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Veterans return home to face battles in classrooms

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Click on photo to enlarge or download: Petty Officer First Class Timothy Ortega gazes out to sea from the USS Nimitz during his Western Pacific deployment in 2009. The veterans office at San Diego State University and the student veterans organization on campus, helped him and other veterans in their transition from the military to the classroom. Photo courtesy of Timothy OrtegaClick on photo to enlarge or download: Petty Officer First Class Timothy Ortega gazes out to sea from the USS Nimitz during his Western Pacific deployment in 2009. The veterans office at San Diego State University and the student veterans organization on campus, helped him and other veterans in their transition from the military to the classroom. Photo courtesy of Timothy Ortega

WASHINGTON – Retired Lance Cpl. Phil Lennon, 26, of College Park, Md., resembled Tom Hanks’ character in the movie “Castaway” after he left the Marines in 2008. He let his hair and beard grow. He calls it his “wilderness days,” when he withdrew from society.

“I got jobs, I went to school, all that, because I knew that I needed to provide an income for myself and my wife, but I didn’t want to do it,” Lennon said. “What I really wanted to do is buy a cabin with some land and just start growing my own food and hunting and just basically just shutting off, disengaging, getting off the grid, all that.”

Lennon, who was deployed to Iraq in 2007 and 2008, said every day there were “broad, over-arching missions.” 

After he got out of the military, he assumed he would go back to the person he had been before he enlisted. Instead, post-military life was the beginning of another battle. He said emotional management, health issues and problems with the Department of Veterans Affairs are some of the issues he and other veterans have to balance along with the college bureaucracy.

“When you get out … it’s just a very free situation,” Lennon said. “It’s freedoms that you haven’t felt in four years, so there’s issues of time management, self-motivation and things like that.”

Click on photo to enlarge or download: Timothy Ortega covers Navy Week Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium. Ortega was a mass communications specialist in the Navy. Photo courtesy of Timothy OrtegaClick on photo to enlarge or download: Timothy Ortega covers Navy Week Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium. Ortega was a mass communications specialist in the Navy. Photo courtesy of Timothy OrtegaThe 2011 American Community Survey found that 4 percent of veterans were enrolled in college or professional schools.

Jim Humphrey, assistant dean of students and director of veteran services at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., said more than 30 percent of student veterans are dealing with some form of documented traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder or other stressors.

“Many of the colleges are doing a pretty good job of emphasizing their military friendliness … and support of their veterans,” said Humphrey, who served 22 years in the Army and Air Force, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. “But only 60 percent of those have instituted offices on campuses that cater specifically to the needs of those veteran students coming in.”

Lipscomb’s veterans services office recruits veterans to the school, works with them to get their veteran’s benefits, connects them with the right counseling and resources and works to help them get jobs after they graduate.

About 800,000 veterans and their families benefit from the post 9/11 GI bill. The VA spent more than $10.5 billion on education benefits in 2011.

The G.I. bill pays all tuition and fees for up to 36 months for in-state students at public universities and up to $18,000 at most private universities. Most veterans also qualify for a book allowance of up to $1,000 a year and a housing allowance.

Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America, said it takes time to create support for student veterans and student veteran organizations.

Veterans also face the difficult process of going through the university’s bureaucracy and the VA’s bureaucracy at the same time. An error or issue in the VA paperwork can delay tuition payments, rent and other living expenses.

“That becomes an issue,” Dakduk said. “This is something I call universities to step up on. If there’s an error, a student veteran shouldn’t be dropped out of school for that. That’s an issue we’ve seen, and we hope it doesn’t become an emerging issue.”

Dakduk said policy changes, such as priority registration for athletes at many universities, should be offered to student veterans. Early registration could help them get their benefits on time.

Petty Officer First Class Timothy Ortega, 26, now a junior communication major at San Diego State University, got help from the school’s veterans office.

After four years in the Navy with long deployments, he decided to join the reserves, go to school and take advantage of the post 9/11 G.I. bill.

“We just stepped off a ship or we just stepped off foreign soil that we’ve been living at for three or four years,” Ortega said. “So we need someone there to walk us through, let us know what is available, first off, what is available to us on this campus, in the area, something more specific for that person and … someone to listen because everyone has a different story.”

Coming from a military life, where he was told what to do for four years, Ortega had a hard time finding his way through the college bureaucracy until he got involved in the veterans office and the Student Veterans Organization.

Cris Martin, 30, of El Paso, Texas, was a combat flight medic in the Army and deployed to Iraq in 2005. He enrolled at UTEP after leaving the military in 2010 as a sergeant.

The same year, he became the president of the campus Military Veterans Association, which has created a haven of unity and stabilization for veterans.

“A lot of us come back from our service to our country through the military with various … I guess you could say ghosts that haunt us,” Martin, now a senior, said. “It might not necessarily be PTSD, but a lot of us saw a lot of different things.”

Sometimes professors hound students to answer questions during class, which Martin said can cause discomfort in student veterans.

“For someone who has a traumatic brain injury or for someone else who has stress and anxiety disorders, that can actually put them in a very difficult position psychologically to trigger violent reactions,” Martin said. “It can cause them to have a nervous breakdown, and a lot of military veterans feel that there is a need for awareness and sensitive training for faculty personnel.”

Getting help from the VA can take months, and Martin said university counseling centers are understaffed.

Another challenge is the culture clash between veterans and other students. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey found that 36 percent of student veterans are 25 to 34 years old, and 40 percent are between 35 to 54 years old.

“They’ve gone out, they’ve seen the world, they’ve been in combat, and they come from a different mindset all together,” Martin said.

After earning an associate’s degree at Blue Ridge Community College in Virginia, Lennon and his wife, Lindsey Lennon, went to Florida State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology with the help of his G.I. bill benefits.

While at the military-friendly school, Lennon joined the student veterans organization.

Lennon is now pursuing a master’s degree in sociology at the University of Maryland. He is in a program in military sociology, where he is studying student veterans and their transition to higher education.

“Those initiatives are what brought me back into the community and re-engaged me with social life,” Lennon said. “I am a much different person today than I was then, and it was largely because of the efforts that Florida State has taken on.”

Reach reporter Kristopher Rivera at kristopher.rivera@shns.com or 202-326-9865. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. 

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