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Veterans transition from war zone to classroom

By Sally Holland, CNN
updated 11:26 AM EST, Mon December 19, 2011
Todd Kennedy and Holly Shaffner both retired from the military and now are student veterans at San Diego State University.
Todd Kennedy and Holly Shaffner both retired from the military and now are student veterans at San Diego State University.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • VA: About 450,000 people used Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits for college this fall
  • The transition from war zone to classroom has not been easy for many vets
  • San Diego State University has a Veterans Center to help ease that transition
  • "Veterans have these shared life experiences," says the center's director

SAN DIEGO (CNN) -- "When I got out of the Army, I did not want to talk about my war experience," said Angela Kozak, currently a speech pathology student at San Diego State University.

The transition from war zone to classroom was not easy for the 30-something-year-old veteran.

"The first semester I came here, I was kind of stand-offish. I didn't get involved in anything. I wasn't really clicking with the people in my classes. They were 19, 20, 21 years old," she said.

Things changed when she discovered the SDSU Veterans Center, where she met men and women with similar life experiences.

"It's made my college experience a hundred times better," she said.

The Joan and Art Barron Veterans Center at San Diego State University is where veterans can meet students with similar backgrounds.
The Joan and Art Barron Veterans Center at San Diego State University is where veterans can meet students with similar backgrounds.

San Diego State University is one of the first in the country to provide a single location on campus where veterans can access their benefits, meet others with common military backgrounds, and even relax and play Xbox. The staff at the Joan and Art Barron Veterans Center does everything from helping coordinate psychological counseling for veterans who might need it, to managing the nation's first on-campus housing reserved exclusively for veterans.

"Veterans have these shared life experiences, issues that they might be dealing with that only they can understand because they've lived it," said Joan Putnam, the director of the SDSU Veterans center.

The students have been stopping by this week to enjoy the "bunker," a lounge at the center with one wall covered in camouflage netting and providing coffee, tea and snacks during finals.

As the war winds down in Iraq and many men and women are retiring from the military, San Diego State recognizes a need to serve this type of student.

Nationally, about 450,000 people used the Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits for college this fall, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"We are anticipating that the people who are taking advantage of the Post 9/11 GI Bill over the course of the next several years will rise as we draw down and people get out of the services," said Curtis Coy, undersecretary for economic opportunity at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"The numbers are absolutely going up," said Keith Wilson, the educational services director of the VA. Since 2009 -- the first year for the Post 9/11 GI Bill -- the number of participants has increased by 50%.

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Joan Putnam is the Director of The Joan and Art Barron Veterans Center at San Diego State University
Joan Putnam is the Director of The Joan and Art Barron Veterans Center at San Diego State University

The SDSU Veterans Center currently serves around a thousand students and is a selling point for the university to attract even more student veterans.

"I knew that leaving the military, I personally wanted a little bit of a safety net," said Holly Shaffner, who retired from the Coast Guard at the end of October after 24 years in the service. "I knew that San Diego was a big veteran's community so I chose to come to San Diego State."

Like Kozak, Shaffner felt she was different from the younger students who don't share her background.

"They don't have the same maturity level, the same goals, the same vision for the class," she said. "I sit at the head of the class. I'm studious. I take notes. Their principles aren't the same right now."

"Veterans are not your typical kid right out of high school. They are disciplined. So there's lots of those sort of nuanced reasons why school would want to have veterans on campus," said Coy.

The American Council on Education surveyed 723 colleges and universities in 2009 and found that 65% of the respondents who offered services to veterans and military personnel prior to September 11, 2001, had increased their emphasis on those services since that time. This included adding new programs for military and veterans, and marketing and outreach strategies aimed at those groups.

Todd Kennedy retired from the Marine Corps after a 22-year military career. He served in Desert Storm in 1991, and Restore Hope in Somalia in 1992. He did two tours in Iraq in 2006 and 2009. The history major decided to retire in November 2010 while serving in Afghanistan, and he started the college entrance paperwork process before returning to the United States.

Kennedy says the SDSU Veterans Center has been a big help as he moves into the next chapter in his life. Whether they are 22 years old or 32 years old, the veterans all share a common bond, Kennedy said.

"If something is bugging you, you've got someone who speaks the same language, so it's been a really good transition tool," he said.

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