Derek Blumke, right, Campus Outreach program coordinator for the Department of Veterans Affairs, talks with Washington Alternate NECman Bob Wallace after addressing the VA&R Commission. Photo by Tom Strattman

Outreach for veterans on campus

Derek Blumke knows what it feels like to be a bit of an outcast on a college campus. In his current position with the Department of Veterans Affairs, he's hoping other servicemembers transitioning into academic life won't feel the same way.

A campus outreach coordinator, Blumke is part of VA's V.I.T.A.L. program. On Aug. 27, Blumke shared some of his own experiences while briefing The American Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission on V.I.T.A.L. - Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership Initiative.

"I had kids ask me if I'd killed people, questioning my rationale as to why I joined the military," said Blumke, who graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is based in his present job. "My favorite one was this young woman. We're sitting in what was probably a sophomore-level psychology class, and she looks at me and says, ‘So, how old are you?' I knew where this was going, so I said, ‘I'm 26.' She has this look of bewilderment on her face. I said, ‘Well, I was in the Air Force.' She leans into me close and says ‘You were in the military?' I said ‘yes.' And she looked at me and said, ‘Why would you do that?'

"That was the experience coming to college. The kids on the campus didn't understand veterans, didn't understand the military. They had such a disconnect."

Blumke went on to found Student Veterans of American; the organization's national office how is housed in The American Legion's Washington office. And a month and a half ago, Blumke went to work for VA's Office of Mental Health Services. But the idea of using mental health in the new initiative would have been a bad idea, Blumke said.

"If we're going to try to help veterans on campus with post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety issues, that last thing we need to do is go to the campus and say, ‘Office of Mental Health Services - come to us, we'll help you," Blumke said. "Veterans have enough issues with stigma. Kids on the campus already think they're crazy. The last thing we need to do is basically stigmatize them even more. This program is built to help destigmatize veterans' mental health, support them in their transition (and) help them integrate into college life."

V.I.T.A.L. focuses on four areas: reducing or eliminating any stigmas, the transition from being a servicemember to being a veteran, academic leadership and empowerment. Outreach activities will consist of:

• Training university faculty on military culture;• Coordinating with Student Veterans of America and other student veteran organizations;• Assisting campuses with the creation of support programs;• Providing onsite mental-health counseling; • Case management and enrollment into VA programs; and• Educating veterans on benefits available to them.

The pilot program, which will be expanded to 15 locations, currently is in place in five sites: Bedford, Mass., VAMC (North Shore Community College and Middlesex Community College); Tuscaloosa VAMC (University of Alabama and Shelton State Community College); Ann Arbor, Mich., VAMC (Eastern Michigan University, Davenport University, Washtenaw Community College, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and Adrian College); Austin VAMC (University of Texas at Austin and Austin Community College), and San Francisco VAMC (City College of San Francisco. At City College of San Francisco, 497 veterans have been seen in some sort of outreach capacity - nearly 50 percent of the student veteran population.

Blumke noted that the student veterans population has increased dramatically; from 2007 to 2010 alone, the number jumped from 523,000 to more than 819,000. Many are first-generation college students.

"They can't just come to campus and slip through the cracks," Blumke said. "They can't come to campus and struggle through and drop out. We've got a $7.7 billion investment a year going into these folks coming home. If we don't ensure that they're staying in school, don't ensure that they make grades, don't ensure that they're graduating, they're not going to get any jobs. They're not going to be able to support themselves of their families."