Soldiers Into Students

The federal government plans to spend $78 billion over the next decade to provide veterans free in-state undergraduate education and allowances for books and housing. But across the country and at George Mason, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are asking for more than cash to ease the transition between military and civilian student life. Their needs include resource centers to help servicepeople navigate the unfamiliar world of academia and ramped-up mental health services to help them deal with the emotional aftermath of war.

At George Mason, student veterans said, officials have listened and responded to the calls for help, starting with the hiring of a Marine to act as a full-time military and veterans' liaison.

"We're getting a lot of what we've asked for," said Jonathan Zapien, 28, who served two tours in Afghanistan and is one of Mason's 425 student veterans.

Zapien and Joshua Lawton-Belous, members of the college's Student Veterans Association chapter, have led the push for recognition at Mason of student veterans' particular challenges and needs. They were frustrated, they said, when servicepeople were called up for duty in the middle of a semester and had to forfeit tuition and take F's on their transcript.

"Nobody should receive a failing grade because they're deploying to defend their country," said Lawton-Belous, who served two tours and more than 20 months in Iraq before being evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007.

They approached J. Thomas Hennessey Jr., chief of staff in the GMU president's office, with their concerns in spring 2008. Not six months later, Lawton-Belous said, the university had hired what he thinks is Virginia's only full-time veterans' liaison, Michael Johnson.

Johnson, who served in Iraq in 2005, smoothed the way almost immediately for small policy changes that students said made a big difference. For example, now when students are called up to service, they can either arrange with their professors to finish their coursework or withdraw and receive a tuition refund. In addition, Johnson helped sync university billing with GI Bill payouts from the Department of Veterans Affairs so student veterans don't have to take out loans to cover tuition while they wait for benefits to arrive.

"It was easily resolvable," said Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions, "but no one had really looked at the issue."

Johnson's office has become the school's one-stop shop for information about veterans' benefits and services, and he's setting up a Web site to make that information more accessible.

George Mason also was one of 20 colleges and universities to win a $100,000, two-year Success for Veterans Award from Wal-Mart and the American Council on Education. The school will use the grant to hire two part-time staff members: a transition adviser, to help students navigate college life, and a counselor trained to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

"The VA has a six- to eight-week wait to get in and see somebody," Johnson said. "What happens if a student comes here and needs help now?"

Veterans who feel alone in their struggle to adjust to collegiate life might become frustrated and drop out -- or worse. In the past six months, five student veterans nationwide committed suicide, according to the Student Veterans Association, a coalition of campus groups. "You're used to being on a fire team or some other environment where you depend on the soldiers, Marines, airpersons to your left and right," Zapien said.

Johnson and David Alpher, a faculty member at GMU's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution who has worked with a development program in Iraq, have set up an informal peer counseling network so vets can recognize that they are not alone and can help each other.

"If it's three in the morning and you're having a problem, you know that you've got someone you can call and he'll understand," Johnson said.

GMU is not the only nearby school to turn its attention to the challenges faced by returning vets. Northern Virginia Community College, where 2,700 certified veterans enrolled in fall 2008, has staff working at bases to provide active-duty members of the military information about educational opportunities. In November, the school will hire three people to staff a new Office of Military Outreach and Support Services, said Michael Turner, dean of students at the Woodbridge campus.

"Not only is this a huge market for us," he said, "but it's the right thing to do."

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