Back from war, a new fight

September 29, 2008
by Gabriella Schwarz | Hatchet Reporter

Junior Kevin Blanchard was on patrol in the Iraq desert in June 2005 when a roadside bomb came up through the floorboard of his vehicle and took out his left leg below the knee.

His injury resulted in an immediate airlift out of Iraq. He endured 30 surgeries and 13 months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center before coming to GW in 2006.

"Transitioning from all that to the classroom was rough," Blanchard said. "I felt very out of place, very uncomfortable."

Wade Spann, another veteran, suffered a traumatic brain injury while serving in Iraq. He returned from the war on a Thursday, and was in class at GW the following Tuesday.

"I was more comfortable going into Iraq than I was in a classroom environment," Spann said.

With an estimated 300 to 400 veterans studying in Foggy Bottom after leaving the war, many say the University fails to provide adequate support systems. Because of this, Blanchard and Spann founded the GW chapter of Student Veterans of America, a national student organization that advocates for veterans, which counts about 80 members at the University.

Blanchard said student veterans have different needs and concerns than most students and that it is crucial for them to have an outlet at GW. Some of the major transition problems they face involve textbooks and residence hall placements, said Blanchard, the group's vice president.

Robert Trost, professor of economics and faculty advisor to the organization, said the most difficult aspect of life after services is the "transition from military to civilian life." Trost said he hopes this group will be able to make veterans on campus aware of each other to prevent a feeling of isolation.

But tuition is one of the most pressing issues that administrators must address, group members said.

The University requires tuition payments at the beginning of the semester, but the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does not provide tuition money to veterans until the end of each month. Due to the incompatible University system, some veterans are forced to take out loans for the semester, Blanchard said.

Dan Small, executive director of Student Financial Assistance, said the University could improve its efforts to help the veterans with their tuition.

"We probably need to be a little more organized so we're in sync with them so they can navigate easier," Small said.

Veterans can e-mail their concerns to GW veterans' liaison Tracey Davis, Small said. Those students, however, are unable to meet with Davis in Foggy Bottom since she is now based out of the Virginia Campus.

"I think (the administration) is receptive, but there's just not enough staff," Blanchard said. "Here are 300 or 400 of us, and there are one or two people dealing with all those vets. How are you supposed to accommodate all our needs?"

He said the liaison's move to the Virginia campus made it much more difficult to accomplish certain administrative tasks.

"Seventy-five percent of the time I go to the bookstore to get my books and my name is not on the list, so they can't give me the voucher," he said. "Before, I would just go over to her office, but now I can't do that."

Universities around the country, such as the University of Virginia, Georgetown and the University of Washington, have offices of veterans affairs that coordinate programs with veterans on their campuses.

"Right now I wouldn't recommend (GW) to any of my veteran friends," said Spann, who helped his friend get into Georgetown. "They have open arms for veterans (at Georgetown), while here it's not so much. We're going to try to change that through the administration and through the community."

A representative of the office of University President Steven Knapp said they are working to address some of the issues raised by veterans on campus.

"We understand the growing need to provide specialized programs to veterans and will be working with them in the coming months to identify where those needs exist," said Robert Luke, an executive associate in the president's office.

Discussions between veterans and administrators will continue as GW works to implement the changes directed by the updated version of the G.I. Bill, passed by Congress this May. Under that bill, universities must accept new conditions for the 2009-2010 academic year.

Among other things, the bill directs the VA to send stipend checks directly to the University, instead of to students, a change that will likely correct the payment issue, Small said.