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Removing Educational Roadblocks for Disabled Veterans

For a growing number of veterans, educational benefits require more than just college tuition assistance.
University Business, Feb 2009

For decades, the G.I. Bill has been a primary motivator for young men and women to enlist in the U.S. military, and Veterans Administration statistics show an increasing number of veterans are taking advantage of educational benefits. For many young people not necessarily able to afford college immediately out of high school, the promise of a free education is an opportunity too good to pass up. Yet, there is a large disparity between the educational benefits provided to veterans through the G.I. Bill and the full cost of attaining a four-year degree. Veterans assistance became a major issue in 2008, as Congress worked to provide more comprehensive benefits.

For a growing number of veterans, educational benefits require more than just college tuition assistance. For a disabled veteran—someone whose life has changed due to severe and permanent disability—the cost of living escalates with the need for transportation, medical assistance, adaptive equipment, tutoring, mentorship and other necessities for adjusting to life with a disability. These additional expenses incurred while pursuing an education can have a crippling effect on disabled veterans and their families.

"Disabled veterans face significant monetary barriers," says David Geffen, an attorney in private practice in Santa Monica, Calif. "Disabilities are expensive. They may require special equipment, medical assistance, and day-to-day assistance like transportation services. But that's just part of the barriers facing students with disabilities. There are also attitudinal and physical barriers that need to be overcome."

Universities also need to keep in mind that disabled veterans are dealing with relatively new injuries. "They don't yet know what they need in terms of resource and social support. They're exploring this new facet of life, and encountering new obstacles daily," says Geffen, who specializes in law and mediation for those with disabilities and is himself disabled. "A number of injuries are not physically apparent, and some take time to surface. Institutions need to be adaptive as needs develop."

"Universities should work with these students to anticipate their needs, but also re-evaluate often to determine whether the proposed solutions are working, or need to be adjusted," he adds. "The key to maintaining and supporting success for disabled veterans is to keep the interactive process ongoing and adaptable."

Rick Creehan, executive vice president at Adrian College (Mich.), agrees, "Assisting disabled veterans goes deeper than money. We can compartmentalize a number of student demographics. But disabled soldiers come back with such unique needs that there is no predictive modeling. These students need social and academic support at levels beyond what an average student experiences, and needs vary from one student to the next."

"We see students with Traumatic Brain Injury that may need help overcoming the effects of memory loss and concentration," says John Sawyer, veterans adviser at the University of Idaho. "This might include study and classroom strategies and might be computer software and technical assistance. These students are adapting to new 'learning skills' at the same time they are taking on new subjects. We see students with Post Traumatic Stress [disorder] who may need counseling and help with dealing with fear, anger and concentration problems. They may be learning to manage medications and new learning situations. They may need classroom and test-taking accommodations. And students with physical disabilities may need special accommodations in the classroom and on campus."

Every school, particularly public institutions, should seek to help these students, says Sawyer. "These men and women have suffered for the public good and should receive the help they need to be successful. They make the students around them more mature and more accepting of others because they are there. They open the general student population to the reality beyond pop culture or pure academics, and are very much a part of the community."

So how are colleges and universities addressing this problem? Unfortunately, most aren't. Numerous scholarships exist for children and/or spouses of deceased and disabled veterans. A few schools provide small monetary scholarships to disabled veterans to cover tuition, fees and books. But even smaller yet is the number of institutions that actually seek to help veterans successfully obtain a degree by providing more than financial support.

Arkansas State University at Jonesboro has a Center for the Personal Rehabilitation, Individual Development and Education (PRIDE) for injured military personnel who would benefit from rehabilitation and training in a university environment. It offers rehabilitation to and prepares wounded warriors for post-service careers, and also provides peer and family support during this critical period of these veterans' lives. It includes specialized physical and mental rehabilitation services that are available on campus, including physical therapy, speech language pathology and mental health counseling.

Dartmouth College provides individualized college counseling to seriously injured veterans. The program has hired three full-time college counselors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, to help veterans meet their educational aspirations.

In 2006, the University of Idaho realized there was a tremendous need to reach out to disabled veterans and created a unique, comprehensive scholarship program with three vital components that are customized to meet the personal needs of each scholar. The Operation Education Scholarship Program, specifically for disabled veterans, provides financial, academic and social support for the diverse challenges that accompany returning to civilian life, adjusting to life with a disability and working to earn a college degree.

Idaho works with each student to determine needs, and provides the resources necessary, including tuition, fees and books, on-campus housing, transportation, medical assistance, child care, adaptive equipment, tutoring and mentorship. The program has successfully graduated one recipient, currently assists five disabled veterans, and plans to enroll additional scholars this fall.

"Our students range from undergraduates in a variety of disciplines, to graduate and law students," says Dianne Daley-Laursen, chair of the program.

Distinctive to Idaho, the program also is open to spouses of veterans, so one or the other could apply. "We recognize that sometimes the veteran may have sustained such severe injuries that he or she is unable to complete an education or work. The family's financial situation would then depend on the spouse," says Daley-Laursen. "We strive to provide enough support for the Operation Education scholars to graduate debt free. As one of our scholars says, it gave him hope for a future and a new life in different direction than previously imagined."

For Chase Clark, a junior in landscape architecture at Idaho, the Operation Education Scholarship Program provided the means to achieve long-standing dreams. While still in high school in rural Blackfoot, Idaho, Clark signed up for the Army National Guard because of the great benefits and the "opportunity to make something" of himself. He quickly was activated and deployed to Iraq.

Because of the emotional trauma he still suffers, he declines to give details about the injuries he sustained during his service; however, he was severely and permanently injured. He returned home and eventually was discharged. But for Clark, the battle only was beginning. "Veteran wounds can suck you down and hold you within yourself. I was in a deep, dark place," he says.

"Combat veterans experience trauma on many levels," says Sean Burlile, a veteran who completed his doctoral degree thesis, "The Experience of Transitioning from the Armed Forces to the Civilian Workforce as a Result of Service-Connected Disabilities," at Idaho last year and now works for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"The initial deployment into a war zone causes stress and anxiety. The actual experience of combat exacerbates the stress and anxiety through imminent threat. And the transition back to the civilian community can create even more stress and anxiety," says Burlile. "If service members permanently are injured while deployed, they not only have to deal with the stress and anxiety related to combat, but they will continue to deal with injuries for the rest of their lives."

Eventually, Clark realized that he needed to escape the demons that specifically for disabled veterans. "I know a lot of wounded vets who have had a tough time getting their benefits and aren't getting paid, which is stressful on their families," says Clark. "This scholarship is not like that at all. The people with Operation Education get things done — they make things happen. More than that, they take care of anything needed for my education."

The services and financial support provided by Operation Education are tailored to each student. For Clark, the package has included physical therapy, assistance with vocational rehabilitation, social support, financial assistance for extra expenses and more. Because he doesn't have to worry about the "behind the scenes" efforts, Clark says he is able to focus on his degree work. With help from Operation Education, he was able to take a six-week summer landscape architecture studio in Italy. He also plans to study abroad in New Zealand this spring. "Operation Education is more than a scholarship — it's a support web," Clark says. "It allows me to be flexible in exploring the different avenues and opportunities of my education. I can focus on learning without being hindered by all the details."

After a successful launch of its program, the University of Idaho sent out more than 4,000 invitations to college and university leadership around the nation, asking them to implement similar programs and offering Idaho's business plan as a template. Adrian College received the invitation from Idaho, and immediately took interest in implementing a program in Michigan; the college launched Operation Education in May 2008. But with some 223,564 veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom who have filed for disability claims—about 20,000-30,000 of those are severely wounded—the need for other institutions to provide comprehensive support to disabled veterans remains. "Regardless of where you stand politically, it is indisputable that these veterans have served heroically," says Creehan. "If every institution gave back in a small way, it would be a huge help. People who are willing to donate to an institution won't find a more worthy cause."

"We are appreciative of the University of Idaho for challenging others to join the cause, and for helping Adrian College to establish this program," adds Creehan. "We now join the cause, and challenge every college president in the country to step up and be of assistance to disabled veterans."

Major funding for initiatives to assist disabled veterans comes primarily from private support. The University of Arkansas at Jonesboro received a $1 million gift from Buddy and Charlotte Beck. Adrian College President Jeffrey Docking received tremendous outpouring of financial support for the scholarship. "President Docking went to our donor base and asked them to give to this worthy cause. He came back and said it was the easiest fundraising cause ever," says Creehan.

The University of Idaho scholarship is provided through the private support of alumni and friends and from individuals, corporations and foundations who share the University's interest in assisting American's disabled veterans, including a $48,000 grant from the Bob Woodruff Family Foundation. In addition to financial gifts, businesses have offered services, including physical therapy, counseling, transportation, tax services, adaptive equipment and much more. Idaho currently is working to raise a $4 million endowment, which will fund up to 20 students.

"The program is very moving to people," says Daley-Laursen. "It largely has generated new dollars, and not diminished private support to other programs. Overall, it has expanded our pool of donors."

To learn more about Operation Education, visit


University of Idaho,

Adrian College,

Arkansas State University — Jonesboro,

Joni Kirk is the associate director of media relations at the University of Idaho.