Ed Note – The post below is by Eric Greitens, a Navy SEAL and founder of The Mission Continues. You can read more about Mission Continues in this NYT story or by visiting their website. Here Greitens discusses education and American’s veterans. Veterans Day is Friday, please keep these issues in mind.
Once they packed for War, now they pack for College: How to help veterans win the fight to stay on campus.
By Eric Greitens
Anthony Diaz was a 19-year old student when the Towers fell. As the nation watched the smoke rise from the rubble of Ground Zero, Anthony watched his father, a U.S. Marine, pack his bags for war. Three years later, inspired by his father’s commitment, Diaz dropped out of college to enlist as a Marine and serve his country.
By 2009, Diaz suffered from myriad medical issues including degenerative disk disease, a torn rotator cuff, and a case of high anxiety disorder that would prohibit him from reenlisting. Diaz returned home to face the reality of a new beginning and a new fight—the battle to rebuild his life at home. First, he dedicated himself to pursuing the degree that he had abandoned when he enlisted.
For many veterans, an education can serve as a stepping-stone as they transition back to civilian life. The 9/11 GI Bill, which was passed by Congress just months prior to Diaz’ departure from the Marines, promised to pay full tuition, a housing allowance, and an annual stipend for books and supplies. Diaz believed it was his ticket to the future. But reality soon hit.
The fact is, many universities are still not equipped to serve the specific needs of a veteran population. As a result, Veterans register for classes, but with little direction from the school. They lack clarity about how their military experience and schooling can translate into a civilian credential, and then find themselves in programs that are unaligned to their career goals. Many leave without ever obtaining a degree.
According to Col. David Sutherland, Director of Warrior and Family Support and special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, “88% of post 9/11 veterans are dropping out of school. When they drop out of school, they reenter a labor force in which male veterans aged 18-25 have a 21.9% unemployment rate.”
Nevertheless, demand for an education will continue to rise among our veteran population. Almost 800,000 veterans used their GI Bill benefits in 2010, up 40 percent from 2009. And current trends suggest that within two years of their return home, approximately 25 percent of returning veterans will enroll in school.
As these men and women come home, our Nation’s colleges and universities must organize to meet the unique needs of veterans during their transition. Some schools, such as Syracuse University and the University of Michigan, have led the way with initiatives like the Student Veterans Assistance Program, which provides opportunities for one-on-one counseling about class selection, seminars on student life, and networking events with veteran-friendly employers.
But success for the post 9/11 veteran population will not come from just tuition assistance and smart academic counseling. There is another critical ingredient: providing opportunities for continued active community service.
While the majority of college students have yet to pursue a career, a veteran has already given years of his or her life in the service of this country. Many have risked life and limb, and gone through profoundly moving experiences. To transition from that reality to the “bubble” of academia is traumatic. The All Volunteer Force survey, conducted by Civic Enterprises in 2009, revealed that 92 percent of post 9/11 veterans feel that serving their community is important to them, compared with the 43 percent of college students nationwide who hold this belief.
Academic institutions that incorporate service-based programs into a veteran’s college experience will provide them with critical tools for a successful transition. In service, veteran students develop camaraderie and overcome feelings of isolation. In service, veterans rebuild their sense of purpose through meaningful community engagement. In service, veterans help to draw the parallel between military service and community service.
When veterans around him were struggling, Anthony Diaz pursued a fellowship from The Mission Continues in conjunction with Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. Today, he serves with the Student Veterans of America, where he is the Texas Director and oversees all Texas chapters of the SVA. As part of his service, Diaz is helping other veterans: “I love to see the look on a veteran’s face when I tell them that I can help. I know that if I help at least one returning veteran earn an education and not become a statistic, then I did my part.”
This year, an estimated 325,000 service men and women will leave the military. As they pack their bags for school, let’s ensure that when they arrive on campus they are enrolled in meaningful programs of study and engaged in service to our campuses and our communities. If we do this right, we’ll create a cadre of veteran leaders across the county. We’ll help veterans to make the transition into citizen leaders here at home, and they’ll help their fellow students to walk a path of both success and service.
Eric Greitens is a US Navy SEAL and the Founder and CEO of The Mission Continues.