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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
A former teacher who switched to college counseling 16 years ago, she'd been volunteering there a year before ACE hired her. So many bright students joined the military after high school, Ms. Bernard says, because "they didn't ever hook up with the grind of doing homework every day." The military provides the kind of discipline and maturity that makes for "spectacular students" in college, she says.