Vets Help Others Move From Combat To College

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With thousands of veterans home from the Iraq war and thousands more coming home from Afghanistan, colleges across the country are addressing ways to meet their needs. At Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, student veterans are leading the way to help each other navigate the challenges of college life.

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Thanks to the new GI Bill, which went into effect in 2009, hundreds of thousands of U.S. veterans have the opportunity to go back to school. For many veterans, heading to college or university often involves a difficult transition. Sean Bueter of member station WBOI in Fort Wayne, Indiana explains how one university is helping veterans succeed.

SEAN BUETER, BYLINE: Tiffany Kravec-Kelly is a student veteran at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne. The former Army staff sergeant saw the challenges of moving from combat to college, and was looking for a way to connect vets with one another. So in 2010, she jumped at the chance to open a Military Student Services office with the help of a grant from a veteran reintegration program called Operation Diploma. But students only trickled in so later that year, she took to the main quad with a bullhorn and started asking simple questions.

TIFFANY KRAVEC-KELLY: Are you getting all your benefits? Are you getting all your GI benefits for school, you know? So a lot of people actually came up to the table and were like, we didn't even know there was a Military Student Services on campus until you started yelling at us.

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BUETER: Kravec-Kelly helped answer a need at IPFW that colleges all over the country are scrambling to fill. Offices serving former military have popped up at colleges and universities nationwide, in response to the growing number of veterans making the transition to student life.

The most recent data from the Department of Veterans Affairs show more than 5,000 Hoosier veterans were using their post-9/11 GI benefits in 2010. University Military Student Services coordinator Jo Vaughan says she expects that number to continue rising, and her office is growing accordingly.

JO VAUGHAN: Actually, we went from having no office - and just one veteran-certifying official, who worked out of the registrar's office - to now, we have many folks who are here and able to assist.

BUETER: Organizations like this are designed to help incoming veterans with just about anything. Need to know more about your benefits, or where to drop off that form - or even what that form is for, in the first place? MSS can set you straight. But military life is structured, focused and often fast; and as much as anything, Vaughan says her office is a gateway for veterans who need help making that adjustment.

VAUGHAN: Particularly a soldier who's used to a very high-paced tempo in combat coming here to the university where there's really vague deadlines. And you can go to class, or not go to class. You can study, or not study. There's a lot of adjustment and change with that.

BUETER: Vaughan says having a team of former and active military on staff can be crucial in creating a successful college experience. And that sense of camaraderie has been key for Tim Leonard, who understands incoming students aren't all on the same playing field.

TIM LEONARD: Not every soldier comes back the same way. We all have different disabilities. Some are mental; some are physical.

BUETER: Leonard was a private in an Army ordinance-disposal unit. In 2006, he was injured in a training accident at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and uses a wheelchair to get around. Now he's a freshman, working part time at MSS.

Ultimately, he says, each of the more than 500 students the office now serves is going to face a different set of challenges, and talking it out with guys like him is an effective way to overcome them.

LEONARD: The thing with vets - and a lot of people need to understand this - vets will trust a veteran's word, OK? A vet will trust a vet that's been through it already. And we tell them: You can do it. Why can you do it? Because we are doing it now.

BUETER: To a veteran struggling to transition to college life, he says, that connection could be the difference between graduating and dropping out.

For NPR News, I'm Sean Bueter in Fort Wayne, Indiana

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