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Hot on Campus | November 5, 2012

From combat to campus


College veterans groups growing as service members take advantage of the G.I. Bill to go to school

©iStockPhoto/Nathan Gutshall-Kresge

Wayne Thomas spent five years as a submariner in the U.S. Navy, traveling around the world before coming home to get his degree. In 2009, he enrolled at Grace College, a small, private school in Lake Winona, Ind., with a military student program that was just getting started.

Thomas knew how hard it was to leave for deployments and the almost equal difficulty of coming home. He volunteered to serve as the student veteran's group president, helping other service members transition from combat to college. When the school created a work study position for the group's leader, Thomas applied and got the job.

"I actually get enjoyment from helping students transition and succeed in school, especially the dependents," he said. "It is really hard to go out to sea or to the desert, but it is harder to not know what your loved one is doing while they are out there serving their country."

According to the organization Student Veterans of America (SVA), 800,000 veterans and their family members are using the G.I. Bill to go to college. As the number of veterans on campus has grown, so have the number of support groups formed to offer support and assistance. During the last three years, the number of SVA campus chapters has grown from fewer than 100 to almost 500.

Whether they're recovering from the physical, psychological or emotional trauma of war or the painful separation from loved ones deployed around the world, campus veterans' groups offer a community of students who understand those unique struggles.

One such group can be found deep in the heart of Texas.

The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton has a large population of soldiers and veterans thanks to its proximity to Fort Hood, just 15 minutes away. UMHB's Student Veterans Organization formed last fall. According to its founder, Jared Pierce, it's not the traditional student organization.

"We don't have fundraisers and bake sales and that sort of stuff," Pierce said. "It's more of a network of folks who each know a thing or two."

Pierce recognizes the need for flexibility. The SVO is not what most would consider an organized campus association. At one point, its members met regularly but discontinued their meetings because the majority of veterans live off campus in neighboring towns. Many of them have spouses and children to attend to, as well as their school work. Many also have jobs, which cut down their time on campus. They don't have the time that ordinary college students can devote to an organization. But the SVO exists as a casual and loosely connected community of people who provide a base of support for each other, Pierce said.

An hour and a half to the south, Texas State University in San Marcos, a much larger, public institution, takes a different approach to serving its student veterans. The members of its Veterans Alliance focus more on fun, social events.

Jeremy Casselberry, the group's president, came to Texas State after a five-year military career, most of which he spent in Japan. Casselberry views his student group as a family that comes to each member's aid.

"We are a place where veterans can help each other out through that transition into civilian life," he said.

The group works to create a warm, inviting environment through social functions like monthly pizza luncheons, tailgate parties and weekly outdoor activities in the quad. Members also hold fundraisers and awareness events, including an annual veterans' 5k and golf tournament. But most importantly, the organization gives veterans a voice on issues that matter to them, participating in monthly veteran's advisory council meetings and the city's Veteran Affairs Advisory Committee.

At Grace College, Thomas enjoys giving back to the soldiers and their loved ones. He likes seeing them compensated in a small way for the sacrifices they've made.

"These dependents say goodbye and have no idea what to expect for the next several months," he said. "They definitely deserve this chance to succeed in college, and I am happy to help them reach that goal."