A Different Kind of War
By David Tan
From the sandy battlefields of Iraq to the fluorescent-lit classrooms in America, veterans are returning from combat to enter a whole new battlefield: The classroom.
The number of veterans who are entering college has climbed significantly since post-World War II. Around a million veterans have enrolled in college today, doubling in number since 2008 according to a New York Times article. This was made possible due to the improved G.I. Bill by former president Bush and improved again by President Obama. The G.I Bill has made going to college for veterans easier but there are challenges they face on campus. The challenges they face are entirely unique to them and no one other than their fellow veterans knows their struggles.
This is a new battlefield that some veterans are unfamiliar with but they are armed with determination, new allies and plenty of support in their new endeavors.
G.I. Bill 2.0
The original G.I. Bill was created to help returning World War II veterans by providing financial aid, low mortgage rates and interest, rates for loans and tuition for school. This made their return to civilian life easier according to an article on military.com. In 2008, the G.I. Bill was improved to provide Post-9/11 veterans more assistance and more money with housing and school. This was improved again in 2010 for education, extending benefits to veteran spouses and children. The G.I. Bill has done a lot to support veterans going to school.
Elvis Leon, an army veteran who has served in Iraq, had received assistance from the G.I. Bill and it has made his life easier after leaving his military career. Leon was able to use the money from it to go to school at Metropolitan State University of Denver and has enough for living expenses.
“It’s awesome because I don’t have any student loans first and foremost,” Leon said. “It definitely comes with some obstacles because there are a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy with the VA…but all in all, it’s a fantastic opportunity. You are at least able to pay your rent and get some groceries and go to class for free.”
This has also helped Chris Garcia, a Marine who recently left military service in early 2014. Garcia entered the job market doing construction but wasn’t making enough to support himself and his family. He enrolled at MSU Denver and also received assistance from the G.I. Bill to make his return home easier.
“The post 9/11 GI Bill, that brought enough income to cover my mortgage, my car payments and whatnot,” Garcia said. “Not only did it pay for my education, my housing- it covers that totally. It gives me a good sense that I am covered for the next three years for my classes.”
Financial support has helped veterans making their return home easier, acting as a cushion for them to readjust to civilian life. There is struggles veterans face within the classroom that no amount of money could ever solve. Returning to a normal civilian life is a job that is often the most difficult for some veterans.
From Soldier to Student
The transition from being a soldier to a student is a difficult one. It isn’t easy for veterans to pick up where they left off before they joined the armed forces according to the NEA Higher Education Journal. They have a hard time adjusting to campus life. Most of them feel alone on campus, cannot relate to other students and isolate themselves from others.
Leon and Garcia faced a different problem when they returned home, both of them not knowing what to do with their free time. The military usually had their day laid out for them and they would follow that schedule. Even though Leon often thought about going home during his service, the military is still on his mind even at home.
“It’s pretty interesting because you always think about going home and once you get home, it’s not the same,” Leon said. “You just kinda miss the comradery, the structure the military provides. You really have a lot of freedom when you comeback as a civilian. You really don’t know what to do with that freedom because the military guides you throughout your day.”
Garcia’s transition from military life was easier compared to most. Being idle was something he couldn’t do. Taking action was his way of readjusting.
“The only problem I had was standing by idly… most people take a break for months,” Garcia said. “I actually took two weeks off and went right back into the job force. I was in there for two months and I realized the construction area wasn’t my piece of the pie so I decided that since I already enrolled at Metro, I should go back to school. That was my transition right there.”
While these two veterans didn’t have too difficult of a time readjusting to civilian life, Leon believes that every veteran have a different story to tell. Each veteran is different.
“It’s a difficult adjustment,” Leon said. “It can be done and every veterans’ story is different. Some saw things you wouldn’t imagine while others didn’t see a hair of combat. Everyone is different, everyone has a different story to tell. If one veteran succeeds, it doesn’t mean the other one isn’t able to. He is just going through a whole different experience you couldn’t even imagine.”
Everyone has heard this at least once: college isn’t for everyone. This is also true for veterans. Some veterans who go to college have felt the need to go back to the military. As Leon mentioned earlier, the comradery and structure is what a lot of them miss. One of the main reasons why they return is because they see civilian life as boring compared to their lives in the military. They return to what is familiar to them, accepting the good and bad aspects of it.
“…I actually have a friend dealing with that right now trying to get back in,” Leon said. “He has been out for three years and has a successful civilian career but it’s that itch. That thrill, that adrenaline rush. You get to experience things that no one does. Riding around tanks and shooting stuff… this is the real deal. There is no other job in the United States of America that offers that thrill. The benefits, the pay, the travel, not just going into a warzone. I got to go to every country in Europe twice. It’s just a fantastic opportunity. Obviously going into war and seeing the damages caused by that also take a toll on you.”
Another reason why is because of the pay. Veterans are well paid and when they return the jobs they find will pay a whole lot less than what they are used to. Some also get a sense of entitlement because they were in the military. Garcia felt the same way once.
“They are expecting certain things,” Garcia said. “They want the same pay they were getting in the military that they aren’t finding out here. They feel entitled to that. I know I felt that way…I felt entitled that I deserved a job when I got out. That is something they have to get over, I had to get over it.”
Veterans no longer need to feel alone at school anymore. Many colleges and universities have a Veteran’s Affairs office of some kind. Some even have clubs dedicated to help veterans during their time in school. Their biggest supporters are their fellow veterans. Both Leon and Garcia work at the Veteran’s Affairs office at MSU Denver, helping other student veterans with whatever they need to feel welcomed. However, there is room for improvement. Garcia sees there isn’t much initiative taken to reach out to other veterans and to establish a better relationship with the school.
“Veteran’s affairs should get them more involved with school, even if it is a small amount… but I think they need to do a better job in reaching out to them,” Garcia said. “Making sure they are doing fine and get them involve with school.”
Leon believes that the school can help student veterans by helping get their paper done so they don’t have to deal with the stress of filling it out a second time.
“…Help them create a checklist so nothing falls through along the process because one missing paper will botch the whole process,” Leon said. “You’ll have to start from scratch.”
Any help these student veterans receive can go a long way in helping them with their school career. However, help doesn’t always need to come from fellow veterans. There are civilians who help veterans in their own way.
The Golden Rule
Professor Mylee Khristoforov, an affiliate for the English department at MSU Denver, has taught many student veterans in her classroom. Throughout her career, Khristoforov has learned that student veterans are no different from her other students but they have a special quality that makes them stand out more than the others.
Khristoforov sees a strong work ethic, discipline, eagerness, decency and being able to work in teams from student veterans. On top of seeing these qualities in them, her method of teaching has been praised by student veterans.
“I don’t treat them any differently… I really think that they are in better shape for college…because they have this incredible wealth of life experience… that discipline, that work ethic that comes from being in the military, they are ready,” Khristoforov said. “I am considerably less concerned about them than I am with other students. I have heard from many of them they appreciate a structured classroom. Fair and not allow other students to screw around.”
Leon and Garcia both appreciate being treated fairly in the classroom and not to be treated any differently because they are veterans. Khristoforov treats all of her students with fairness in the classroom and hopes her peers do the same.
“This isn’t a population that you can talk down to as if they were children,” Khristoforov said. “Veterans are no different than other students and it’s important that we acknowledge that they are coming to the table knowing a lot.”
Veterans have a lot of support going in to college and they are growing in numbers. With financial support, fellow veterans and a fair classroom, they have nothing to fear in this new battlefield. They are people that will be successful outside of the military and even more successful inside the classroom.
“They should be acknowledged by other instructors that they are tremendous assets to the class and not people you have to worry about,” Khristoforov said. “These are the high performers and achievers. They have high standards of themselves and can be counted on.”