Student veterans wade through bureaucracy to get back to schoolby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota colleges are ramping up efforts to help an increasing number of military veterans returning from service. The help comes in the form of six new offices housing veterans advocates on campuses around the state. As young Minnesotans return from Iraq or Afghanistan they often face a dizzying bureaucracy to access the educational benefits they're entitled to. Like many other states, Minnesota is waking up to the need to help veterans navigate a confusing system.
St. Cloud, Minn. — Jesse McClure dropped out of St. Cloud State University after two unproductive semesters in 1998. He joined the Marines and ended up serving combat time in Iraq. Now he's back at St. Cloud State, less than four semesters away from graduating with a degree in biomedical science.
"I'm now actually doing much better. I'm getting all A's except for one B," McClure said.
The Marines taught McClure about the world and himself and infused him with the focus he needed to stick it out in school. But when he started looking for schools that help veterans, he found Minnesota was behind many other states like Texas, California and Wisconsin.
"At the moment, St. Cloud State and MnSCU are not attractive to veterans," McClure said. "St. Cloud state was not only not high on (my) list, but not on the list."
McClure qualifies for the federal WW II era Montgomery G.I. Bill benefits. But because he was not a member of the Minnesota National Guard or Army Reserve, he is not eligible for state tuition reimbursements. In the end McClure chose St. Cloud because he couldn't afford to pay out-of-state tuition. But then he encountered another problem: red tape. His federal benefits are generous, but it took more than a year of determined vigilance to sort them out.
"If it weren't for my savings and having a family to bail me out at the last minute, I would have dropped out," McClure said.
There are about 6,000 military veterans in Minnesota colleges and technical schools. About one in 10 of those are at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus.
St. Cloud State has a much higher percentage of veterans in relation to the student population. That's one reason St. Cloud is one of the sites in Minnesota housing one of the six new veterans assistance offices.
James McAuley is the campus coordinator set up to shepherd St. Cloud State veterans through the benefits maze. McAuley's position is paid by part of a new $600,000 a year state program. McAuley said federal education benefits frequently get caught in a bottleneck of bureaucracy.
"The processing centers, a lot of them process somewhere around eight to 10 states, so you're looking at somewhere around 20,000 to 30,000 claims a month," McAuley said.
Campus coordinators like McAuley can also help veterans suffering from psychological or physical injuries.
Julie Holewa spent seven years training once a month in the Minnesota National Guard. Then in 2003 she was deployed to a base 45 km north of Baghdad. She casually dismisses the frequent sniper fire and daily mortar attacks.
"You don't know if it's your last day," Holewa said. "You don't know what's going on. Everything's up in the air. But you go there and do your job and whatever benefits you can take from that, take them. They're yours."
But Holewa found those benefits were not within easy reach.
Continually carrying heavy gear took it's toll on her knees and other joints. Such injuries account for about 40 percent of the nearly four million service connected disability claims in the U.S. In addition, shock waves from mortar explosions agitated an inner ear problem that causes debilitating dizziness. Holewa received a medical discharge after a little over a year.
When she got back to St. Cloud she discovered her job with the Stearns County Workforce Center was eliminated. She also encountered a gauntlet of procedures and paperwork to collect the benefits she's promised. Even the smoothest claim can take six to eight months to clear. Two and a half years after returning from Iraq, Holewa is finally going back to school to get a graduate degree.
"I think the fight was worth it," she said. "I think a lot of people would give up before they get to the point that I'm at. In fact when I left after my medical board proceeding they told me they budget for maybe a third of the people to continue on the process. About two-thirds give up and go back to their jobs with some insurance and turn those claims into private insurance. Which is kind of sad."
Don Pfeffer, a counselor at Central Lakes Community College and the newly hired coordinator overseeing the six regional veterans offices admits the help is meager, but it's a start.
"Everything our Vietnam vets didn't get, we're trying to make sure these vets get," he said.
Pfeffer and others are preparing for an expected return next spring of some 3,000 Minnesota Guard members, the largest influx of veterans in state history.
- All Things Considered, 09/18/2006, 5:49 p.m.