Military personnel returning to their homeland after serving overseas can often face a myriad of challenges upon their arrival —readapting to possible societal changes, learning about what benefits they may be entitled to receive, or seeking out counseling or medical care due to the traumas of war.
At Santa Monica College (SMC), returning veterans now have a place where they can learn about all of these things and more, as the college attempts to provide these student veterans with a stable path to their academic careers and a bridge to critical services to make the transition to civilian life that much easier.
The Veterans Resource Center offers ex-military men and women a variety of services, and those who utilize it give it solid reviews.
“I really like it,” said Joshua Larson, one of several veterans who are also students at SMC. “It’s a very positive center for veterans.”
Stephanie Salazar said that employees have been very helpful in steering her toward important benefits and assistance for other services.
“I really didn’t know about the G.I. Bill, to be honest,” Salazar, who was in the Army during the Iraq conflict, admitted. “Everytime that I go in there, I can talk to someone who can guide me to the right place.
“I really think that I would be lost without them.”
The federal Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. Bill, provides college or vocational education for military personnel upon leaving the armed services, along with one year of unemployment compensation. A new bill was signed into law last July, which granted veterans additional benefits.
Linda Sinclair, a counselor at the community college, says that veterans often have special needs due to their wartime experiences, and the center tries to provide them with assistance in an atmosphere that a student veteran will find welcoming.
“We want them to know that (the center) is their space,” she said.
The facility, which opened last month, has a small staff that includes a part-time counselor, part-time secretary and part-time student assistant, who is also a veteran. It offers academic counseling, has a free textbook-lending library, a meeting room and a computer-tutoring room.
The center also features an office where representatives from other SMC departments or outside agencies — such as financial aid, disabled students and the Veterans Administration — can provide assistance and guidance to the students.
R.J. Correa, a former Marine who served in Vietnam, remembers receiving some advice about benefits and services when he was discharged, but says that the veterans center provides many more options to students returning from active duty. He recently found himself in a place that other veterans are experiencing — the loss of a job after several years of steady employment.
“I was employed for over 30 years until my business was shut down,” he said. “My biggest concern when I came back to college was being able to keep up with the kids, because we didn’t have computers or cell phones when I was in school.”
Many of the veterans returning to school who were interviewed by The Argonaut have fallen on difficult times since their return home, as financial pressures began to squeeze them as they waited for their benefits to become available. Some have been homeless, while others have only been able to work sparingly, due to the economic downturn and a constricted job market.
Other veterans say they suffer from post traumatic stress or head injuries that can affect how they readjust to civilian and academic life.
“So many veterans who are returning have had significant exposure to post traumatic stress or particularly in the Iraq War and Afghanistan, from head injuries,” noted Sandra Burnett, a specialist who has worked in disabled student services at SMC for 25 years. “The peer support that they receive here, whether it’s working with the Veterans Administration in Westwood to get them help, or just talking about their shared experiences is crucial.”
David Collins, an Army veteran who also fought in Vietnam, echoed Correa regarding the dearth of knowledge available to a number of returning military personnel after his discharge several decades ago.
“Today, there’s a larger percentage of benefits for veterans of all of the wars,” said Collins, who says his war experience was “among the most negative experiences in my life.
“But I am very grateful to the center, to Linda and the others who really care about us.”
Veterans like Eugene Aaron say that the facility has helped them get a new lease on life while pursuing new careers.
“The resources center has been very instrumental in helping me get my life back on track after being out of school for many years,” said Aaron, who served in Desert Storm, Afghanistan and the Iraq War.
Jeffery Lovejoy, who was in the Navy during the Iraq conflict, said that the transition from military life to being a civilian again has not been easy.
“I find it extremely difficult to transition from such a structured environment like the military,” he said. “I was looking for that kind of structure when I came back to the real world, and when you come to the resource center and you’re around all of these other veterans, it kind of represents that.”
Andre Andrews pointed out that veterans of current conflicts had often volunteered for service for different reasons than those who joined during the Korean or Vietnam wars.
“In this new war, we went to war for different reasons,” Andrews, who served in the Iraq War in the Navy, noted. “Some might have gone because they were very patriotic, but I went into the military because of the opportunity to go to school.”
The resource center, Andrews added, can also help students with employment and housing opportunities, besides academic counseling.
Larson, an Air Force veteran from the Iraq War who is now in the National Guard, originally planned to attend Los Angeles City College. He said his experience there, compared with the SMC center, was as different as night and day.
“[LACC] was a negative experience for me,” he recalled. “I didn’t get a lot of help about the benefits that I was supposed to receive.”
The student veterans take a class with Sinclair and have begun to get to know each other, even though many of them served in different eras.
“It makes you feel like you’re part of a group of people that makes up a wide diversity, a wide generation of people,” Correa said. “No matter how old we are or how young they are, there’s a camaraderie there and we try to look out for each other.”
Sinclair said that the college has worked with the school’s instructors to make them aware that they could be teaching students who are also veterans, and who may have certain needs that require special attention.
“We’ve had staff development days with the faculty to let them know that some of them will have veterans in their classes,” the counselor said.
Aaron said that he and others hope that budget constraints will not hamper the college’s efforts to expand services at the resource center.
“We need more funding so that we have more teachers who can be instrumental in helping veterans get their lives back on track,” said the Air Force veteran.
Sinclair said that SMC is actively seeking donations to expand the center’s services and create an emergency fund for the student veterans.
“We want them to continue to be able to have a place to meet, where they can seek assistance or just be themselves,” she said.
Veterans Day is Wednesday, November 11th.