The Home Front: Veterans return to new obstacles

November 18, 2010

On the Tuesday before Veterans Day, Colby Howard (SFS ’12), a Marine Corps veteran, was struggling to wrap up preparations for the flag raising ceremony on Copley lawn that he had been planning single-handedly for a week. When he had a spare moment, he sat down to talk with another student veteran who was considering re-enlistment.

Managing to stay casual and friendly despite the seriousness of the topic, Howard, who served eight years in the Marine Corps, including two deployments in Iraq, advised him to stay out.

“You don’t want to do that, man,” he said with a bit of a laugh.

The vice president of Georgetown University Student Veterans of America, Howard performs a multitude of tasks, including organizing the school’s main Veterans Day event, advising fellow student veterans, and even guiding prospective student veterans who are thinking of attending Georgetown.

But at almost any other university in the country, these veteran-related services would be handled by the school’s administration.

Sitting in that day’s makeshift office on the second floor of Lauinger Library, Howard says he is committed to helping Georgetown’s student veterans, but he is frustrated that so many of these responsibilities are on the shoulders of Georgetown students and faculty.

“We’ve been handling issues that are on a university level,” he said. “They should be dealt with on the university level. God knows they are at other institutions.”

Since 2008, Georgetown has experienced a surge in its student veteran population for which it was not prepared. In the past two years, groups like GUSVA have lobbied the University to increase the support programs it provides for student veterans, but Georgetown has been slow to adopt any of the groups’ proposed changes.

The problems student veterans face while studying at Georgetown range from the financial to the psychological. Whether they are trying to contact the Department of Veterans Affairs to receive delayed benefits or struggling with the transition to undergraduate life,  Georgetown’s lack of institutional support for veterans means that student-run organizations like GUSVA have to provide basic veteran services.

Since Georgetown does not keep track of the number of incoming student veterans each year, the exact increase in student veteran enrollment is hard to measure. But D. Scott Heath, assistant registrar for athletics, veterans affairs, and certifications, estimates that the number has increased by roughly 100 percent, from about 125 students when he arrived on campus in 2008 to around 250 today.

The growing student veteran population is part of a national increase of veterans in higher education. Many of the thousands of soldiers who joined the military immediately after the attacks on September 11 enrolled in college once they finished their enlistments in 2008 and 2009. The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 also vastly increased the level of aid that the G.I. bill offers to veterans for private institutions, making it easier for veterans to attend an expensive school like Georgetown.

A report produced by the American Council of Education in 2009 warned university administrators across the country that the addition to the G.I. bill would “prompt a significant upturn in the number of veterans and military personnel enrolling in higher education.” But while other schools made significant changes in 2008 and 2009 to prepare for the impending rise in veteran students, Georgetown did nothing to increase its veteran services.

George Washington University was one school that did make changes. In 2008, it opened a veteran services office to help veterans navigate financial matters and connect with resources around campus. GWU also signed onto the Yellow Ribbon Program, a component of the new G.I. bill that uses funds from the federal government to match all scholarships and benefits that universities provide to veterans, offering an $18,000 benefit for undergraduate veterans.

In comparison, when Georgetown joined the Yellow Ribbon Program, it only offered a $1,000 benefit.

“George Washington anticipated an influx of student veterans with the Yellow Ribbon Program so they wanted dedicated space for that,” Mary Waring, the veterans services coordinator at George Washington, said.

Partly as a result of its foresight in providing support for incoming student veterans, George Washington was named a “Military Friendly School” by G.I. Jobs magazine and ranked 21st on Military Times magazine’s 100-school “Best for Vets” list. The magazine awarded the school four-and-a-half out of five stars for its financial assistance and support services.

Georgetown did not earn a spot on either list. Matthew Pavelek, a senior editor at G.I. Jobs, said that the magazine sent two surveys for the list to Georgetown, but the school did not return either one of them. An editor at Military Times said that Georgetown never responded to its survey, either.

Georgetown’s failure to respond to the surveys may be due to the fact that no single University employee deals solely with veterans affairs. The only person at Georgetown who comes close is Heath, who must also serve as registrar for athletics and certifications. Heath’s veterans related responsibilities are not mean to extend beyond confirming their enrollment at Georgetown with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs so that they can receive their federal benefits.

Until last year, Georgetown’s website had no information about support for veterans, so the many student veterans who saw Heath as their main contact in the University called him with questions about their benefits and other financial issues.

Veterans say Heath has helped them as best he can, but that he lacks the time and expertise on the VA to help them with all their financial questions and problems.

“Because he had the word ‘veteran’ in his title, people would gravitate towards him with questions that he wasn’t necessarily in a position to answer,” Erik Brine said. Brine is president of GUSVA and a graduate student who served 11 years of active duty in the Air Force.

The few changes Georgetown has made in the way it handles student veterans since 2008 have largely been the result of hard work by a small number of dedicated students and faculty, like Alan Ardelean (SFS’11), who enlisted with the Marine Corps on Sept. 12, 2001 and served in Iraq and at embassies in Africa and the Middle East.

When he arrived on campus in 2008, he said he was shocked by the lack of support for veterans at Georgetown and began contacting people within the administration in hopes of increasing financial assistance and improving the University’s communication with veterans.

“Georgetown did not have any establishment set up for veterans,” Ardelean said. “They were late to catch the train.”

Ardelean also began working with Georgetown’s nascent University Military Association to promote a positive military environment on campus and establish a support group for veterans.

Meanwhile, Howard began working with Brine and Georgetown Spanish Professor Barbara Mujica to establish GUSVA. But it was Heath, the accidental focal point for veterans issues at Georgetown, who brought Brine and Mujica together.

“One of the many times that I came to ask him for help he mentioned that ‘hey there’s a professor trying to do the same things you are,’” Brine said. “It turns out we were already moving down the same track, and it was immediately clear that [Mujica and I] needed to get onboard together and work towards some of these common goals.”

Mujica, a novelist and expert on 16th-century Spanish literature, does not necessarily seem like the type of professor who would have a great interest in the military, but she has done more to improve veterans affairs on campus than perhaps anyone else at Georgetown.

“My son came back from Iraq after doing two tours; he’s a captain in the Marines. I was very grateful that he had returned safe and sound and I felt like I had to give back,” Mujica said. “He’s a graduate student now and I wanted to help all veterans make the same transition he was making.”

Surprised at how little Georgetown was doing for veterans, Mujica became the faculty advisor for GUSVA and started organizing meetings with as many administrators as she could, bringing Brine with her whenever possible.

After a couple months, the group had put together a webpage that directed student veterans to the various resources around campus and was recognized as an official student group.

Meanwhile, Ardelean and the UMA had successfully increased health care coverage for student veterans at Georgetown, and through lobbying by both the UMA and the GUSVA persuaded the University to increase its Yellow Ribbon benefit for undergraduates from $1,000 to $5,000.

The University’s financial commitment to the Yellow Ribbon Program remains relatively lower than other schools’. But Scott Fleming, Georgetown’s vice president of federal relations, says that he and District of Columbia Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton are lobbying congress to revise the G.I. bill to improve the basic scholarship given to veterans studying in D.C., which currently the lowest in the nation.

After repeated requests by Brine, the University has started to establish an institutional framework for the support of veterans, too. Last spring, under the direction of Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson, University administrators from financial affairs to admissions formed a veterans support team to talk about how Georgetown can improve the way it handles its veterans.

Both Brine and Howard are critical of the absence of a veteran presence at many of the team’s meetings and of the University’s reluctance to establish institutional support for veterans, but they said that the support team is an important first step. They also agree that resources for veterans have improved since 2008.

“Today, compared to when I came to Georgetown, it’s a world of difference,” Ardelean said.

Despite these gains, the consensus among student veterans and those who work with them is that Georgetown could be doing a lot more. They are glad the administration has made progress on issues like financial benefits and services for veterans, but add that Georgetown’s late start on the issue means it still has a lot of ground to make up.

“We’ve done the easy things,” Howard said. “The harder steps are next. The harder steps are institutionalizing the veterans’ presence on campus, and that’s going to require the school to step up.”

For Mujica and Howard, this means the creation of a full-time veterans’ resource coordinator position similar to the one at George Washington.

“We can’t actually keep on doing this,” Mujica said, referring to GUSVA’s role in reaching out to prospective students and coordinating resources for current student veterans.  “It’s very important for us to get a person who can take all these responsibilities over.”

Mary Dluhy, director of special programs and group initiatives for Student Affairs, said the veterans support team is currently evaluating whether there is sufficient cause to hire a full-time veterans resource coordinator.

“We’re exploring all the options, [but] the group is now seen as an ongoing thing,” Dluhy said. “We want to help support their community. … This is a group that is doing all the right things toward getting the help they need.”

To Ardelean, the University’s lethargic response to the new G.I. bill is inconsistent with its past and its Jesuit identity. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, is the foremost patron saint of soldiers, and some of Georgetown’s most prominent alumni have been veterans, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (COL ’74) and Joint Chief of Staff James L. Jones (SFS ’66).

“It’s not about us,” he said. “It’s Georgetown’s legacy that’s at stake here.”

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