a growing influx of former Iraq War troops now claiming their military educational benefits at US universities.

While campuses hosting anti-war teach-ins and demonstrations rank among the least politically sympathetic environments to the military, many are now on the front lines in the assimilation of troops back into civilian society.

About 500,000 veterans are using the entitlement earned by their stint in the military to benefit from education. And many are putting it towards degree programmes, says Keith Wilson, educational services director at the Department for Veteran Affairs.

It is a trickle compared with the torrent of returning soldiers who filled lecture halls in previous generations. In 1947, Second World War veterans comprised 49 per cent of US admissions. But it is a marked increase for a group that had shrunk to a barely visible presence. "Between the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan relatively few younger veterans attended college," notes Veterans of Foreign Wars , the magazine of one US veterans group. Their numbers are expected to rise as the droves who enlisted after 9/11 serve out their time.

The Pentagon recently added 80 staff to process benefits claims, Wilson says. In Minnesota alone, authorities are gearing up for the demobilisation next month of 2,600 troops, many of them college-bound.

In California, the number of veterans entering the public higher education system, spanning universities and community colleges, is projected to swell from 9,000 in 2006-07 to 14,300 in 2007-08.

The promise of a paid-for or subsidised college education is one of the US military's chief inducements to prospective recruits. "For reservists and the National Guard, educational benefits are designed to serve as recruitment tools. For full-time soldiers, the aim is readjustment," Wilson says.

Victor Ozuna, , was one of the first wave of Iraq veterans to enrol at San Diego State University in January 2004 after an eight-month deployment.

He says educational benefits were a big part of his decision to enlist.

"When you meet someone else in the military, one of your first questions is: 'Why did you join?' Ninety-plus per cent say they wanted to go to university," he says.

Don Pfeffer, Minnesota's director of higher education veterans programmes, says one third of soon-to-be demobilised troops he encounters are "significantly interested in, if not already committed" to college.

"People re-evaluate their lives. Education is a change agent. They've earned significant educational benefits. Education is a logical place for them to turn to."

Under the GI Bill, full-time soldiers qualify for up to $1,075 (£550) a month towards training costs on discharge. Those in the National Guard or Reserves, the US equivalent of the Territorial Army - so-called "weekend warriors" who otherwise hold down jobs or college places and represent a significant contingent in Iraq - are eligible for a monthly $390 stipend.

Alternatively, under recent legislation, reservists qualify for a monthly training allowance of up to $860 while they remain in the Reserves.

On top of federal government benefits, multiple deployments and extensions to tours of duty have led to the extension of tuition-fee breaks and other benefits. Last year, several states introduced such support mechanisms, and they are being considered in others.

Some institutions are deliberately promoting their "vet-friendliness". The University of Texas at Austin, America's second-largest single campus, and Texas State University's flagship San Marcos campus both extended warm welcomes to incoming 2006-07 student veterans, posting web pages directing them towards resources to ease their transition and to raise awareness among faculty and other students.

Veterans themselves are also taking matters into their own hands, forming self-help groups. The Veterans Transition Center, co-founded by Davis in 2005, represents the estimated 500 veterans attending the University of Minnesota, which has a student body of about 64,000.

Everyday campus life can take some getting used to after the adrenalin rush of mortal combat, says Jane Bost, associate director of the University of Texas's Counselling and Mental Health Center. "It can be jarring to come back and realise that for many people, especially students, there's no sense that we're at war and Iraq is somewhat distant. That's got to feel strange after your life has been on the line."

Today's veterans are hardly grizzled old-timers, but they are typically a bit older than other students - in their early or mid-twenties - and more likely to have families and be juggling their studies with jobs. They also bring life experiences that can make it difficult to identify with the seemingly trivial concerns of your average student from a sheltered middle-class background who goes to university straight from school.

"There's this notion that those who have been in combat have done something civilians can't relate to," says Dan Rosenthal, 23, an Iraq veteran at Florida State University, where he co-founded Collegiate Veterans.

Ozuna has friends "across the board", but there is a distance with those who have not undergone similar experiences. "It's hard to talk to someone who hasn't experienced the same kind of stuff," he says.

In fact, veterans may have been through particularly intense, unsettling - even traumatising - experiences. Up to 15 per cent of soldiers will screen positive for post-traumatic stress disorder, says Carl Castro, chief of the military psychiatry department at Maryland's Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Besides PTSD, characterised by persistent intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and debilitating fear, another 10 to 15 per cent struggle with anger, depression and relationship issues, he says.

Charles Figley, director of Florida State's Traumatology Institute and faculty adviser to Collegiate Veterans, suspects the worst-affected veterans will not make it to college. But many student veterans report problems, even if they don't have full-blown PTSD.

"I can't think of a person who didn't have problems," says Rosenthal, who found himself checking rubbish bins - common sites for roadside bombs in Iraq - becoming nervous near motorway overpasses, which are popular ambush sites in Iraq, and scanning rooftops for snipers. A fellow student veteran, enraged at misplacing his keys, manhandled a door off its hinges, he says.

"We lived on testosterone, high energy and aggression. It's very difficult to lower that."

Veteran-run support groups lend a sympathetic ear, connect members with counselling services and pool information on how to navigate red tape and claim benefits. Their appeal is in "having people who've been there, done that," Pfeffer says.

They are also strictly apolitical. The University of Texas and Texas State's online resources seek to "sensitise" faculty and other students to the importance of distinguishing their views on the war from the troops.

Such considerations are informed, say officials, by a determination to spare Iraq veterans the fate of soldiers returning from Vietnam, who found themselves vilified as "baby-killers". "For those of us in this field, we say never again will this happen to troops," says Pfeffer, a Vietnam veteran.

For the most part, the distinction is observed, and Iraq veterans have faced little in-the-face hostility, but Davis, Ozuna and Rosenthal report instances of faculty dismissing soldiers as ignorant. Feeling personal investment in the war can make it "hard for veterans not to take student protests personally", Bost adds.

Luke Stalcup, 26, president of MilVets, Columbia University's veterans group, puts "negative experiences" largely down to "ignorance rather than hostility".

More than any liberal anti-war bent, the defining characteristic of Columbia students, at least, is wealth, Stalcup says. "This insulates them and shapes the discussion." He found himself something of a novelty as an Iraq veteran at the New York campus where students and faculty have little knowledge of the predominately working-class military.

Columbia's School of General Studies, catering to non-traditional students, has the largest concentration of veterans in the Ivy League, Stalcup says.

According to university authorities, 65 of the school's 1,597 students draw military benefits. Stalcup puts the total number of veterans at roughly 85.

"When you look at elite institutions, the number really drops," he says. "Veterans feel discouraged from applying. They're not who these institutions are marketing themselves to."

Military funding, while amply covering community college fees and much of those at state campuses, is stretched at pricey, more selective institutions, Stalcup adds. He is financing himself through scholarships, grants and loans, in addition to his military entitlements. "The system thinks you're not supposed to be at an elite institution," he says. "I have a problem with that. The people I served with would do well here."

Despite the wealth gap, veterans say the military has boosted their academic potential. Unlike many soldiers, Rosenthal was at university before enlisting in 2001, but he was not hugely motivated. Last semester, he received "mid-Bs to high As" and is now contemplating law school. "The military is nothing if not motivating," he says.

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