As an international studies major at the City College of New York, Don Gomez, an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq, hears the Iraq war come up often in many of his classes. The fact that he was there does not.
This may change soon. As the government draws down the number of troops in Iraq, service members will be returning home to New York. With jobs hard to come by and soldiers who have served multiple tours unwilling to roll the dice by re-enlisting, the benefits of the new Post 9/11 GI Bill makes college an attractive option for veterans.
College, though, also can be a difficult transition. "Regardless of who you are, you come back changed," said Gomez, who serves as a spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Campuses will need to be prepared to deal with a host of issues returning veterans may face, including post- traumatic stress disorder, other mental health issues and homelessness. They also may need assistance navigating the paperwork and the bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans Affairs and finding housing and childcare.
Back to School
Home to an estimated 740,000 war vets New York State has the fourth largest veteran population in the country. Brooklyn and Manhattan each have a Veterans Affairs hospital and, according to the New York State Division of Veteran's Affairs, more than 52,000 active-duty servicemen and women and 20,000 reservists from across New York State have been deployed overseas since Sept. 11, 2001. The 10th Mountain Division based in Watertown is one of the most deployed units in the U.S. military.
Yet, it seems average New Yorkers are unaware that the young man or woman sitting next to them on the bus or in a university lecture hall could have been to war and back. With the Post 9/11 GI bill, veterans may soon be taking up seats in colleges across the city making their presence hard to ignore.
Eighteen thousand vets in New York State use the current GI bill. With the new GI bill, which went into effect in August, that number is expected to increase by 23 percent, according to Andy Davis, a senior training technician at the New York State Division of Veterans Affairs.
The new bill provides education benefits to service members who served at least 90 days active duty since Sept 11. 2001, and covers in-state undergraduate tuition and fees, which will be paid directly to the school, as well as an additional allowance for housing and money for books.
The housing allowance for Manhattan is one of the highest at $2,500 a month. It is determined by the ZIP code of the school, meaning a veteran can attend school in Manhattan and live outside of the borough while still qualifying for the designated allowance for Manhattan.
Gomez spells out exactly what the new GI bill means for veterans like himself. Right now he gets about $1,400 a month to cover tuition and any other living expenses. The new bill will entitle him to full tuition, another $2,500 a month for housing, and $1,000 a year for books.
Columbia University and NYU recently announced their participation in the Yellow Ribbon program where the school pays up to 50 percent of excess fees with the government matching the amount. Pace University already has a 50 percent tuition scholarship in place for veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11.
The GI bill, though, is complicated. Length of active-duty service, among other factors, determines the level of benefits a vet may receive. People who served 36 months of active duty after Sept 11, 2001 and were honorably discharged would be entitled to a 100 percent rating, qualifying them for full education benefits. But, for example, someone who served two tours active duty totaling 25 months and eight days, would could get 80 percent of full benefit, and a veteran who did one tour in the reserve totaling 13 months and three days, would be eligible for 6o.
While the new funding will help veterans pay their bills, it does not address a sense of isolation they may feel on campus or problems they may encounter readjusting to civilian life.
Davis, an Army veteran who served in Iraq in 2004 was a student vet at the University of Minnesota. "I almost dropped out immediately," he said. He recalled that other students did not understand what it meant to be a veteran, and he did not have a community he could relate to. The military represents just 1 percent of the population, making it is easy for vets to feel isolated and detached from the rest of the student population.
Davis saw a need for a veterans support group and started one, Comfort for Courage. His next move was to open a veterans transition center on campus. The vet center is a place where vets can go and share their stories or just feel that they fit in. It also provides the opportunity to meet other vets, network and get information about resources available to veterans.
Now, Davis is working to create vet centers like the one at his alma mater in New York colleges. He hopes to reduce the isolation vets feel outside the structure of the military and educate the general population on what it means to be a vet.
The City University of New York began preparing to assist the student veteran population before the new GI bill was signed. CUNY colleges have approximately 400,000 students, including an estimated 1,700 veterans. Not all of its campuses have veterans affairs offices, but there is a main CUNY Office of Veterans Affairs with an office on West 31st Street.
The department's coordinator, Wilfred Cotto, is a Navy veteran who is working with CUNY to provide student vets with information to make their adjustment to the university's campuses as smooth as possible. The department offers workshops on the GI Bill and provides information on everything from financial assistance for vets and information on transitioning from combat to civilian life. CUNY has also waived the application fee for veterans. The website provides a lot of information for vets thinking about returning to the classroom.
Aubrey Archangel is president of the New York Chapter of Student Veterans of America and an Iraq War vet who served four years in the U.S. Army, including two tours in Iraq. He recalls a fellow student whose eyes bulged in astonishment when she found out that Archangel was an Iraq veteran.
"People think vet and picture some old World War II guy," he said.
Archangel is determined to shatter this stereotype. As a student at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in 2006, he went to find the advertised veterans club, only to discover it was no longer active, so he formed one with a group of other vets and was the club's president before transferring to City College.
Gomez, too, found out quickly that his campus was not set up for veterans. He went looking for the Veterans Affairs office at City College. "I'll join the veterans club," he thought. It didn't exist, so he started one because he felt it was important for veterans to have a place to go where they would feel comfortable. The City College Veterans Association has been pushing for an on-campus Veterans Administration office.
For now, the people preparing for the new generation of returning vets are the vets already here
Gomez put a link on his school's website asking, "Are you a veteran? Click here. " A flood of emails came in from service members in Iraq and Afghanistan exploring their options for when they get home. "They're coming," says Gomez. "I just don't think we're ready for them."
Lauren Lodato is a freelance writer and graduate of The Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.