A decade at war
The last decade has seen tumultuous times in the United States and around the world. The events of Sept. 11, 2001 have left an undeniable impression on the fabric of world society. In the months following the attacks, the nation’s defenses were mustered and mobilized, and troops were sent throughout the United States to safeguard precious, historical landmarks, bridges, dams and other strategic sites from further attacks.
Military units were preparing for deployment and special forces were already on the ground in Afghanistan assisting the Northern Alliance in the battle against Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network, which claimed responsibility for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Despite the massive effort to safeguard the security of the homeland, there were few in America and abroad who could begin to imagine what the next decade would bring regarding the scope of national defense, foreign policy and domestic issues that would stretch and tear at the fabric of this nation.
San Diego State’s military community
In the last ten years, America’s military has grown to almost 3 million men and women. Roughly 1 percent of the U.S. population is serving in the armed forces today. Almost 5,000 American soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines have lost their lives in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Estimates of wounded personnel are reported to be at least 33,000 and many of these troops will require medical attention, rehabilitation and recovery for years to come, if not for the rest of their lives.
Many who manage to navigate enlistments and multiple deployments in hostile combat zones relatively unscathed will seek educational opportunities afforded to them by the veterans’ GI Bill. The educational benefits of the GI Bill allow for veterans to go to school while having partial or full tuition paid, in addition to receiving a monthly stipend to offset living costs.
Recently, SDSU President Elliot Hirshman visited the Joan and Art Barron Veterans Center on campus to make an initial contact and gather current program information regarding student-veterans at SDSU.
“It’s clear that veterans’ issues are a priority here on this campus and it will continue to be so,” Hirshman said to a group of students and staff members in the Veterans Center. “We need to see what’s working and what we need to further this program’s growth.”
It is widely understood that former SDSU President Stephen L. Weber embraced veterans’ issues at SDSU, helping to create one of the largest military communities on any campus in the United States. SDSU has seen the growth of the veterans department go from a walk-up window in the registrar’s office to a fully funded veterans center complete with staff, conference room and lounge. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ “VetSuccess” counselor is also on staff to help students with benefit issues and questions.
At SDSU, veterans, dependents and ROTC students make up almost 10 percent of the student population. Almost 1,200 student-veterans, active duty and reservists account for the core “military” population. Nathaniel Donnelly, SDSU Veterans Coordinator and current president of the Student Veterans Organization, along with Veterans Center Director Joan Putnam, process and help the many veterans, dependents and active duty students as they navigate their way through the university that can sometimes seem like a hostile and foreign battlefield to some veterans.
“It’s hard for people to understand the scope of what it means to be a veteran,” Donnelly said. “Many who have seen combat are emotionally and physically scarred, and many have husbands, wives and kids.
“The age range is incredible and their individual needs vary from person to person, and we constantly need to be aware of all the factors that make up our veteran community.”
The task of coordinating between the bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration and the university, while simultaneously providing the information necessary to help veterans draw benefits from college, is an immense task.
“We have to do it, we have to find a way to inform each student so that they can maximize their money and time here at school,” Donnelly said. “It’s hard but we owe it to them.”
Last week, veterans from SDSU, Sacramento State University and the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Battalion were asked to sit on a panel and speak in front of California State University Chancellor Charles B. Reed; General Peter Gravett, the Secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs; General Anthony L. Jackson, commander of Marine Corps Installations West; commanding officers of all military installations in California and each university president of all the CSU campuses. The meeting took place at Camp Pendleton. The discussions centered around the role of the CSU system and military leadership of California to develop a comprehensive program to get more veterans coming home from the war into CSU schools. One of the people who helped put the event together was retired Marine Col. Bucky Petersen, who serves as a special assistant to the Chancellor for California’s “Troops to College” initiative.
“We owe it to these men and women who are the cream of the crop of our nation and we made them a promise,” Peterson said. “We cannot let this generation of veterans go untreated and uncared for like after Vietnam.”
Ideas and challenges were discussed at this unprecedented meeting. The highlight was the student panel, where CSU students gave important, honest and crucial information to the leadership members in the room regarding challenges veterans face and the difficulties of transitioning into a large university.
It is evident that the task of bringing home America’s veterans and welcoming them back into the folds of society will bring incredible challenges to the country. In California, the leadership is poised to create viable solutions to ensure all veterans receive benefits that are owed to them while adding new students to the CSU roles. As the wars wind down and troops come home, it will be interesting to see how Americans treat their veterans in the midst of incredible political turmoil and economic instability.