In the ranks of Friends

Thursday, March 29, 2007

When Jon Stein dropped out of SCSU in February 2003 for deployment to Saudi Arabia, he left behind a core group of friends who had been on the same timeline toward graduation. “But when I came back they were all gone,” Stein said of his college friends, who had graduated from SCSU while he was on duty. “It made campus kind of a lonely place.”

Students and alumni members serving in Iraq

St. Cloud State University student or alumni members of the Minnesota National Guard’s 1st Battalion 125th Field Artillery serving in Iraq include, from left: Sgt. Lukas Pohlmeier, Winthrop; Spc. Nicholas Metzen, New Ulm; Spc. Rebecca Sandberg, Hutchinson; Sgt. 1st Class William Potts ’99, Osseo; Spc. Rashid Mursal ’04, St. Cloud; and Staff Sgt. Matthew Johnson, Worthington. The Husky banners, provided by SCSU Athletics, hang in the battalion’s dining hall with other reminders of home. The soldiers are part of the New Ulm, Minn., unit serving in Convoy Support Center Scania, Iraq, and are scheduled to come home in August after two years of training and combat service away from their families.

Stein made new friends, and received from SCSU the help he needed to get back into school. But he said the transition back to college would have been so much smoother had there been an easy way for him to connect with other students who’d been deployed in the Middle East.

Now there’s a place and a support mechanism for students like Stein: the regional Veterans Resource Center on campus. The office is one of six established by the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs to help colleges and universities identify and remove barriers to veterans successfully completing college. 

The centers are tasked with providing information, resources and referrals for veteran benefits, the G.I. Bill, psychological assistance and physical injury support. The objective is to help ease the transition to civilian life for people like the 3,000 veterans scheduled to return to Minnesota this summer.

Locating a regional center at SCSU is appropriate, as the University has the largest group – approximately 400 – of student-veterans of any college or university campus in the state. “I’m here for all of them, and for their families,” says James McAuley, coordinator for Central Minnesota colleges and universities. His credentials include five years as an Air Force mental health technician, a degree in social psychology and the experience of having worked on his degree while enlisted.

The Veterans Resource Center’s help negotiating the veteran benefits labyrinth is important for a successful transition from wartime military duty, says Julie Holewa, who spent a year in Iraq. “Having a place – one place – to go to get all your answers
is awesome.”

Interaction with other student-veterans can also bring to light otherwise undiscovered benefits. For example, when Holewa came home, injured, in 2004, the military told her about some – but not all – of the benefits for which she qualified. 

While in Iraq Holewa was in a heavy engineering unit that rebuilt roads, bridges, schools and infrastructure. “They blew it up, we built it again. We swept for mines, we couldn’t go off the roadways, no one went anywhere – anywhere – alone,” she recalled of her experience.

During his stint in Iraq, duty for Marine Corps dog handler Jesse McClure meant searching for explosives. It was a dangerous job, he admitted, but he doesn’t believe it was any worse than others. “There are no safe jobs over there.”

“You’re in a live or die situation for a year ... with the same people day and night ... when you come home you miss the camaraderie,” said Holewa. “Here (at the center) you can sit down, talk, reconnect with people,” people who know what you’re talking about.

“Veterans speak the same language,” said Stein, who acknowledged with a grin the military’s predilection for acronyms. With members of the military he can say TDY, PIF or AFOQT and they’ll have a pretty good idea that he’s talking about temporary duty, his personal information file and the Air Force officer qualification test. They also know, and understand, what he’s been through and the challenges he and his veteran classmates face upon their return to the States.

“Almost every veteran has some story,” said McClure when he described his own difficulties transitioning from deployment to college. Upon his return from Iraq he decided to use G.I. Bill benefits to return to SCSU. “I knew I wouldn’t just get a check in the mail,” McClure said, but he had no idea how frustrating the military red tape  would be. With the help of SCSU staff he was able to file the correct forms and started school fall semester, but it wasn’t until mid-December that his first check came through. “If it hadn’t been for my family, I’d have dropped out of school and never come back. I couldn’t even pay my rent.”

Had there been a way to connect with other student-veterans, McClure said, they might have warned him  that getting G.I. Bill benefits is an unnerving, time-consuming process. To facilitate such personal connections, he helped found and is now president of the SCSU Student Veterans Organization and is a strong advocate of the Veterans Service Center. 

“Veterans are trained to be self-sufficient ... we’re trained to not ask for anything,” said McClure. With the new Veterans Resource Center, they can overcome that training and get the benefits they’ve earned.

- Marge Proell

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