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Some Vets Find GI Bill Falls Short

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THE PROGRESSIVE REVIEW - May 1, 2008
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Some War Veterans Find GI Bill Falls Short
By Susan Kinzie
The Washington Post

Two years after a rocket-propelled grenade hit Nathan Toews 
during an ambush in southern Afghanistan, sending shrapnel 
shooting into his skull and spiderwebbing through his brain,
he has recovered enough to ask: What now? 

Like so many leaving the military, after years of taking 
orders, he's facing an almost infinite number of choices 
about his future. 

Even now that he's picked a school he'd like to go to, 
there are plenty of unknowns: His admissions interview 
included questions about whether the 24-year-old veteran 
could share a dorm room with a teenager, whether his head 
injury might keep him from completing the foreign language 
requirement, and just what, exactly, the government would 
pay for. 

Decades after the GI Bill transformed American society 
after World War II, another generation of veterans is 
returning home - more than 800,000 as of last summer. 
What they find is quite different from the comprehensive 
benefits that once covered all the costs of an education, 
from undergraduate straight through Harvard Law. The 
current GI benefit covers just half the national average 
cost for tuition, room and board, veterans' advocates 
say. "It falls dramatically short," said Eric Hilleman 
of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. 

For those who, like Toews, were badly wounded, there are 
more benefits, so he expects his college costs to be 
covered. But it's not just the money - there are physical 
and emotional roadblocks, too. A recent survey found that 
nearly half of recent veterans are un- or underemployed, 
and advocates say education can be key to a successful 
reentry. So a patchwork of efforts, public and private, 
have sprung up. 

"These are people ... who served the country at a time when 
very few people did," said Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), who is 
pushing a bill that would expand benefits for veterans, 
including active-duty guards and reservists, to cover the 
cost of the most expensive public universities and to match 
contributions from private schools with higher tuition, 
for four academic years. "We should give them the best 
shot at a good future." 

An earlier version of the bill stalled in Congress; the 
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs opposed it as too 
expensive, too complex to administer and too likely to 
tempt troops to move back to civilian life. The bill, 
substantially revised, now has 58 co-sponsors, including 
both Democratic presidential candidates. 

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There are dozens of other bills, including one announced 
last week by senators including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), 
also a presidential candidate. Hundreds of supporters of 
Webb's bill plan to rally today on Capitol Hill. 

Many people enlist to earn money for college, and almost 
everyone signs up for the education benefits - which, in 
the case of the main GI Bill, requires a service member 
to pay about $1,200 into the plan- but not everyone takes 
advantage of it. And that buy-in is not returned even if 
the benefits are unused. 

About 70 percent use at least some part of it, said Keith 
Wilson, director of the education service, but the VA does 
not track how many earn degrees. 

An independent study found that just over half use some 
part of the benefits, said Ray Kelley of AMVETS, a veterans 
support group, and only 8 percent use all. "Congress is 
realizing we're not giving them the benefits we say we're 
giving them," Kelley said. "They only have 36 months from 
the time they start using it to the time they finish." That 
means going to school full time, year-round. 

Students apply for the flat-rate benefit monthly and get a 
check once it is confirmed that they are still enrolled. 
Luke Stalcup, 27, of Student Veterans of America, who 
served in Iraq and will attend Georgetown University for
graduate study in the fall, said he paid his rent late 
every month after the GI bill check came in. Now he relies 
on loans and scholarships to cover the rest of the cost at 
Columbia University. 

Some states, such as Maryland, supplement federal benefits 
with state aid. That helped Laurissa Flowers, who used to 
put her University of Maryland bill on her credit card, 
paying it down as she received each month's benefits. 
Flowers said other issues can be just as daunting as the 
money, so she started a veterans' group on campus. 

Private donors are trying to help, too: B.G. and Charlotte 
Beck of Fairfax Station gave $1 million to Arkansas State 
University to provide training, rehabilitation, guidance 
and extensive support for veterans on campus. 

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In June, the American Council on Education will host a 
conference hoping to spur colleges to start or expand 
initiatives for veterans. Dartmouth College President 
James Wright said he realized after visiting wounded 
soldiers that most of them were eager to go to school but 
had no idea where to begin. He worked with the education 
council, raising money to pay for a counselor at four 
military hospitals. 

So this past year, Heather Bernard, a former college 
counselor with a son serving in Iraq, has been working 
with wounded soldiers and Marines at Walter Reed Army 
Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center. 
She helps them plan ahead, choose schools, dig up old 
transcripts, prepare for standardized tests. 

She found an evening art class for Calvin Linnette and 
Andre Knight, two soldiers who have to schedule around 
daytime medical appointments, at Montgomery College 
because it is close enough to Walter Reed that they can 
get there despite their injuries. The professor often 
helps them with a ride. 

This month, Bernard was waiting nervously outside the 
admissions dean's office at Dickinson College in 
Pennsylvania, where Toews was interviewing. 

High school was easy; Toews got good grades and SAT scores 
and was accepted into the engineering program at California 
Polytechnic State University. But his family couldn't 
afford tuition. About a year after Sept. 11, 2001, he 
enlisted. 

He spent a year in Baghdad, then volunteered to serve in 
Afghanistan. 

In 2006, he was a gunner for a small convoy, bringing 
supplies for an offensive when the trucks slowed down in 
rough terrain and "all hell broke loose," Toews said. 

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Two weeks later, he woke up in a hospital bed in Bethesda 
with no idea where he was or why. He spent the next couple 
of years getting surgeries and rehab.

As people at Walter Reed kept telling him how amazing his 
recovery has been, it hit him: He could work with brain-
injured patients. "If I could somehow help one guy, 
encourage him or make things easier for him and his family, 
that I should do it," Toews said. 

He still had a lot to figure out; that could mean studying 
neuroscience or social work or occupational therapy. And 
to write a college application essay? "It's been six years 
since I've done that kind of thing," he said.

Bernard coached him through it all, taking him to visit a 
big university and then to Dickinson. He talked with the 
admissions director about some of the challenges he might 
face, such as the phys ed requirement and a taking on a 
heavy course load after being out of school. 

A freshman asked him what he had done in his time off since 
high school. "I joined the military," he said, skin grafts 
shining on his forearm, thick scars from a craniotomy 
tracing arcs on his skull, visible through his hair. 

"Oh, that's cool," she said politely.

He and Bernard got lunch in the cafeteria, and he looked at 
the students swarming through. "They're all such ... little 
... kids," he said.

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