Jerred Pender walked to the closets on the right side of his bedroom. One holds his civilian clothes. The other has some military uniforms, a camouflaged helmet and two pairs of cowboy boots on the shelf above. A stuffed camouflage backpack lay on the ground, the top flap hanging open.
Taking his formal uniform from the rack, he said, “The last time I wore this was at a funeral.”
He walked to the bathroom around the corner to put it on, disappearing for a few minutes, and re-emerged, ready for the photographer. Three and a half rows of multicolored squares and various buttons adorned his chest: military awards and other symbols of his service. He said he’s most proud of his combat infantry badge.
Pender, president of MSU’s chapter of Student Veterans of America, or SVA, has big plans, his newest being a deal with the university to give them a place to hang out – a community center for veterans.
No such center currently exists, but that could change in November if Pender gets the green light for his project from Denise Maybank, vice president for student affairs and services.
Resources for veterans:
- For help regarding veterans benefits or other information or services, visit finaid.msu.edu/veterans.asp and veterans.vps.msu.edu for information.
- A Sept. 24 “one-stop-shopping” event for information on benefits and other help as part of a veterans welcome reception will be held from 5:15 to 7 p.m. in the Bessey Hall lobby, where questions can be answered.
- On the third Monday of every month, the East Lansing Veterans’ Treatment Court, located at 54-B District Court, 101 Linden St., holds a similar “one-stop-shopping” event.
- Students also reach Amy Pocan, a benefits counselor for the Ingham County Department of Veterans Affairs, at 517-887-4387 or at email@example.com. Or talk to John Taylor, benefits counselor, at 517-887-4386 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- For information on state and national veterans benefits, visit michigan.gov/dmva and benefits.va.gov/benefits.
Veterans have a lot of pride, enduring the trials and tribulations of war and surviving to tell the tale. But while pride and praise aren’t lacking, many advocates say assistance available for student vets is particularly lacking at MSU. And with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq coming to a close, the university’s veteran population could spike.
“MSU needs to recognize that they’re gonna get a lot of vets,” said Jon Caterino, veteran mentor coordinator for the Ingham County Veterans’ Treatment Court in East Lansing. “If you’ve been a combat veteran and then all (of) the sudden you have to sit in a classroom and take notes, that’s not easy.”
Michael Dakduk, director of the national Student Veterans of America organization based in Washington D.C., said the challenges for most veterans are threefold: administration, academics and integration.
Applying or getting information on the GI Bill or other benefits can be confusing and time consuming, especially without someone to walk you through the process, Dakduk said. Then there’s the long waits if claims get backlogged. Some wait months to hear back from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs about their benefits, making it hard for them to pay for classes if the money doesn’t come in time for the bill due-date.
With no gathering place, some advocates believe it’s hard to feel a sense of community. And without someone to help with the burden of double bureaucracy, or adjusting from the sound of rapid-fire machine guns and rigid military lifestyle to the humdrum of daily civilian life, it’s even harder.
There’s no full time VA employee or other MSU employee who specializes in veterans issues alone to help answer questions. The university doesn’t keep statistics on the veteran population, making it difficult to judge what types of services are needed.
“My personal experience with MSU was one of disappointment,” Pender said. “Michigan State, at this point, is not a veteran-friendly school.”
No centralized university office to help veterans exists and MSU doesn’t employ a full-time staff member who specializes in helping veterans.
Maybank said the university is working on a plan to implement those services.
MSU officials have had “ongoing discussions for the past few years regarding the ways we support and engage student veterans,” Maybank said.
Those discussions, she said, resulted in a university-administrated web portal information on benefits and help. But there’s currently no office or employee to go to for questions, though Maybank said MSU officials are “in the process of structuring such a position.”
She said the university is working on creating a resource center, but did not offer any specifics on the date or place. Pender said that it could take place as early as mid-November.
Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor
In the summer of 2008, the University of Michigan launched its first campus-based veterans’ resource center.
“It grew out of student demand,” said Philip Larson, director of the university’s Veteran and Military Services Program.
After Larson was hired that same summer, his new job became helping the university’s roughly 250 vets deal with precisely those problems.
It’s not a “one-stop-shop” for assistance or information, but veteran students can call Larson about any problems, confusion or difficulties they might have, and he’ll direct them to someone who can help if he can’t.
U-M also has a council on student veterans that meets at least once a year to determine what new services or programs veterans might need, making a huge difference for students, Larson said.
One of the changes the university implemented a year after the center opened was a program that pays for veterans’ tuition in case any hold-ups happen on the VA’s end, which often is sluggish in deploying benefits.
Perhaps the greatest relief for veterans is simply in knowing that there’s a place to go for help, Larson said.
On the horizon
During a speech in mid-August, President Barack Obama outlined a new plan to address the problems veterans face in adjusting to university life. It’s an effort to marry a disjointed and backlogged federal bureaucracy to campus programs, perhaps centralizing some efforts and creating a web of support groups and a sense of community for veterans returning from duty, measures that student veteran advocates have sought for years with what they say is little assistance from the government. It’s an attempt at bridging gaps and mending old bureaucratic sores.
Pender thinks it’s little more than lip service and good public relations.
“They’re not being proactive. This is reactive,” Pender said. “As far as the Obama administration goes, I don’t think it’s a wholehearted effort. I believe it’s a response to the veterans returning.”
The administration contends its “8 Keys to Success” will help ease the transition to university life for veterans, which the president said are “specific steps that schools can take” to achieve goals.
“So far,” Obama said in his speech at the Disabled American Veterans convention last month in Florida, “more than 250 community colleges and universities have signed on, and today, I’m calling on schools across America to join us in this effort. ”
Without any federal or state statistics kept on the academic standing, retention or graduation rates of student veterans, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to measure the efficacy of such a program, experts say.
That, too, could change by the end of the year, Dakduk said.
In conjunction with the VA and National Student Clearinghouse, an organization that collects data on college students, the SVA will have preliminary data by the end of 2013.
“No one has tracked how successful veterans are in higher education,” Dakduk said. “(Data) has been something that’s been overlooked until now.”
Information on things like graduation and retention rates also will be useful, he said.
From there, experts will be able to analyze the data and determine what additional assistance veterans might need, which programs are working and which ones aren’t.
If that’s coupled with tracking veteran students on the campus level, in a similar way that athletes’ academic performance is tracked, researchers could narrow in on exactly what students might need.
MSU psychiatrist and post-traumatic stress disorder expert Frank Ochberg said university-level tracking “is a brilliant move,” but there’s no one service or change that smooths the transition completely.
“This is a normal person who’s gone to an abnormal place,” he said. “Very abnormal. And I’m not talking about the geography. I’m talking about the mission. And it takes a village to help a person come home.”
That type of collective effort might be the key to the puzzle. As is so often forgotten, having a sense of community and connection might be the most important thing anyone can do for themselves, veterans included.
“Many of them can do it on their own, but it does take a collective effort,” Dakduk said. “It takes fellow veterans providing the support, it takes the support of the administration, on campus, and faculty, it starts at the top with the president or the chancellor or the provost, and it takes the Department of Veteran Affairs and other entities.
“I’ve always said that we can’t point our fingers at any one agency. … We have to talk about it collectively and think about addressing these issues holistically.”