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Serving Those Who Served U.S.

Five years ago, student veterans initiated the effort to establish services to provide a smooth transition for returning military personnel enrolled at Rutgers. Today, veterans services at the university have become a national model. 

By Steven Hart UCNB’92 • Illustration by James Steinberg
 

Illustration of military man getting diploma

When Bryan Adams left the U.S. Army in 2005, the Iraq war followed him to civilian life. He carried scars from bullet wounds suffered in a firefight outside Tikrit as well as a raging case of undiagnosed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that left him feeling adrift. Even when he pulled himself together and began classes at Rutgers–Camden, Adams felt like a stranger in a strange land. He was older than most of the other students, and had vastly different experiences. Along with PTSD, he had to negotiate the bureaucratic maze of veterans administration paperwork. When he connected with other student veterans on campus, Adams heard similar stories. “We are not traditional students,” Adams says. “It’s a new phase of your life; you’re coming out of the military; and you’re trying to reestablish your identity. When you leave the military, they just kind of cut you loose. In a big school like Rutgers, you can feel lost.”

Veterans returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan face a host of daunting challenges that can lead them wayward, from difficulty confronting the psychological trauma of combat, to adjusting to campus life marked by a student body much younger, and unfettered, than they are, to grappling with an administrative labyrinth not particularly suited to veterans trying to make heads or tails of utilizing things like the G.I. Bill. Five years ago, a handful of student veterans and administrative advocates sought to help these students returning from the war front and pave the way for attracting more veterans to enroll at Rutgers.

Putting their military background to use, the students cofounded Veterans for Education, the first on-campus veterans group in New Jersey. Their advocacy, along with the administration’s efforts, turned the Rutgers programs into a model for colleges and universities nationwide. Today, Rutgers offers a host of services for veterans: academic advice and tutoring; disabilities and psychological counseling; benefits and career advice. The veterans offices on the Newark and Camden campuses operate more or less independently, though under the umbrella of the Rutgers Office of Veteran and Military Programs and Services, which addresses the needs of New Brunswick students while lobbying for veterans at the state and national level. All three campus units help veterans make the transition to civilian student with services that keep them on track to complete their degrees.

Accounting for Student Veterans
When the university program was launched in 2009, Rutgers couldn’t reliably track the number of veterans in the student population, according to director Stephen G. Abel, a retired U.S. Army colonel. By advising changes to admission forms and student-life surveys for the New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden campuses, the number of veterans enrolling leapt from 446 in 2010 to nearly 2,100 in 2012. “We’ve struck gold in numbers,” says Abel, who works with assistant director Robert Bright, a Navy veteran. “We estimated that there were roughly 250 students we didn’t know about before we collected the data. Now, we’re tracking a total above 2,000. I’d call that a significant increase.”

The results are getting noticed. The program has received much visibility from being featured on MSNBC, NBCNews.com, and CNN Money. Further national recognition came with a survey of the best colleges and universities for veterans, published in the November 2011 issue of Military Times Edge, which placed the university third among four-year institutions. It was again recognized as number three in November 2012.

The student veterans give the university high marks. “It’s a very supportive program for veterans,” says Drew Daddio, a labor studies major who arrived at Rutgers in 2009 after serving two Iraq tours with the U.S. Marines. “It’s a big help because it’s easy to get lost here. It’s a huge campus.” Still, veterans have no trouble spotting one another on campus. “I can always tell the veterans. Somehow, they just look older.”

Thomas Krause, a former U.S. Marine sergeant now enrolled in the School of Arts and Sciences, credited the program with keeping him in college. “Here, I get to be with people who know what I’ve been through,” he says. Without the office’s support, Krause says he may easily have dropped out.

The journey to better services for veterans began with a marathon run in May 2008. William Brown, a former Navy SEAL, and Army combat veteran Efren Cazales executed a 65-mile jog from Camden to New Brunswick to raise awareness about veterans’ issues on campus. When their arrival in New Brunswick produced little reaction, they decided to take their message to legislators. They also appeared at the first University Senate meeting of the academic year to challenge then-president Richard L. McCormick to do more to attract veterans.

In Camden, the students insisted that the campus coordinator be a veteran. They got their wish with the appointment of Fred Davis, a Navy veteran and retired Camden police officer, as campus director of veterans affairs. Davis, who served in the Navy from 1970 to 1974 while stationed in Hawaii and the Philippines, took classes in Camden for a sociology degree before joining the Camden police. Though he spoke wistfully about finishing his degree, Davis was anything but sentimental in remembering the attitude toward veterans in the late 1970s. “The students were hostile,” Davis says. “People just weren’t receptive to veterans.” Hostility has given way to respect, Davis says, but veterans still have to struggle.

“As a veteran, you are redefining yourself,” says Brown, who enlisted in the Army in 1997 and saw combat in Iraq. “That’s one of the things that’s so bewildering about going to a college or a university. At the same time, I’m in law school and 35 years old. I’m not just a veteran, I’m significantly older than the majority of undergraduates.”

John Oberdiek, vice dean of the Rutgers School of Law–Camden, says: “A year from now, we’ll have a veteran-specific orientation session for incoming veterans. We’ll also have formal mentoring for first- and third-year law students, and a veteran alumni mentoring program to help with career planning and opportunities. There will also be a continuing legal-education course in veterans law—the legal side of dealing with the veterans administration and veteran-specific legal issues.”

Navigating Veterans Affairs
One of the valuable services available on all three campuses helps veterans navigate the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It’s not uncommon for a veteran to start classes only a few months after discharge, and a multitude of issues—claims for injuries suffered during active duty, late payment of benefits, disputes over paperwork—can add to the academic burden. The psychological counseling services are valued as well. Veterans suffering from PTSD and other traumatic injuries are often reluctant to take their problems to campus counseling centers.

“It takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to walk into a building with a sign that says ‘counseling center’ and ask for help,” Abel says. “Veterans tend to say, ‘I don’t have PTSD,’ and then it turns out they do. If we can reduce the stigma, that’s a good thing.”

In Newark, student veterans benefit from a counseling center, a veterans lounge area, and a highly active student group, the Rutgers Student Veterans Organization. “There was no need to reinvent the wheel,” says Gerald D. Massenburg, veteran services coordinator and assistant chancellor of student life. “There are a number of existing veterans groups and organizations that we work with, like the G.I. Go Fund. We partnered with the veterans administration center in Secaucus, New Jersey, to benefit from their expertise.”

Massenburg was particularly pleased by the Newark Campus’s sponsorship of a staged reading of ReEntry, a play first staged in Red Bank, New Jersey, about the stresses of returning to civilian life. The reading, held on Veterans Day 2009 at the Paul Robeson Campus Center, starred Joseph Harrell, a former Marine pursuing studies at Rutgers–Newark.

The need to improve campuswide services at Rutgers was given even greater urgency following the July 2008 enactment of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which pays tuition, fees, a book stipend, and a housing allowance. It also established the Yellow Ribbon Program, which allows out-of-state veterans to attend Rutgers without paying out-of-state tuition by splitting the cost between the university and the veterans administration. Under the G.I. Bill formula, veterans need at least six months of active duty to receive 50 percent of the benefit. After that, the amount of benefit increases by 10 percent for each additional six months of service. The imperative at Rutgers was to help veterans get the full impact of these benefits.

Unfortunately, the G.I. Bill’s passage also brought a flock of for-profit colleges that target veterans because their G.I. tuition reimbursement is paid directly by the federal government. Critics have dubbed these colleges “failure factories” because they devote most of their resources to marketing and management costs, leaving students to founder before they eventually drop out. Of the $4.4 billion in G.I. Bill monies paid to colleges and universities from 2009 to 2011, $1.65 billion—more than a third—was soaked up by for-profits, according to a U.S. Senate report released in 2011. Last April, President Obama signed an executive order to protect service families from aggressive marketing tactics.

The Effects of War
There is also the wider concern over the effect the protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan may have had on servicepeople. Leon Panetta, the U.S. secretary of defense, acknowledged in July 2012 that suicide rates have been skyrocketing among servicepeople in all branches of the military. “From Soldier to Student II: Assessing Campus Programs for Veterans and Service Members” is a national survey conducted by a consortium of education and veterans groups. The study, released last summer, found tremendous gains in veterans services offered on campuses nationwide, such as counseling for PTSD, now offered by 84 percent of eligible institutions, up from 16 percent when the first survey was taken in 2009. And 55 percent have staff trained to help veterans with physical disabilities, an increase of 22 percent.

It’s only to be expected that some of those problems will be found among the student veterans coming to Rutgers. “Many of the men and women have seen horrible things,” Abel says. “Many of them have been wounded. There are also the invisible wounds. They have challenges, either physical or mental, that have to be dealt with.” Veterans with more challenging problems can be helped with the aid of the G.I. Go Fund, a Newark-based nonprofit that offers transition services to veterans, with attention to low-income and homeless veterans.

Abel—who came to Rutgers in 2010 from the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs where he had been deputy commissioner—says that the Rutgers office has ambitious plans for this year, including launching an outreach effort at community colleges and refitting the New Brunswick Veterans House basement to offer more space for services. Abel and his colleagues will be traveling to national and regional veterans administration conferences to publicize Rutgers’ work and to share ideas.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has asked for help in building on what states are successfully doing for veterans through the Returning Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families Policy Academy. Abel and Bright will be making a presentation at the fifth annual Veterans Symposium for Higher Education at the University of Louisville in February. Entitled “Office of Veteran and Military Programs and Services: A Recipe for Success,” their presentation will be based on a chapter they coauthored in the recently published guide Called to Serve: A Handbook on Student Veterans and Higher Education (Jossey-Bass, 2012). Late last fall, Abel and his colleagues participated in a George Washington University symposium on how to help veterans negotiate the passage from military to campus life.

For Oberdiek and other Rutgers administrators, this is a practical matter as well as a moral obligation. “If a country has been fighting two wars for as long as we’ve been fighting them,” Oberdiek says, “there are going to be a lot more student veterans coming in. This is something the university needed to do.” •