Sunday, August 14, 2011

757. Hey, Kid, Welcome Back from Fallujah -- Here's 70% of Your Education for Free

Recent landmark legislation and proposed policy directives such a President Obama’s “jobs initiatives for veterans” and the yearly overhauls to the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill, have certainly gone a long way in helping our millions of returning war veterans. No doubt, though, in the current political climate of debt crisis talks and reduced national credit scores, a certain segment of the population will bemoan all the attention on veterans. Maybe rightfully so.

Or is it?

When I tell random people of the educational benefits I’m receiving from serving as a Reservist during wartime, I almost always get the same response: “Gee, that must be nice.”

I kindly remind them of donning a gas mask and hiding underground from Saddam’s surface-to-surface missiles in Kuwait in 2003, or about dodging mortars and snipers in Fallujah a year later for a second tour, or racing through IEDs on the Syrian border of Iraq, and that tends to silence them or change their minds.

But whether the overall benefit is fair or not isn’t the point, though. Imagine, as a civilian, you took a full-time job that promised you two weeks of vacation a year, and then despite your diligent work ethic or your numerous instances of recognition and personal awards, they reduced those 14 days by 70%. I bet you’d be pretty upset, yes?

Everyone who joins the military is promised money for college as a condition of their honorable service. It’s a benefit – again, whether fair or not – that we as a nation have decided is necessary to entice an all-volunteer force. And I think anyone can appreciate and understand this comparison about benefits between the military and civilian workplaces.

It’s what was promised, and promises are supposed to be upheld. And our leaders have made the new promise as a result of these new wars, these unconventional wars that have dragged on for almost a decade and caused Reservists to deploy at unprecedented rates, that “no soldier should be left behind.”

But is this really the case as far as Reservists go? Let me take you to a conversation I overheard in my current higher education classroom.

Air Force veteran to another student: “I was supposed to deploy once, but I got pregnant and didn’t have to go.”

Student: “Oh, that probably would’ve been very scary.”

Air Force Veteran: “Yeah, but I didn’t have to go any other time because of that, and now I’m here getting my education for free.”

I didn’t say anything; just sat in my seat and shook my head. Here is this other veteran bragging about how she didn’t have to deploy, but at all state institutions of higher learning she gets 100% tuition and fees covered under the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill – and I only get 70%, no matter if I’m attending just a community college.

Overseas, as a Reservist, I was attached to the 3rd Battalion Seventh Marine Regiment, which is recognized as one of the baddest, roughest, and most elite units in the Marine Corps. My civil affairs team even acted as a security detachment for their battalion commander. One of the Marines from that deployment, Corporal Dunham, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor after jumping on a grenade to save his brethren – the first time for a Marine since Vietnam. 70% college tuition reimbursement is what I get for my Combat Action Ribbon and Certificate of Commendation from that time.

And if you were to suppose that my experiences as a Reservist weren’t typical of our “weekend warriors,” you would be wrong. Many Reservists fulfill critical jobs – civil affairs, military police, infantry forces – that are often almost continuously deployed and put in just as much harm as the full-time warriors, with whom, they work alongside. At times during these wars, Reservists have made up almost 50% of the entire forces deployed into a combat zone.

Why wouldn’t we give these combat veterans (that’s the key distinction I’m making here – “Combat”) the same benefit we’ve given the active forces? Historically, it’s been quantifiable that for every one dollar our nation invests in educating our veterans, seven dollars are returned to national economy. And no one’s taken the time yet to measure the other unintended benefits that can be granted by giving our traumatized and mentally unhealthy veterans a chance to attend college as – among many other reasons – a temporary buffer to reintegrating into the civilian work world too quickly. My college experiences after war have certainly helped me get mentally well again, and given me the time recoup, even now as I prepare for the workforce one day.

No doubt, the times are lean, the wars are unpopular, and the average American is rubbing their foreheads raw with anxiety and worry for the future. But we owe our vets, including all Reservists who’ve seen combat, regardless. It’s the commitment we’ve made to them. It’s the promise we’ve made to them.

Me, waiting on more equitable education incentives for Reservists.

All written content ©Dario DiBattista 2011. All posts are for display purposes only and not to be considered published.