News

Veterans' Use Of GI Bill Surges
Author: Conrad Wilson, OPB
Posted: April 1, 2015

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The Veterans Resource Center at Portland State University has already outgrown its space.

“We see a lot of traffic in here,” said Ray Facundo, coordinator of student veteran services. “Anywhere from 200 to 700 people a month.”

Ray Facundo is coordinator of student veteran services at Portland State University.
Ray Facundo is coordinator of student veteran services at Portland State University. 
Courtesy of Ray Facundo

Facundo, who said he served three years in the U.S. Army and deployed to Iraq twice, points out that the GI bill is an important recruitment tool. “A lot of people, like myself, joined for the GI Bill,” because, he said, the post 9/11 GI Bill is so generous.

More and more veterans are going back to school, using the GI Bill to get a degree. And with more vets on campus, schools around the country are figuring out how to help veterans succeed in the classroom.

The GI Bill dates back to World War II. The most recent version, passed in 2008, provides 36 months of in-state tuition, books and a monthly housing stipend.

Since then, the number of veterans using the benefit throughout the Pacific Northwest has grown, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

Between 2009 and 2013, the number of veterans using the GI bill more than doubled to 12,000 in Oregon and 25,000 in Washington, according to the VA. That means in 2013 alone, more than 35,000 veterans in Oregon and Washington were using the education benefit to attend colleges and trade schools.

But even with the benefit, the transition from military to civilian life can be challenging, Facundo said.

“Very typically, a service member joins when they’re 18 years old. They go through their military service obligation and then they get out and then it’s like, ‘Hey, what’s the next step?’” he said. “Transitioning can be really hard for somebody who did that.”

Facundo said the transition can be even harder for students dealing with things like a traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Facundo was never diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, but he spent three years near army field artillery.

Ray Facundo served three years in the US Army and was twice deployed to Iraq.

Ray Facundo served three years in the US Army and was twice deployed to Iraq. Courtesy of Ray Facundo

In Iraq, Facundo said he was in convoy operations where he constantly saw explosions. He felt them rattle through his body armor. All that affected his ability to do schoolwork after his military service.

“That makes a difference when you come back and you’re trying to read a book for class and you’re just stuck on that same sentence, over and over and over again,” he said. “Then the door slams, or the fire station across the street, the alarm goes off, and suddenly you find yourself under the bed not knowing how you got there.”

Veterans undergo big adjustments when they return, said Nick Armstrong, senior director of research and policy at the Institute for Veteran and Military Families at Syracuse University in New York.

“Going back to school, the educational experience itself, is really part of a bigger transition that the veteran is going through, generally out of the military,” he said. “So higher education becomes sort of one tool for veterans to reintegrate and re-acclimate to civilian life.”

Armstrong said schools can help veterans adjust by providing a central location with staff to help vets with things like managing benefits. They make veterans feel welcome on campus, and can help them succeed at school.

Thurston Spicer knows about that first-hand. He’s an Air Force veteran. Now he manages the Veterans Resource Center at Portland State University.

“Having a vet to talk to about vet problems is huge, is huge,” he said.

Spicer said he went to Tennessee college without a veteran’s resource center. Any time he had a question, he had to call the VA, which could take hours to get an answer to a basic question.

But having been in the military and used the GI Bill, Spicer said he’s able to help vets navigate the complexities of being a student.

“Working here we’re able to provide a service to help all vets know what they have as far as their benefits, what kinds of resources they can use to be successful in their transition from active military service to being a civilian,” he said.

Spicer said he hopes the center continues to grow and provide a sense of community as more post 9/11 veterans make the transition from military to civilian life.