Florida is determined to be on the front lines when it comes to recruiting more veterans to the state.
This year, the state legislature passed the "Florida G.I. Bill," which "makes Florida the most military-friendly state in the nation and supports the brave men and women who protect us at home and abroad," Senate President Don Gaetz said.
Among its provisions, the bill:
- Guarantees honorably discharged veterans in-state college tuition, even if they have lived here less than a year.
- Pumps about $22 million into initiatives that benefit the military and veterans, including funding to buy land near military installations to give them buffer zones and money to renovate Florida National Guard armories.
- Provides funding for deployed National Guard members to receive a four-year bachelor's degree through online courses.
- Expands which veterans get preference in public employment to include members of the U.S. Armed Forces Reserves and the Florida National Guard.
- Waives fees for professional licenses for 60 months after honorable discharge, up from the current 24 months.
- Creates "Florida Is for Veterans, Inc.," a nonprofit to promote Florida as the place for veterans to live.
- Authorizes the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs to sell memorial bricks that will be used for a Florida Veterans' Walk of Honor and Memorial Garden in Tallahassee.
"Through this bill, tens of thousands of active duty servicemen and women, military retirees and their families will see expanded education and employment options," Gaetz said.
Many South Florida colleges and universities are going even further, raising money for veterans scholarships, designating space for veterans to gather and creating staff positions to help ease the transition into college life.
"Veterans have been given a unique set of tools to be successful. They've been overseas, been responsible for many pieces of equipment and have gained a wealth of knowledge," said Dylan Reyes-Caro, assistant dean for military and veterans affairs at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. "Why would that not be a good thing for a university to attract?"
When state officials looked at key areas that made a state veteran friendly, in-state tuition was the main benefit missing, said Ret. Lt. Col. R. Steven Murray, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs.
The federal government's Post 9/11 G.I. Bill, which many veterans have assumed would cover most of their tuition and fees, only pays in-state rates for public colleges and universities.
Out-of-state rates are much more expensive. A full-time student at a public university pays about $6,000, while an out-of-state resident must pay $21,000. That can leave a veteran with $15,000 in out-of-pocket costs.
Former Army Spc. Will Benitez, 29, recently arrived in West Palm Beach, Fla., from New Jersey to spend the summer with his mother and other family members. He had been attending a college in New York, and his entire tuition and fees were covered. But when he signed tried to sign up for classes at Palm Beach State, he learned he'd have to pay $700 for just one class.
"I found out a couple of days before moving here, and my initial reaction was, I'm going right back to Jersey in September," Benitez said. "We go everywhere to protect this country, but we can't go everywhere to school?"
But now that the Florida G.I. bill has passed, Benitez said he may stay here longer.
Colleges are taking additional steps to get veterans on their campuses.
FAU created Reyes-Caro's position 18 months ago to help veterans with admissions questions, tutoring, financial aid, job placement and other areas. The university recently had a fundraising event, Making Waves, to provide money for veteran expenses not covered through the G.I. Bill. This year, the university set aside space in the Student Union for a Veterans Resource Center, with staff to help veterans deal with questions or any challenges they face.
"The biggest challenge is going from a structured environment to one where your schedule is entirely up to you," Reyes-Caro said. "No one will beat you over the head if you don't make it to class on time. You can drift along quite nicely and then crash and burn at the end of the semester."
Palm Beach State College already has a veterans resource center works to for its 1,000 former military members, said Van Williams, a former U.S. Army sergeant who directs veteran outreach.
He said the school is trying to find funding for a program to provide mentors to help veterans sort through financial aid, admissions and classes.
In January, Broward College launched Operation Retool, an accelerated program designed to retrain, retool and get veterans back into the workforce.
The college also has mentors on each campus to assist veterans as well as space on campus for them to meet.
"We believe that it is a college-wide culture to give our veterans the best service possible in all areas of the college," spokeswoman Tina David said.