GAINESVILLE, Fla. — There’s a fast-growing new community on the campuses of our universities and colleges — young men and women combat veterans fresh out of military service Those here at the University of Florida and Santa Fe Community College have change on their agenda.
With the help of a local congressman, supporters in the community and a soft-spoken campus veterans' adviser, they just might succeed in fixing some problems and meeting a need that no one imagined we'd face.
The biggest and most expensive dream of these new GI Bill scholars is to build a special 90-apartment complex to accommodate the physical and educational needs of young military veterans who've come home severely wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan. SFCC President Dr. Jackson Sasser was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the assisted living facility for wounded veterans, and Dr. James Bernard Machen, the president of the University of Florida, supports the effort, too.
These veterans — some missing limbs, others paralyzed — require levels of assistance and care that virtually lock them out of higher education. Some are even sent to live in nursing homes filled with those whose lives are ending, not just beginning.
John Gebhardt works with the 900 to 1,000 new GI Bill veterans who're attending the university and the college each semester. He and they are passionate about wanting to provide a better opportunity for severely wounded young veterans to gain an education.
“The facility we hope to see built here would be totally handicap-accessible,” Gebhardt told me this week. “With both hired staff and volunteers, the wounded veterans would be provided transportation to classes on the two campuses, as well as rides to the regional Veterans Administration center for ongoing medical care.”
The complex also would have facilities for physical therapy and rehabilitation and, when these veterans have to return to a VA hospital for treatment of old or new complications from their wounds, other volunteer veterans would help them keep up with their studies so they don’t lose entire semesters.
“We are talking about young people who have sacrificed so much in service to our country,” Gebhardt said. “They need an education; they need to be with people their own age; they need to begin easing back into society and finding a future for themselves.”
Such a facility would cost an estimated $30 million for the purchase of the land and construction. U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, a local Republican, is an enthusiastic supporter of the idea and is going to bat for the money in Washington.
The student veterans community at the two schools here is also working with a committee headed by a retired Army lieutenant general, John LeMoyne, who dropped out of college in 1964, fought in Vietnam, went back to school and earned his degree, then returned to a distinguished military career that spanned four decades.
The group wants to create a scholarship fund to make up for the shameful bureaucratic bungling that keeps young combat veterans who enter college under the Montgomery GI Bill waiting 60 to 90 days for their first benefit checks. The fund is intended to help those who can't afford to support themselves for that long — and those who have to wait longer than 90 days for their VA benefits.
“Landlords don’t wait six months for your rent, and college bursars don’t wait six months for your tuition payment,” said veteran Dan Wojcik, who attends the University of Florida. “Some vets are forced out of school before they even get started because the Veterans Administration can’t get its act together and start paying them the monthly stipend they earned the hard way in a timely fashion.”
No one wanted to say how shameful it is that a community must raise money to compensate yet again for the federal government's failure to do right by the waves of new veterans who are coming home from war and trying to get a new start in life.
There you have it. These young veterans, like all the veterans of all our wars, must do their own creative thinking about how to get their brothers and sisters out of nursing homes and hospital wards and into college — and then find the money to tide them over for half a year while all those billion dollar computer systems grind and whir and finally spit out miserly little checks to help them pay for college.
Veterans in this country have had to build their own memorials to their dead in Washington, D.C. They’ve always had to struggle with the bureaucrats in our capital for what little help they get, even when they've been disabled in service to our country.
We’ve always asked too much of them and given too little in return, except for the lip-service of politicians on Memorial Day and Veterans Day and the yellow ribbon “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers that are as faded as the promise itself.