More veterans taking advantage of Post-9/11 GI Bill

By LAUREN KIRKWOOD | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: March 19, 2014

WASHINGTON — In the year since Clemson University launched its Student Veterans Success Center, its volunteer staff has worked to transform the small alcove in the School of Computing into a place where those transitioning from military to civilian life can connect with their peers.

“It’s not just a physical space for vets, it’s a place they can come and relax, they can meet other vets, they can create that social support network,” said Benjamin Curtis, president of the Clemson Student Veterans Association in Clemson, S.C. “Coming back from a social network that’s so strong with the military, you kind of lose all that.”

The need for such support centers has jumped in recent years as every U.S. state has seen a rise in the number of veterans using education benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Since the Post-9/11 GI Bill was fully enacted in 2009, South Carolina, for example, saw the number of such students increase 89 percent, according to an analysis of VA data.

Nationwide, the increase from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2012 — the last year data was available — was 67 percent, from 564,487 students to 945,052.

Nearby states also saw increases: North Carolina, 71 percent; Florida, 73 percent; and Georgia, 76 percent.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill was originally passed in 2008. It extended education benefits to service members who have been on active duty 90 or more days since Sept. 10, 2001, or who were discharged with a service-related disability after 30 days. It provides up to 36 months of education benefits, generally payable for 15 years following release from active duty.

A provision of the Post-9/11 GI Bill also allows veterans and service members to transfer unused benefits to their children or spouses, but about 79 percent are benefits used by veterans or service members themselves, according to VA data.

Curtis Coy, VA’s deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity, called the Post-9/11 GI Bill the most generous veterans benefit program since the original 1944 GI Bill, which provided benefits for returning World War II veterans. He said the program’s generosity is likely fueling the big increases.

The VA has recently created several tools designed to make it easier for veterans to pursue higher education.

A new online complaint system, launched in January, allows student veterans to detail problems they’ve experienced trying to access benefits at certain universities; some schools have been accused of using deceptive tactics to boost veteran enrollment.

An online “GI Bill Comparison Tool,” meanwhile, allows veterans to easily compare how they can use their benefits at different universities.

On the state level, many colleges and universities have worked to improve student veterans’ access to crucial resources. Those schools play an important role in ensuring veterans get what they’re due, and they should maintain their efforts to assist veterans as more come back from overseas, said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

“As we approach the 11th anniversary of the war in Iraq and as the war in Afghanistan winds down, our outreach efforts should intensify, not abate,” Rieckhoff said. “Colleges and universities need to better understand the different facets of GI Bill benefits and help raise awareness about veterans’ education benefits.”

In Virginia, where the number of education beneficiaries rose 144 percent from 2009 to 2012, George Mason University’s Office of Military Services holds sessions during freshman and transfer-student orientations to help veterans understand their GI Bill benefits. It also produces a monthly newsletter for student veterans at the campus in Fairfax, in suburban Washington, said Walter Sweeney, assistant transition coordinator at the office. The office also doubles as a student lounge where vets can do homework, eat lunch or relax between classes, he said.

Similarly, at the University of Georgia in Athens, a Student Veterans Resource Center provides assistance with VA benefits certification, health care, counseling, disability services, tutoring and advising. It also serves as a place for student veterans to connect with one another, said Charles T. Barco, who directs the center.

Before 2010, the number of veterans using education benefits rose modestly each year in most states. In South Carolina, the number of beneficiaries hit 7,000 in 2001, rising slowly to 7,872 by 2009.

But after the Post-9/11 GI Bill extended benefits to hundreds of thousands more veterans, benefit use skyrocketed in many places. By 2010, the number of beneficiaries in South Carolina was 13,056, according to VA records.

Members of Clemson’s Student Veterans Association have worked to increase outreach to veterans at the university by volunteering to staff the veterans support center a few hours a week. They do so between classes and other responsibilities, said Curtis, who served in the Marine Corps for nine years.

“The idea is to create a focal point where any student veteran can come and get information about everything ranging from financial aid to dealing with the VA and support services,” he said.

At its peak, Curtis said, about 20 to 30 student veterans were volunteering an hour or two a week to keep the center open. That number has dwindled, as many veterans are juggling schoolwork, jobs and families, he said.

The Student Veterans Association hopes to secure a larger space for the center soon, and it wants to establish a relationship with a faculty member who could serve as a voice for student veterans to the administration. Small policy changes — such as automatic excused absences from class when a student has a VA appointment — are also on the association’s agenda, Curtis said.

Because Clemson does not track students’ veteran status, the Student Veterans Association has no way of knowing exactly how many veterans are attending the university or of easily contacting all of them, Curtis said.

According to the VA’s comparison tool, which shows how many students receive VA benefits at universities across the country, 498 Clemson students are using GI Bill benefits.

Members of the Student Veterans Association are working with Clemson officials to make it possible for students to identify themselves as veterans on their student records, Curtis said; that would make it much easier to let student vets know about resources on the campus.

Those resources include help with filling out GI Bill paperwork, a process with which student veterans are often unfamiliar, Curtis said. Centers like his also create a sense of community among a student population whose members often live off-campus and may not be as involved with other campus organizations, he said.

“It makes life so much easier to have a place and somebody who can guide you through it,” he said.

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