Written by Francesca Weaver-Chaney and Anne Gunderson
More than 1,200 student veterans, including some from NLU, watched with anticipation as Vice President Joe Biden approached a conference podium in San Antonio, Texas, to speak.
“You are the finest group of warriors the world has ever known,” he told them.
The audience of students previously and currently serving in the five branches of the military stood to applaud Biden. Many said afterward they had once again gained pride in being a part of this nation’s military.
Biden’s address was the culminating event at the 7th Annual Student Veterans of America National Conference, held Jan. 8-11. It united Veteran students from about 475 colleges and universities across the country to network, collaborate, and receive inspiration from national, community and military leaders. Topics ranged from improving tuition assistance to increasing access to mental health services to developing bridges to employment for graduating students.
Don’t Leave Money On The Table
One of the big issues discussed at the conference was that not all campuses are prepared to knowledgeably advise student veterans, said D. Wayne Robinson, chief executive officer of the SVA. That resulted in some veterans paying tuition they could have received as part of their benefits.
Veterans fighting for a year would return home and pay out-of-pocket for out-of-state tuition because they had not resided in the state for 12 months, according to Robinson.
“One of our goals is to inform student veterans of their value and help them to become more informed consumers of their GI Bill benefits,” he said.
What Your Benefits Entitle You To
The Post-9/11 GI Bill created new education benefits for individuals who have at least 90 days of aggregate active duty service after Sept. 10, 2001 and are still on active duty, if they are honorably discharged Veterans, or were discharged with a service-connected disability after 30 days.
For approved programs, the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides up to 36 months of education benefits, generally payable for 15 years following release from active duty. Other possible benefits include a monthly housing allowance, an annual $1,000 books and supplies stipend and a one-time rural relocation benefit payment for veterans who reside in rural areas where no colleges exist.
Degree-granting institutions of higher learning participating in the Post-9/11 GI Bill Yellow Ribbon Program agree to make additional funds available for a Veteran’s education without an additional charge to his/her GI Bill entitlement. These institutions choose the amount of tuition and fees they will contribute. VA matches that amount and issues payments directly to the institution.
However, retired Sgt. Maj. James E. Nier said that student veterans are dropping out before completing their degrees—mainly because the tuition subsidy covers only three years of college, instead of the necessary four, for student veterans unable to transfer earned credits to certain schools.
“The GI Bill has a certain amount of money for a certain amount of time,” Nier said. “Congress needs to pass a bill that gives them (student veterans) more money (for a university or college).”
Action Needed To Stem Alarming Suicide Rate
Improving access to mental health resources was another key focus of the conference. According to a VA report, 22 veterans commit suicide daily, about 30% of whom are age 49 and younger.. This is a direct result of traumatic injuries and experiences during battle, coupled with an aversion to appearing weak that prevents many Veterans from seeking professional support.
Robert McDonald, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, called for more qualified social workers with military experience to deliver ongoing mental health services to Veterans struggling to re-enter society.
Dan Standage, the SVA Director of Disability in Education, summarized the role of a strong SVA chapter in addressing the mental health needs of students: “Leaving the military with an acquired, non-visible disability, such as traumatic brain injury (TBI) or post-traumatic stress (PTS), puts the veteran at a significantly higher risk for unmanaged mental health issues. Military training dictates that the individual serve the team, and the team takes care of the individual.
“Not wanting to be an exception, and not fully understanding that seeking help is not a weakness, a veteran may continue serving a team that does not exist and ignore self-care. This is where SVA comes in. SVA chapters are uniquely poised to assist veterans in their transition. By translating the customs of each culture in understandable and familiar ways, these chapters fulfill the critical role of the team and extinguish the stigmas associated with the military culture.”
Message to Employers: Veterans Have Leadership Skills
SVA’s mission includes supporting Veterans to thrive in post-secondary education and beyond.
It recognizes that military training and experience equip service members with valuable skills and make them strategic assets in the workplace.
SVA is focusing on translating that philosophy into employer-friendly language, creating connections to job opportunities and supporting transitions into the labor market.
The jobless rate for all U.S. veterans was just 6.9 percent in October 2013 — slightly lower than for the population as a whole.
But the unemployment rate for veterans who have served since 9/11 stood at 10 percent, with 246,000 out of work, according to the Council of Economic Advisers.
To close this employment gap among post-9/11 veterans, SVA works diligently to reframe the image of Veteran graduates from possible liabilities, due to injury and trauma, to strategic assets and leaders as a result of their military experience.
During the conference, student Veterans took part in a job fair with prominent companies such as Disney, Google, NASA, Aramark and more.
“You can’t get a better employee than a veteran,” said Nier. “They’re responsible, they’re well-trained, they’re organized, they’re loyal, I can go on and on.”
“This particular conference is one of the best I’ve been to,” he added.