April 29, 2008 – Two years after a rocket-propelled grenade hit Nathan Toews during an ambush in southern Afghanistan, sending shrapnel shooting into his skull and spiderwebbing through his brain, he has recovered enough to ask: What now?
Like so many leaving the military, after years of taking orders, he’s facing an almost infinite number of choices about his future.
Even now that he’s picked a school he’d like to go to, there are plenty of unknowns: His admissions interview included questions about whether the 24-year-old veteran could share a dorm room with a teenager, whether his head injury might keep him from completing the foreign language requirement, and just what, exactly, the government would pay for.
Decades after the GI Bill transformed American society after World War II, another generation of veterans is returning home — more than 800,000 as of last summer. What they find is quite different from the comprehensive benefits that once covered all the costs of an education, from undergraduate straight through Harvard Law. The current GI benefit covers just half the national average cost for tuition, room and board, veterans’ advocates say. “It falls dramatically short,” said Eric Hilleman of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
For those who, like Toews, were badly wounded, there are more benefits, so he expects his college costs to be covered. But it’s not just the money — there are physical and emotional roadblocks, too. A recent survey found that nearly half of recent veterans are un- or underemployed, and advocates say education can be key to a successful reentry. So a patchwork of efforts, public and private, have sprung up.
“These are people . . . who served the country at a time when very few people did,” said Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), who is pushing a bill that would expand benefits for veterans, including active-duty National Guard troops and reservists, to cover the cost of the most expensive public universities and to match contributions from private schools with higher tuition, for four academic years. “We should give them the best shot at a good future.”
An earlier version of the bill stalled in Congress; the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs opposed it as too expensive, too complex to administer and too likely to tempt troops to move back to civilian life. The bill, substantially revised, now has 58 co-sponsors, including both Democratic presidential candidates.
There are dozens of other bills, including one announced last week by senators including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), also a presidential candidate. Hundreds of supporters of Webb’s bill plan to rally today on Capitol Hill.
Many people enlist to earn money for college, and almost everyone signs up for the education benefits — which, in the case of the main GI Bill, requires a service member to pay about $1,200 into the plan– but not everyone takes advantage of it. And that buy-in is not returned even if the benefits are unused.
About 70 percent use at least some part of it, said Keith Wilson, director of the education service, but the VA does not track how many earn degrees.
An independent study found that just over half use some part of the benefits, said Ray Kelley of AMVETS, a veterans support group, and only 8 percent use all. “Congress is realizing we’re not giving them the benefits we say we’re giving them,” Kelley said. “They only have 36 months from the time they start using it to the time they finish.” That means going to school full time, year-round.
Students apply for the flat-rate benefit monthly and get a check once it is confirmed that they are still enrolled. Luke Stalcup, 27, of Student Veterans of America, who served in Iraq and will attend Georgetown University for graduate study in the fall, said he paid his rent late every month after the GI bill check came in. Now he relies on loans and scholarships to cover the rest of the cost at Columbia University.
Some states, such as Maryland, supplement federal benefits with state aid. That helped Laurissa Flowers, who used to put her University of Maryland bill on her credit card, paying it down as she received each month’s benefits. Flowers said other issues can be just as daunting as the money, so she started a veterans’ group on campus.
Private donors are trying to help, too: B.G. and Charlotte Beck of Fairfax Station gave $1 million to Arkansas State University to provide training, rehabilitation, guidance and extensive support for veterans on campus.
In June, the American Council on Education will host a conference hoping to spur colleges to start or expand initiatives for veterans. Dartmouth College President James Wright said he realized after visiting wounded soldiers that most of them were eager to go to school but had no idea where to begin. He worked with the education council, raising money to pay for a counselor at four military hospitals.
So this past year, Heather Bernard, a former college counselor with a son serving in Iraq, has been working with wounded soldiers and Marines at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center. She helps them plan ahead, choose schools, dig up old transcripts, prepare for standardized tests.
She found an evening art class for Calvin Linnette and Andre Knight, two soldiers who have to schedule around daytime medical appointments, at Montgomery College because it is close enough to Walter Reed that they can get there despite their injuries. The professor often helps them with a ride.
This month, Bernard was waiting nervously outside the admissions dean’s office at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where Toews was interviewing.
High school was easy; Toews got good grades and SAT scores and was accepted into the engineering program at California Polytechnic State University. But his family couldn’t afford tuition. About a year after Sept. 11, 2001, he enlisted.
He spent a year in Baghdad, then volunteered to serve in Afghanistan.
In 2006, he was a gunner for a small convoy, bringing supplies for an offensive when the trucks slowed down in rough terrain and “all hell broke loose,” Toews said.
Two weeks later, he woke up in a hospital bed in Bethesda with no idea where he was or why. He spent the next couple of years getting surgeries and rehab.
As people at Walter Reed kept telling him how amazing his recovery has been, it hit him: He could work with brain-injured patients. “If I could somehow help one guy, encourage him or make things easier for him and his family, that I should do it,” Toews said.
He still had a lot to figure out; that could mean studying neuroscience or social work or occupational therapy. And to write a college application essay? “It’s been six years since I’ve done that kind of thing,” he said.
Bernard coached him through it all, taking him to visit a big university and then to Dickinson. He talked with the admissions director about some of the challenges he might face, such as the phys ed requirement and a taking on a heavy course load after being out of school.
A freshman asked him what he had done in his time off since high school. “I joined the military,” he said, skin grafts shining on his forearm, thick scars from a craniotomy tracing arcs on his skull, visible through his hair.
“Oh, that’s cool,” she said politely.
He and Bernard got lunch in the cafeteria, and he looked at the students swarming through. “They’re all such . . . little . . . kids,” he said.