Community colleges in San Diego and Imperial counties are educating more than 20,000 veterans and military members, helping ease their transition from military to civilian life, college officials said this week in a news conference on the USS Midway.
Colleges help veterans acquire job skills, earn degrees, and build on the civic experience they gained in military service, officials with the San Diego and Imperial Counties Community Colleges Association said Tuesday.
"Higher education offers that path to our veterans to seek the wisdom and virtue necessary to enjoy the freedom they won for all of us," said Palomar College Trustee Paul McNamara, a retired Marine colonel.
The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that more than 600,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have gone back to school on the GI Bill, according to a statement from MiraCosta College. About half of California veterans use their educational benefits to attend a community college, the statement said.
In North County, Palomar College serves 1,386 veterans and active-duty military, and MiraCosta, just miles from Camp Pendleton, enrolls 1,741 military members and veterans.
Those numbers are likely to increase, as a recent troop drawdown from Afghanistan has brought 10,0000 troops home, and another 23,000 military members are expected to return this year, according to a statement by the colleges.
Many veterans struggle to adapt to civilian life after returning from tours of duty, particularly those who served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials said.
In addition to educational opportunities, community colleges help veterans deal with combat disabilities such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, and support the sometimes disorienting shift from warrior to student.
"Not only do they provide the education across a spectrum of skills, but they also provide a support structure for the returning serviceman or woman who has suffered the horrors of war," McNamara said.
Colleges including Palomar and MiraCosta help veterans navigate the GI Bill and other financial aid, provide specialized counseling for students who have sustained combat-related mental health problems, and have opened lounges or information centers for veteran students and military members to socialize with each other.
Ryan Williams, a Navy veteran and former Palomar student, said he has relied on the GI Bill to update his education and job skills. Williams, who is now studying business administration at San Diego State University while working in Palomar College's veterans services office, said state cuts to higher education funding have made it difficult to take full advantage of the bill.
Because the GI Bill covers full-time students for a 36-month period, he said that cuts to class offerings mean that some veteran students who can't get a full course load, or who take longer to graduate, may not be able to get full funding though the bill.
Williams, who is on track to graduate in spring and is expecting the birth of his daughter, said he's hoping that the passage of Proposition 30, a ballot measure that would fund K-12 and higher education, will help him finish his degree on time.
"If I wasn't able to receive the full-time benefit for me, I would have been hit significantly while using the GI Bill," said Williams, 29. "I don't know whether I would be able to sustain my classes and support a wife and baby on the way."
Distributed by MCT Information Services