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From Combat to Classroom: Programs Help Returning Veterans Make Transition to College Life

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Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.) special to

Nine days after Army veteran Jeremy Tennent returned to the United States from a mission in South Korea, he moved into his Bloomington apartment and made the transition to college.

“It was disorienting,” Tennent said. “I kind of underestimated the amount of transition time I would need.”

Even before 35-year-old Tennent, originally from Pittsburgh, returned to the U.S. in early August 2010, he was in communication with IU’s Veterans Support Services, which Tennent said helped him maximize his GI Bill benefits.

“When I was in Korea and I got the deferment, I started emailing (Student Service Assistant) Sarah Gibson, and she wrote right back,” Tennent said. “Answers were coming back right away. ‘This is what you can get, this is how it will work, this is the situation.'”

For the first-year student at the Maurer School of Law, IU’s Veterans Support Services office gave him the help he needed in order to become acclimated to student life.

State law proposed

Soon, state law may require Indiana colleges with at least 200 veteran students enrolled to establish “combat to college” programs, which would operate in a similar fashion to Veterans Support Services. SB 115, which was written by state Sen. Susan Glick, R-LaGrange, would require state colleges to provide a centralized location for admissions, registration and financial administration services for student veterans.

The bill also mandates schools provide reasonable accommodations for disabled student veterans in fitness facilities; develop programs to provide academic guidance specifically to student veterans; provide counseling services for student veterans who have disabilities or post-traumatic stress disorder; and develop job search programs designed for veterans.

Glick said the bill would also require universities to ask potential students if they are serving in the armed forces or are a veteran.

The bill has passed the Indiana Senate and is in the House Committee on Education. Glick said she hopes the bill will be put to a vote in committee sometime this week.

“Some of these individuals have come from a very stressful situation, a combat situation or an overseas assignment, and we just want to minimize their stress when it comes to getting enrolled in school and getting them on their road to an education,” Glick said. “There are a tremendous number of veterans who are unemployed when they are separated from the military.”

One soldier’s story

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000, Tennent and his wife performed sketch comedy part-time until his wife got pregnant in 2005. With a baby on the way, Tennent said he recognized the need to become more financially sound.

After losing about 40 pounds, he enlisted in the Army on Oct. 3, 2005.

“I looked around at all the guys in my life that were successful, and I realized that almost all of them had military experience in their background, so I realized that was something I needed and wanted,” Tennent said.

Becoming a second lieutenant in the Army’s Air Defense Artillery Branch in 2006, the young man was put in charge of about 50 soldiers. Assigned to a patriot battalion in Fort Bliss, Texas, his platoon rotated back and forth between Texas and South Korea.

When his mission in South Korea ended in 2007, Tennent said he moved to Fort Bragg, N.C., and led a launcher platoon, where he trained soldiers to operate scud busters, shooting down enemy missiles. In 2009, he was deployed to Afghanistan, where he served in the 82nd Airborne Division’s air space management cell.

“That was a difficult year. It was high stress, high tempo and real stakes, because real things were being done,” Tennent said. “I guess the Taliban keep tabs on who is coming in and out and stuff, so whenever a new unit comes in, they always start the first night with a rocket attack or something.”

Tennent served three days short of a year in Afghanistan and was then assigned to another deployment to South Korea before retiring in August.

Now, with plans to become a lawyer and a summer internship lined up at the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, Tennent lives with the challenge of being a 35-year-old veteran in classes composed primarily of 20-somethings.

‘Slightly out of place’

Margaret Baechtold, director of Veterans Support Services, which has been assisting veteran students since 2007, said the complicated process to receive college funding through the Post 9/11 GI Bill is not the only challenge facing veterans who return to school. It’s integrating into the role of a student.

“They frequently feel slightly out of place, especially at a traditional university like IU that is designed and is an environment for traditional, straight-out-of-high-school students,” Baechtold said. “We’ve had some indications from our students here that the challenges of being nontraditional and slightly older in many ways outweigh the challenges of being a veteran.”

IU veterans group

When 28-year-old Navy veteran Anthony Arnold began studying law at IU this year, he noticed something was missing.

Arnold received his undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan, where he said the Student Veterans of America organization was popular. IU lacked a local chapter until Arnold founded a local student veteran social outlet last semester. He now serves as president, and Tennent is vice president.

“Sometimes it’s just nice for guys or girls to come out and interact with people who have similar experiences to them,” Arnold said. “At 21 years old, some people are excited for their first legal beer, whereas in the military, sometimes 21-year-olds are serving in a war zone in Afghanistan.”

‘Extremely important’

While services similar to those outlined in SB 115 already exist at IU, Baechtold said she still supports the legislation. Even if it doesn’t cause dramatic changes at IU, she said the law would help ensure the work they’re doing is permanent.

Arnold said he is not entirely sure if he supports the legislation, because he has not done enough research on the bill. But if a law mandated colleges have programs like that at IU, he was optimistic.

“I think these offices are extremely important for transitioning veterans,” Arnold said. “If it’s mandating that other schools have programs like the one we have here, that can’t be a bad thing.”


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