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Colleges struggle with turning veterans into graduates

Two combat tours in Iraq and 20 years in the Marines made Ray Garcia a different kind of college student.

He was 39 years old when he set foot in college for the first time. He didn't want to party; he got angry when students were disrespectful in class or when instructors didn't respect veterans.

And then there was the issue of which seat he might get: He preferred one by the door, though any desk that allowed him to defend against attack would do. Even now, after the extreme sense of heightened alert has faded, that need remains.

Five years after the Post-9/11 GI Bill began, giving recent veterans and service members greater benefits for higher education, more than a million have tapped into the program. There is no precise data about how well veterans fare. But studies suggest that large numbers are not making it to graduation.

In what has become a two-way education, institutions are struggling with how to accommodate a population of men and women stumbling on the way to a degree.

"I can get millions of dollars to study PTSD," says Bruce Brunson, executive director of the Center for Military and Veterans Education at Tidewater Community College. "But I can't get a dime to study why they are not succeeding in college."

Veterans finish their service - many, like Garcia, coming home from war - and have to make a difficult transition. With one career behind them, college no longer feels like a natural next step. Many are older, with families and far greater financial responsibilities; they bring powerful experiences into a place traditionally filled with unseasoned young minds. At the same time, they are juggling the bureaucracy of admissions, tuition, veterans benefits, and a world so alien to military life that it could be a foreign culture.

"I can spot the veterans a thousand miles away," says Garcia, a student at TCC and a work/study employee at the military center on the Virginia Beach campus. "Right off the bat, their backs are against the wall. While the other (students) are all staring into space, on the veterans you can see worry on their faces. You can see the struggles, all the other things going on."

Trying to ease the transition, both TCC and Old Dominion University in Norfolk have put in place services specifically for veterans. At TCC, military and veterans centers link veterans to services and to each other. ODU is creating a similar one-stop shop for vets.

Both colleges are also educating their staffs and faculties on disabilities that some veterans shoulder, including signs of trauma or crisis, and exploring ways to draw veterans - particularly combat veterans - out of anonymity.

Earlier this year, ODU held a faculty seminar on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, stressing the need to keep calm when a student exhibits the kind of agitation associated with those problems.

With close to 9,000 veterans on their rosters using the GI Bill, the schools are learning that the best way to reach them is through fellow veterans - the few who come forward to help this vulnerable population succeed.

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Michael Thompson looks slightly restless during an evening graduate class on public administration at ODU.

He shifts in his seat, stretching his neck, first to one side, then the other.

It's not antsiness, however, that keeps Thompson in motion. The former Navy riverine was injured - first in training, then during operations in Iraq. He jammed his neck, shattered his upper arm, damaged his wrist and compressed discs in his back. He deployed to Iraq with a metal plate in his arm and injured both his shoulders.

He can't turn his head for very long, so he sits at the far end of the oblong conference table to see his professor head-on.

After his injuries, it took him nearly two years to heal - and he continues to suffer from constant pain that on bad days feels like a knife in his neck.

But it has taken far longer for the former college football player and professional wrestler to adjust mentally to his physical limitations.

He also struggles to quiet his mind. Sleep often eludes him. Bursts of rage erupt at surprising moments. For example, he'll get so angry when he can't get his shoes off quickly enough that he'll rip off his shirt and throw it at the wall. And just as suddenly, the anger's gone.

None of it stops him. He carries a "Faculty Accommodation Letter" identifying his disabilities. It ensures that his instructors allow him extended time and a "distraction-reduced setting" for tests, gives him priority seating, and permits unanticipated absences due to his disability.

Being open about his challenges gives him a level of respect with veterans on campus, said Thompson, whose work at the Student Accessibility Center includes letting veterans with disabilities know that help is available.

In his graduate class, five of the 20 students are either in the military or are veterans. This evening, they're discussing organizational structures and the cultures that develop in them. Take the Marines, Professor Bill Leavitt prods. Marine drill sergeants take a hodge-podge of ignorant teenagers and use discipline to mold them into self-assured warriors.

"Their minds are more pliable at 18 or 19," notes another student - a former lawyer in the Coast Guard. At 30, the student says, you'd think those same drill sergeants were psycho, screaming and yelling at you.

Thompson agrees. "It's a double-edged sword," he says. "At a young age, someone trained in combat wants to go to combat."

If you are older, he says, "you realize, if you have to kill somebody, it's a lot of responsibility."

Leavitt nods slowly. "You've ventured into a realm that's way beyond my area of expertise," he says.

It's like that for veterans on campus. They come to class having seen the world through a different prism, and they can have very different reference points. They are often reluctant to speak up in class and draw attention to themselves.

Veterans can also get frustrated when classmates offer opinions about things they haven't seen, says Kathleen Levingston, director of ODU's Military Connection Center and an instructor in the Department of Counseling and Human Services.

"What I try to stress with them is, instead of getting angry or frustrated, that's a teachable moment," she says. "You have experience you could share if you decided to."

Two years ago, at a time when lagging GI Bill tuition payments were keeping veterans from enrolling in classes, students formed a Student Veterans Association and approached Levingston to be the faculty adviser. She'd worked for years as a mental health counselor for the Navy's Fleet and Family Services, and, as a longtime Navy spouse, she felt a personal connection with that world.

The association now has more than 300 members. Jose Roman, who was SVA president last year, says combat veterans in particular tend to shut off that whole period of their lives. But Roman believes that veterans are like ambassadors to their peers. Molded by the complexities of war, they can bring a lot to classroom discussions.

"I think it's the whole point of being in college, looking at the gray areas," he said.

Thompson, who works closely with Levingston, sees himself as a veteran liaison to the academic world. He is continually devising ways to engage veterans on campus. A few months ago, he gave out dozens of free tickets for an ODU basketball game to all vets and their families, but only a handful showed up. Not discouraged, he's working on a baseball game this semester.

"Michael's a good one for us because he's suffered and dealt with PTSD himself," Levingston says. "He's a good advocate to go and talk to other guys and gals and just say, 'Hey, look at me. I've dealt with this, and I've come out the other side.' He's not afraid to broach the subject."

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No one knows exactly how many veterans are failing to complete college or how their numbers compare with the rest of the nation's college population.

Studies that have come out are based on generalized surveys of veterans, and the figures are limited. The Student Veterans of America, in partnership with the VA and the National Student Clearinghouse, has been compiling a national database of student veteran success rates and plans to release its first findings this week. It will be the first extensive look at completion rates for veterans since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here in Hampton Roads, TCC has 14,000 military-affiliated students, just under a third of its total student body of 44,000. Six thousand of them are veterans, 6,000 are military spouses and dependents, and 2,000 are on active duty. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 5,743 students at TCC are veterans using GI Bill benefits to pay tuition.

Using the VA's data, the Chronicle of Higher Education identified TCC as 11th nationwide on the list of colleges that enroll the most GI Bill students.

ODU's 25,000 students include 6,000 affiliated with the military; the VA identifies about 2,900 veterans as GI Bill recipients.

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Administrators at both schools agree that veterans are up against some pretty hefty obstacles. On top of academic challenges, many veterans have full-time jobs. And they are adjusting to the VA benefits system - a vast, bureaucratic morass.

It's an enormous learning curve in which everything they know has changed, Brunson says.

He and Levingston are working to put as many nets in place as they can. One example: TCC is implementing a program for incoming student veterans to allow them to get certified in what he calls a "bridge job," like laying cable, that veterans can do while in college.

Brunson, who has a doctorate in consumer economics, speaks from experience. He was a Navy helicopter pilot who served in what he describes as "low-intensity conflict."

But there were dark days in his service, ones he is not able to talk about. He reveals enough to say he was the only one to survive. When years later his son died, the trauma caught up with him.

PTSD is part of his vocabulary now, and he tells other veterans that prescription drugs not only saved his life, but allowed him to build a successful academic career.

"I am a living, walking example to every student here," Brunson says. "Don't let these problems, this transition, get in the way."

Just before Christmas, a TCC student started shouting and got belligerent with an instructor, who called security.

In the past, that student would have been kicked out, Brunson says. But the instructor also called the military center.

Brunson came over and persuaded the student, a veteran, to get help, using himself as an example. The student is in treatment and still enrolled at TCC, Brunson says.

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Ray Garcia looks out the coffee shop window at the tidy storefronts of Town Center in Virginia Beach and points out potential sniper positions. People tend to look at him with incomprehension when he talks like that, says the Iraq War veteran.

College is a hard adjustment, and a lot of veterans he sees give up, he says, particularly those struggling financially. Some use their GI Bill money to pay the bills but don't stay in school. Several of his war buddies started college but dropped out. Some went back to Iraq as contractors. One became a preacher. Another fell apart, dropped out of school and works as a security guard.

Garcia sees the same pattern on campus. He's one of about 40 veterans who work at TCC's military center, greeting others seeking assistance. Brunson calls their work triage: They sit down with fellow veterans, give them the lay of the land and direct them to academic or career counselors.

It's a start, says Garcia, who is studying human services. He hopes to make a career of helping veterans.

Garcia credits his wife's unwavering support for helping him stay in school - that and being a role model for his two young sons. He doesn't ever want them saying Daddy didn't go to college, so they don't have to, either.

His boys can do anything they want, he says - including joining the military.

But they'll have to go to college first.

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