Interview: Returning Veterans Transition from Combat to Campuses

Interviewer: Laura Flynn
Public Radio Reporting at Mills College
Article originally published by KALW

LAURA FLYNN: Currently about 800,000 vets receive education benefits across the country. Many are finding that the level of support for former service members varies significantly from campus to campus.

RANDOLPH MARTINEZ: The Veterans Affairs representative, the one that certifies you, is the most important part of your process in school.

Randolph Martinez is a former Marine who served in Iraq. When he was at Berkeley City College, Martinez found himself being shuffled from counselor to counselor, none of whom, he says, understood how the GI Bill works. Martinez says vets need to be certified by their school in order to get their education benefits.

MARTINEZ: Without them certifying you, then you’re in school taking the classes and all that stuff, you are not going to get paid. The clock starts ticking for you to get paid the moment they certify you. And so I was in school since August and she didn’t end up certifying me until the end of October.

Martinez says the GI Bill money is wrapped in red tape.

MARTINEZ: I didn’t get paid for three months when I was in school and so all those three months, you know – I have two daughters and a wife. So my wife was the only one providing at that time. So you know like I had no means for money, it was a crucial time.

While waiting for the money to come in, some vets try to pay for tuition and living expenses out of pocket. The lucky ones get help from family while others end up living in their cars or on the streets. Martinez says the whole process can be very discouraging.

MARTINEZ: I almost gave up on studying…

On campuses across the country, veterans say they are encountering these same sorts of problems: confusion around getting credit for previous coursework and military experience, financial aid delays, and the feeling of an unwelcoming environment.

Martinez didn’t give up. Instead, he made the move to City College of San Francisco in 2010, which has an active veterans club. Martinez found out about the club almost by accident.

MARTINEZ: A small little group of guys were doing a barbecue, so I came down there and heard they were veterans, dropped my bag and started flipping burgers.

That small group was the Veterans Alliance. Martinez says over the course of the summer they raised enough money to get the Vets Resource Center built. It has a lounge for vets to hang out and offers GI Bill and VA counseling services. They’ve also established an emergency loan program, which helps vets pay for living and school expenses until their check from the GI Bill comes in. Martinez says the resource center has become increasingly important for campus vets.

MARTINEZ: People help each other transition out of the military mind and into more educational environment that’s mainly what it is. A place where you can transition out and start becoming a student.

Part of making a successful transition for veterans is peer and special support services. Bridget Leach is a social worker with the VA. She says vets aren’t like your traditional college students.

BRIDGET LEACH: A lot of veterans that are coming back from having served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation New Dawn. One of the things that happens is they may have certainly been subject to a significant amount of trauma.

That’s why City College of San Francisco veterans and supporters partnered with the San Francisco Veterans Medical Center to open up a clinic on campus, right next to the Vets’ Lounge.

LEACH: So I think a lot of what we are doing is a lot of preventive work, and also when you are bringing the services to the veterans where they are, you are much more likely I think to get an increasing, you know, being able to engage with veterans and make their experiences successful in life and being able to transition back to both civilian life as well as student life and making those experiences more successful.

The San Francisco City College program is becoming a national model for bringing services to places where the vets already are.

LEACH: And I think our program also increases awareness about mental health issues in a way that is a little bit de-stigmatizing hopefully as well … so when you are able to see VA professionals kind of interacting in a more casual setting as you are kind of walking into the lounge just checking in with them informally. One of the things that happens is it also makes people a little more accessible, mental health providers more accessible, and less stigmatized as well.

Veterans across the country are stepping up where the GI Bill ends and doing it much like they did in the military – seeing a problem and stepping in to tackle it. They’re creating student services to help fellow vets successfully transition into an academic setting. But advocates say more is needed to prepare for the growing number of veterans who will be returning home and going back to school.

For Crosscurrents, I’m Laura Flynn.

Laura Flynn is a student reporter at Mills College in Oakland.

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