Student veteran issues a Convention focus
The American Legion hosted an education roundtable Aug. 25 in Minneapolis that included representatives from VA, academic institutions and student veteran groups to discuss ways to help student veterans. Photo by Craig Roberts

Student veteran issues a Convention focus

The Economic Commission of The American Legion held a roundtable discussion during National Convention on Aug. 25 that focused upon issues affecting student veterans at college and university campuses.

The 11 participants included administrators, staff members, a VA official and two student veterans: Carin Anderson of University Veterans Services, University of Minnesota; Curtis Coy, deputy under secretary for economic opportunity at the Department of Veterans Affairs; Gerald Kapinos, program manager for Student Veterans of America; Ruth Fanning, director of VA's Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment Services (VR &E); Jennifer Matteson of Saint Louis University, who is also a NAVPA board member; and Bruce Holzschuh, veterans and military student services coordinator at Metropolitan State University.

Also attending were Tom Newman, service officer for The American Legion's Department of Minnesota; Julie Olson, VA certifying official at Metropolitan State University; Kimberly Wooster, president of the Student Veterans Association at the University of Minnesota; Don Pfeffer, director of the Minnesota VA's higher education veterans programs; and Dr. Teresa Theisen, grant manager of the Veterans Re-entry Education Program for Minnesota State Colleges & Universities.

After welcoming remarks by Harold Barnett, chairman of the Legion's Economic Commission, the group heard from Tom Newman, service officer for the Legion's Department of Minnesota. He said that schools needed to tend to the needs of all veterans and that The American Legion could provide much assistance at the local level. "No one group can do it all. Certainly, there are other major players that have critical roles in helping veterans make that transition into the area of education.

"I happen to be an Iraq veteran, so I've got a personal perspective on this issue," Newman said. "I get the opportunity to interface with a lot of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who want to make use of all these wonderful benefits. My time spent with the Legion has opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of the benefits my generation enjoys today is due, in large part, to the veterans who came before me."

Coy, who has been in his current VA position for about three months, said he jumped at the opportunity to join the roundtable. He said about 400,000 veterans were taking advantage of their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits globally, at about 5,900 schools.

"But when somebody says, ‘What's their graduation rate of our vets? How are they doing?' I don't know," Coy said. "I find it fascinating that I'll go to places and people will say, ‘Oh, they're not doing well.' And I say, ‘How do you know that? What's the basis for that information?'

"And so we need to start shifting our emphasis at VA from measuring those (GI Bill) outputs and start measuring the outcomes. And be more proactive with respect to these wonderful benefits and what are the results so we can start measuring the graduation rate of veterans. But the real issue is, have they gotten a better opportunity? Are they employed? Did they get a better job? Are they improving conditions for their families, for themselves and for their communities?"

Coy said he is excited by the opportunities that GI Bill veterans can afford America's veterans and by the enthusiasm of organizations like The American Legion and student veterans groups to help out. But VA needs to figure out how to "corral" that enthusiasm in a way that will make a genuine difference for veterans on campus.

The VR & E component of VA for disabled or wounded warriors (as low as 10 percent disability ratings, in some cases) is available at more than 200 locations across the country. "We know that people define themselves by what they do," Fanning said. "And it's a health issue. It keeps people healthier when they have a compass outside themselves. And so our goal for every person who comes to VR & E is to have some type of meaningful activity, whether its employment or a volunteer position."

VR & E offices are located at Warrior Transition Units and major military treatment facilities. Staff members reach out early to wounded veterans while they are still on medical hold and talk to them about opportunities in vocational rehabilitation.

Fanning said she "just met a young veteran a week ago and he said ‘I was on medical hold for a year and a half, and I didn't know about voc rehab. I could have taken advantage of it, had I known.' And it's a challenge for us to go back to our staff and say, ‘We need to do better.'"

Fanning said one of the really positive aspects of the Post-9/11 GI Bill was that it provided a subsistence allowance for those veterans enrolled in voc rehab programs. She also emphasized that VA and other stakeholders need to work together to counteract the misperceptions employers may have about veterans who suffer from traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress, "so that they not only get a good education, but also get the jobs they deserve."

Kapinos, an Air Force veteran with two tours in Iraq, started school under the Montgomery GI Bill and switched over to the Post-9/11 education benefits when they became available in August 2009. He graduated with a degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

At Madison, Kapinos ran an organization called "Vets for Vets," which was associated with Student Veterans of America. "It was basically built on the model of peer-to-peer support of fellow student veterans who help other fellow student veterans on campus to get them the tools and resources necessary for them to complete their education goals," Kapinos said.

Holzschuh, a veteran himself, told the group that about 1,100 veterans attended Metropolitan State University (MSU) in St. Paul, Minn., which has a large population of non-traditional students. "So veterans fit very well into the student population that we have."

After speaking to many colleagues and doing much research, Holzschuh "started to figure out what we need to do to help veterans."

One of the first things Holzschuh implemented on campus was a "one-stop shop" to help student veterans register for classes and to handle their other needs. He said the approach helped veterans make the "huge transition" from military life to the academic environment.

A year ago, MSU established a veterans center on campus where student veterans can go to focus on their studies. "The space is nice but the real value is the connection and support they get from meeting other vets who are going through some of the same challenges," Holzschuh said.

About 50 percent of student veterans at MSU are with education benefits; many other veterans served in earlier decades and either used up their GI Bill benefits or don't have any. "Our senior veteran is from the Korean War. He joined the Air Force in 1952. So it's a very interesting population of student veterans we have on campus," Holzschuh said.

Bob Madden, assistant director of The American Legion's Economic Division, said the Legion hosted the roundtable as a way of reaching out to state, local and national leaders in veterans education to share their thoughts about the best ways to assist student veterans.

Madden said the Legion has played a major role in education, authoring the original GI Bill of 1944, and playing key roles in getting Congress to pass the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the GI Bill Improvements Act of 2010.