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First battle: serve in military. Next battle: finish college

Veterans looking to finish college after serving in the military find a new struggle at home: bureaucracy
Saturday, May 26, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:58 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Aaron Rinehart spent almost a year in Djibouti. “You don’t realize how much stress you’ve been under when you’re over there,” Rinehart said. “There’s a lot of fear, and when you get back, it gets lifted. Then there’s an empty void that has to be filled.”

Two weeks before final exams, Aaron Rinehart couldn’t concentrate on his studies. He was too busy preparing his will.

That was two years ago — May 2005. Rinehart, then a senior at MU, was given three weeks’ notice that his Marine Corps unit would be shipping off to Djibouti, a country in Africa. Almost done with a semester of school, he had no idea what would happen if he pulled out of the five classes he was taking. And, truth is, he didn’t much care.

WHOM TO CONTACT

If you are a veteran returning to MU and want to know more about services offered, e-mail Carol Fleisher at fleishercw@missouri.edu

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“It wasn’t my priority,” he said.

He wanted to spend time with his family before heading overseas for a year. He had to put things in order in case he never came back.

Rinehart checked MU policy covering students called to active duty. It listed two options: either withdraw from classes entirely and receive a tuition refund or take an incomplete grade and finish the course work when he returned.

Rinehart didn’t know which would be best. Nor did his professors.

“They were asking me, ‘Well, what do you want me to do?’ and I didn’t know,” Rinehart says. “It felt like we were making these half-cocked decisions, and I said, ‘God, this is going to come back and bite me.’ And it did.”

Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started, thousands of young American soldiers have returned home from duty wanting to enroll or re-enroll in college.

In Missouri, 7,395 active-duty and reserve members were using the Montgomery G.I. Bill to help pay for college as of September 2006, according to the regional Department of Veterans Affairs office in St. Louis. At MU, that number is close to 250, although officials say they aren’t sure how many are veterans.

The hardships they face on or near the battlefield make them a unique group of students; many return more mature and motivated than their peers.

“They have life experiences well beyond their years,” says Charles Figley, a professor at Florida State University who specializes in the study of post-traumatic stress disorder. “One way they get through those hard times in the military is to dream about college.”

But when they leave the front lines and come home to that dream, many find themselves fighting a new battle — this one with the university bureaucracy.

MU officials faced criticism this year when student veterans learned the university had rewritten its policy about incomplete classes: Under the new guidelines, returning veterans would only get six months to make up incompletes — half the time given to other students.

Student veterans complained to MU’s veterans official, Carol Fleisher.

Fleisher contacted state Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, and the Missouri Veterans Commission for help with getting the policy erased.

But nothing happened until reporters started asking questions of university officials. Chancellor Brady Deaton, confronted in March by a KOMU-TV reporter, said he had no knowledge of the policy change. But within days, the policy was revised to give returning veterans the same rights as civilian students.

University officials insist that the policy, instituted to comply with a 1990 state statute, was simply worded incorrectly and was never actually enforced as written.

But student veterans at MU say this isn’t the only example of a problem with the university’s bureaucracy. Many have found that returning to college from active duty is a cumbersome and frustrating process, complicated by missing professors, failing grades and flaws in the financial aid system.

And when fighting that bureaucratic battle, it’s often every soldier for him- or herself.

Rinehart returned from Africa in April 2006. He had been gone almost a year. He wanted to see his family, but not as badly as they wanted to see him. Mostly, he wanted to be alone, to relax a little, “to breathe fresh air for a while.”

When he got off the plane in Kansas City, he had dinner with his family, then hit the road back to Columbia and MU.

Weeks went by before he could sleep through the night. He got sick. He thought of quitting school.

“You don’t realize how much stress you’ve been under when you’re over there,” Rinehart said. “A lot of Marine guys are tough but there’s a lot of fear, and when you get back, it gets lifted. Then there’s an empty void that has to be filled. It was weird.”

Rinehart had started making plans for his return while he was still in Africa. He made late-night calls on a satellite phone to landlords in Columbia, lining up a place to live. Once he settled into his apartment, he needed to find a job, update his status at the Veterans Administration and re-enroll at MU in time for summer classes.

Before he shipped out a year earlier, Rinehart had decided to withdraw from his three economics classes and re-enroll later; the understanding was that his tuition would be refunded so he wouldn’t have to pay for each course. In his other two courses — philosophy and computer programming — he cut a deal with his professors to take incompletes, then to take the final exams when he returned.

When Rinehart returned, he checked in with Fleisher to show his discharge form and to start the process of becoming a student again. He says Fleisher explained that he needed to go back to each of his professors to negotiate any incomplete work or re-enroll.

Then, at the end of their conversation, Fleisher dropped the bomb: While he was overseas, the university had issued him F’s in all five classes. She had since fixed the problem, but not without considerable effort.

“I was glad I didn’t know that when I was gone, or I would’ve been really stressed out,” Rinehart says.

During an interview in February, Fleisher said she had to hold several meetings with administrators to get Rinehart’s grade sheets corrected. In one meeting, she said, a university official, whom she declined to name, asked her why Rinehart hadn’t simply told the Marines he’d be a few weeks late reporting for duty so he could finish his classes.

To Rinehart, there was nothing funny about the situation.

“I can’t imagine what I’d do without (Fleisher’s) help,” he says. “I’d be doing it all on my own.”

But Rinehart found his problems weren’t over.

When he tried to re-enroll in his economics courses, he learned that one of his former professors was no longer teaching at MU. He had to appeal his case to the head of the department and get approval to take a different class.

Rinehart then decided to make up the three dropped economics classes over three semesters. According to MU’s military leave policy, he was supposed to receive a tuition refund for the dropped courses, then pay anew for each when he re-enrolled. Instead, when Rinehart re-enrolled, he found himself being billed again for same the classes, even though he hadn’t received the tuition refund. He has yet to solve this problem.

Thankfully, Rinehart says, not everything was a hassle. His philosophy professor, who had given him an incomplete, agreed to waive the final and give Rinehart a B based on the grades he had when he left.

But his computer programming professor is insisting that Rinehart complete the final exam before he issues a grade. Rinehart says that between other classes and working 40 hours a week, he hasn’t found time to study for a class he took a year ago. He’ll have to do it soon to make the deadline stated in MU policy, or start over.

“It’d just be nice if it was easier, coming back,” Rinehart says. “The university is a huge mess. This isn’t the first war they’ve been through. It’s just a lot of little things. Little things are big, though.”

The last time colleges had to deal with a large influx of returning veterans was during the Vietnam War. Back then, the Department of Veterans Affairs had staff assigned to college campuses to help administrators assist students in understanding their benefits and re-entering the system.

The VA no longer provides this service.

Stanton Nickens, assistant education officer at the regional Department of Veterans Affairs office in St. Louis, says the VA now provides information to soldiers in the mail and online and offers discharged soldiers a two-day out-briefing about veteran benefits.

But when it comes to re-entering college, Nickens says, the VA regards that as something the schools should handle.

“We view education as being a state issue,” he says.

The VA does require every college or university to fund and employ a certified veterans official to act as a liaison between the VA and the college.

Fleisher has been MU’s veteran official for almost three years. She is paid about $25,000 by the university; the VA requires her to attend training sessions and meet certification standards. In her role, she makes sure veterans, and anyone eligible for the G.I. Bill, know how to get their benefits and what to do if they’re called to active duty.

Fleisher says that veterans follow the same general procedures as regular students when they re-enroll. But she acknowledges that special problems arise from time to time.

Fleisher spoke openly about those problems in February, before news reports in March exposed the glitch in the re-enrollment policy for veterans. She said then that she had not been consulted about revisions to the policy, even though she’s in charge of enforcing it.

“It’s not because the university doesn’t want to be veteran-friendly,” she said. “But other policies are made with student involvement. They should put some veterans (in the room) when they’re making decisions.”

Fleisher was one of the loudest voices protesting the policy revision at the time. Since the news coverage, however, she has declined to be interviewed in person or by phone.

Fleisher initially said she’d be willing to talk in person again, but that she had to get approval from the MU News Bureau, which serves as a liaison between the university and news media. After meeting with Assistant Director Christian Basi, Fleisher said she would only answer questions through e-mail.

Basi said his department never denies reporters the right to interview MU faculty but helps facilitate them by sending reporters’ questions to the appropriate person through e-mail.

In an e-mail in April, Fleisher said that different areas of the university periodically review their policies to better serve students. If someone finds a problem with a specific policy or department, she said, that person should address it with the individual department.

“If particular student groups feel there is a particular problem, they can certainly raise that as an issue with the appropriate office to review,” she wrote.

Recent MU graduate Geoff Guthrie says he did just that when he came back from training with his Army Reserve unit.

In the fall of 2005, Guthrie was informed his unit would be deployed to Afghanistan the following January, so he dropped all the spring semester classes for which he had registered. He spent winter break training with his unit in Kansas City.

Then, in early January — the day classes started at MU — he was told he wouldn’t be activated with his unit after all. Guthrie returned to Columbia and tried to register for his classes, only to learn a Spanish class he needed was full.

Guthrie says most his professors were understanding of his military obligations. Not so his Spanish professor.

“She told me she never issues overrides and wasn’t going to make an exception for me,” Guthrie says. “So I had to go an entire semester and summer between taking Spanish classes, which is hard to do.”

MU is not the only university where veterans have had problems.

At the University of Minnesota, political science and geography major Andy Davis returned in 2004 from two tours of duty in Afghanistan and one in Iraq with the Army’s 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. The university issued him a financial waiver until his G.I. Bill claim went through, but by the end of the fall semester, the VA still hadn’t processed his forms. The university then marked Davis’ account as in the red and blocked him from registering for classes or buying books for the next semester.

Davis went to work with administration officials to straighten out his situation. Along the way, he helped the university create protocol for how to deal with broader issues faced by returning veterans.

Davis, along with friend Tony Richter, also founded Comfort for Courage, a campus support group that connects veterans and helps them negotiate the bureaucracy.

Davis says university officials initially questioned why his group needed office space on campus. Davis appealed to the dean of student affairs, where he learned that 20 percent of Minnesota students who interrupted their education for military duty were dropping out rather than re-enrolling.

“A lot of our veterans felt out of place, like they had nothing in common with their peers anymore,” Davis says.

He finally convinced university officials that the more than 500 veterans at the University of Minnesota deserved a space to come together.

“This provides a social hideaway, an instant family where they get together,” says Davis, who now serves as vice president of the organization.

Comfort for Courage has since grown from a small group that sent care packages to troops to a major organization that now includes a Veterans Transition Center, staffed by volunteers and serving 10 to 30 students each day. The center brings in officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Guard and organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars to advise students returning from military duty.

“You’re just adding one bureaucracy onto another,” Davis says. “You just got out of the military and you’re going to the VA, which is a big one. Then you’re adding the university on top of that. It’s a lot to get through.”

Davis then worked with the Minnesota Legislature to pass a bill that requires every state-funded college and university to have Veteran Transition Centers.

“Our universities since Vietnam have not had to deal with a situation where a lot of their students were in combat,” Davis says. “Hopefully, they’ll put in place support centers like this to help with that.”

Like their counterparts at the University of Minnesota, student veterans at MU have led the charge to demand better support for returning soldiers.

The Mizzou Student Veterans Association was formed a year ago to give student veterans a chance to meet. While the group, which now has about 80 members, has a social function, it also has worked to resolve problems with the university.

This past semester, it tackled the re-enrollment policy. It also dealt with the Department of Financial Aid, which was charging late fees to veterans because their G.I. Bill payments didn’t arrive until after the university’s due date for semester fees.

Jerod Mickelson, former president of the organization, says several students complained to the department. But he says it wasn’t until the group wrote a letter to the chancellor that the issue was noticed and then fixed.

“No one seems to think about these things in the school system until one person sees an easier way to do things, and then they’re like, ‘Oh,’” Mickelson says.

Mickelson, an Army National Guard member and senior, had his own hassles when he returned to MU after two deployments, including a 13-month deployment to Iraq.

He had enrolled at MU as a freshman in the fall of 2001, but was called to active duty that November. By the time he got back in 2002, it was too late to re-enroll in the fall, so he took some classes at a community college and planned to start back at MU in January. Those plans were postponed when his unit was called to Iraq again, for another 13 months.

This time, when he returned, Mickelson had to start over and re-apply to the university because he was told he had been out for too long.

None of the work he had done as a freshman counted any longer; he was told that his incompletes were no longer valid, and he would have to retake his classes altogether.

Like Rinehart, Mickelson had been issued an F in a class. When he left, the professor had agreed to issue him the grade he had at the time he pulled out. But when he returned, Mickelson discovered the professor had instead given him a zero. The professor had since left the university; Mickelson was told the grade couldn’t be erased, and his only option was to take the class over.

“I should’ve never been taken out of the system in the first place,” he says. “It’s not that I wanted to leave the college. It was that I had to leave the college.”

Mickelson says his group would like to see a one-stop help center for returning veterans at MU, like the one at the University of Minnesota.

“That would solve a lot of problems because it’d get everybody on the same page,” he says.

Another idea the group is pushing is allowing a student veteran to report to the Board of Curators about problems. Mickelson says he was told Chancellor Deaton wanted to meet with the Mizzou Student Veterans Association about the re-enrollment policy controversy in March.

Rinehart says it’ll take a long time to process how the war changed him.

“It was the hardest thing, dealing with the whole emotion thing,” he says. “Being a Marine, I feel like a pansy saying that. My political views changed. My emotions were mixed. It was just a really weird experience, coming back.”

Making friends in Columbia again was particularly hard; he says he didn’t feel he could trust people he met here as much as he could his fellow Marines in Africa.

“You feel lifelong bonds with the guys over there. They’re friends who’d give the ultimate sacrifice for you,” he says. “In Columbia, you just have a lot of acquaintances.”

A year later, he says his emotions and social life are getting back to normal. But he still has a few things to take care of with the university.

Rinehart was a senior when he left for Africa, and at the time had only a semester left before he was due to graduate. That was two years ago, and he is further from graduating now than he was then. He has to make up the requirements of an entire semester he missed while overseas before he can move on to other classes. He still has to pass the programming final that he missed. And he has to appeal to the Academic Revisions Board about the classes he dropped and then re-enrolled in.

“Every time I get one thing taken care of, there’s something else,” he says. “It’s better to just take it one step at a time.”


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