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Iraq war veterans receive guidance for a higher education

Some colleges develop programs to teach wounded vets the process of applying for, attending, and paying for school.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 2008

Jason Hord (l.) takes a tour guided by Dartmouth student Samuel Crist. Both are Iraq war veterans.

Joanne Ciccarello - staff

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Hanover, N.H.

Jason Hord ran his own construction business before his Army National Guard unit deployed to Iraq in 2006. Six months later – after surviving a nearby hit from a rocket-propelled grenade – he found himself adjusting to life with one eye, wondering what to do next.

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Mr. Hord is still recovering from a host of severe injuries, but at the urging of a college counselor he met at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, he made a visit to Dartmouth College here last week. He's now considering attending in the fall to study engineering.

Several recently wounded veterans have found their way to this snow-coated Ivy League campus, and many more have enrolled in other colleges, thanks in part to a counseling program conceived by Dartmouth President James Wright.

Simultaneously troubled and inspired by the sacrifices soldiers made in the November 2004 battle of Fallujah, President Wright decided to visit military hospitals, walking bed to bed and encouraging veterans to think about college. He says college opened up a whole new world for him after a stint in the Marines as a young man.

"In the course of these conversations they would ask me for advice," Wright says, with questions ranging from how to transfer credits to whether particular campuses had elevators. What they needed, he realized, was ongoing college counseling.

Working with the American Council on Education (ACE), Wright helped raise money to set up counselors at several military hospitals. Since April 2007, they have worked with more than 250 veterans and family members, and about half are now enrolled on college campuses or are taking online courses while at the hospital.

Efforts to ensure access to higher education are proliferating in the wake of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Individual campuses and private groups are setting up scholarships and support networks. Advocates are pushing for increased education benefits from the federal government. The personal and bureaucratic obstacles can be stark, counselors say, but they're starting to break down, one case at a time.

Wounded vets working with ACE counselors are connected with a contact person in their town or college to ensure a smooth transition. "That's really been the key," says Jim Selbe, who oversees the ACE program. "We spent a lot of time talking to Vietnam veterans ... and the predominant theme was, 'Great idea; however ... if you lose touch with them after they leave the hospital, you're not going to have any success.' "

During Hord's visit to Dartmouth, he talks with an admissions officer, Wright, and Samuel Crist, a marine who earned a Purple Heart in Fallujah and arrived here to study in the fall. As Mr. Crist leads him on a tour, they fall into conversation first about where they served and how they were injured. Then they turn to college life. Hord asks about the workload. Crist tells him, "there's definitely higher standards," and warns he'll have to prioritize when his professors assign impossible reading loads.

When he returns to Walter Reed, Hord will continue talking over his college options with counselor Heather Bernard.

Colleges ease the transition to ordinary life

Susan Tonymon calls it "coming out of the muck." It's what wounded veterans go through when they face problems on so many fronts that they don't know where to start. As a social worker and director of the Beck PRIDE Center at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, she helps them connect with financial resources, social services, and educational opportunities.

The center is one of several campus-based programs started recently to assist veterans in their transition back to civilian life. Buddy and Charlotte Beck, alumni of ASU, funded it with the hope that it would become a model for other communities.

Another is Operation Education, at the University of Idaho's main campus in Moscow. It supplements federal benefits and provides support for people like Chase Clark, an Iraq war veteran who's now studying landscape architecture. "They really pull everything down to the human level – it's not this machine that just processes you and puts you out the other end," he says.

The program has arranged for him to have physical therapy locally so he won't have to drive a long distance to a VA hospital. It has also offered child care for his newborn if he and his wife need it. "It really helps by taking the stress off ... and I'm better able in return to focus on my schooling."

At ASU, one veteran enrolled but didn't get a disability rating and accommodations in time, so his grade-point average was too low to sustain his educational funding from the government. He should qualify next year, Mrs. Tonymon says. But meanwhile she's helping him apply for a private scholarship to cover what he can't afford despite working six nights a week. On top of those demands, he and his wife are expecting a baby.

Of the 40 wounded veterans she's talked with, about a dozen have confided in her that they tried to commit suicide, either during military service or after they returned. She was overwhelmed at first, she says, and turned to God for inspiration about how to best help each one. "I'm starting to hear success stories from these soldiers," Tonymon says. "It's amazing and a blessing to see how these service members have re-created their lives."

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