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Veterans going back to school find benefit in specialized on-campus support

November 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
More than a million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have used the GI bill to pursue college, but combat injuries and stress can add challenge to the transition to student life. At City College of San Francisco, a VA clinic is on-campus to support student vets and their needs. Special correspondent Aaron Glantz reports.

GWEN IFILL: As the nation struggles with its health care demands, so too do veterans whose health challenges are complicated by their service. More than a million Iraq and Afghanistan vets have used the G.I. Bill to pursue a college degree. But they are often coping with injuries and stress that make for a tough battlefield-to-classroom transition.

Our partners at KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting bring us the story of a community college program that offers a simple solution: bring health services where they’re needed most.

Special correspondent Aaron Glantz has that story.

AARON GLANTZ: Danny Acree signed up to be a cook in the U.S. Army. Within weeks, he was deployed to Iraq.

DANNY ACREE, former U.S. Army soldier: I was about 17 when the atrocities of 9/11 happened, and that really affected me, and I wanted to actually make some change.

AARON GLANTZ: He was reassigned as a machine gunner running convoys from Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.

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DANNY ACREE: A lieutenant comes up to me and says, hey, Private Acree, you ever fired a .50-cal machine gun before? No, sir. He’s like, you better learn.

AARON GLANTZ: When he returned from his tour, his mother, Lucy, saw he had changed.

WOMAN: This is a the picture of that first hug, that first embrace. And I looked in his eyes, and I thought, oh, my God, his eyes are now the eyes of an old man.

DANNY ACREE: If anyone would ever get near mean when I was sleeping, I was so on high alert that I would swing.

DENNIS ACREE, father of Danny Acree:I was waking him up and he wanted to put a move on me to protect himself. And then he had dreams. We watched him very closely, I think.

WOMAN: Yes, he had quite a few episodes of like…

DENNIS ACREE: Where he would like save the family from attack.

AARON GLANTZ: Acree held a series of odd jobs after leaving the Army. Seven years passed before he decided to get a fresh start at City College of San Francisco. But one day in English class, the war came flooding back.

DANNY ACREE: Some things were brought up, in particular of a little boy who I knew, an Iraqi child that had died. And I couldn’t sit in class anymore. I had to leave, panic, and heart palpating. With all the different memories coming back, I just couldn’t — I couldn’t go on.

AARON GLANTZ: Acree didn’t have to go far for help. Within minutes, he was talking with a therapist at the on-campus clinic run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

DANNY ACREE: I went in, spoke to one of their counselors. And he just listened, had me talk it out, calmed me down. And I don’t know what I would have done without him. I mean, I was kind of in panic mode.

AARON GLANTZ: When it opened in 2010, the clinic at City College marked the first time that the national agency charged with helping veterans had ever offered health care on a college campus, a simple solution, but one that can be lifesaving.

KEITH ARMSTRONG, San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center: We want to make it as easy as possible for veterans to receive services.

AARON GLANTZ: Keith Armstrong runs the VA clinic at City College.

DANNY ACREE: What we know about veterans, especially veterans that — that are coming home from war and that have symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress is that they may be avoidant around getting help.

DANNY ACREE: A young kid came up and said, hey, I heard you were in the military. Yes. He’s like, how many people did you kill over there? Oh, man, come on.

KEITH ARMSTRONG: So, how did you handle it?

DANNY ACREE: Well, very politely, I said, no one today.

AARON GLANTZ: Senior VA officials have praised the clinic at City College. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki has toured the country urging colleges to do more to help veterans.

GEN. ERIC SHINSEKI, retired Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Importantly, they must graduate. Otherwise, there’s no payoff to them, to any of your institutions, or to the American people, who have underwritten this most generous of education programs.

AARON GLANTZ: But the VA has been slow to build on the success of its City College clinic. In May, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office issued a report saying the agency isn’t doing enough to back up its $10 billion investment in veterans’ education.

The report said that colleges were working without any guidance or assistance from the VA. And the Center for Investigative Reporting found that at 150 colleges with the largest numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan veteran students, the VA provides services at just four.

KEITH ARMSTRONG: It’s not an expensive program. Initially, it’s a challenging program to get set up because it involves the VA doing something with another bureaucracy.

AARON GLANTZ: Three years on, the program remains in the pilot stage, with no plan for a major national rollout. A VA spokesman told us the agency is still gathering data on best practices.

Here at City College, it was the football coach, George Rush, who saw a need.

GEORGE RUSH, City College of San Francisco: For this campus, the commitment was, these people have — have made the greatest sacrifices, and, as such, deserve the most attention. And they’re going to get it here.

AARON GLANTZ: Coach Rush comes from a military family. He and other campus leaders enlisted help from the private sector and local trade unions.

GEORGE RUSH: Prior to where we are today, it was very uninviting. You had to stand in the hallway. It was one person coming into the office at a time. There were no chairs. It would be very, very upsetting if I was a veteran coming back and thinking I had my life and the things that I had gone through, and I was standing like a kindergartner in a line waiting to see somebody.

AARON GLANTZ: The Veterans Resource Center has made City College a destination for younger veterans across the region. Iraq war veteran Aundray Rogers is president of the Veterans Alliance.

AUNDRAY ROGERS, Veterans Alliance: When I’m hanging out, I’m not sure everybody’s safe, comfortable, and they’re getting, you know, what they need.

AARON GLANTZ: Every weekday, Rogers drives past six other community colleges on his way to San Francisco. City College may be fighting for its accreditation, but it is the only school where he can get counseling for the flashbacks that still occasionally plague him during class.

As important as the counseling is the lounge itself, says Rogers.

AUNDRAY ROGERS: Whether it’s medical benefits, disability compensation — there are classes. Any problems that they have, they can come to me, or I just walk around and ask them, how are you doing, is there anything you need?

AARON GLANTZ: Marine Corps veteran Edwin Del Rio is studying to be a mechanical engineer. Earlier this spring, he was struggling. He stopped going to class.

You called the suicide hot line, so were you thinking about it at that point?

EDWIN DEL RIO, U.S. veteran: Yes, I was.

AARON GLANTZ: What were you thinking about doing?

EDWIN DEL RIO: Cutting my wrists.

AARON GLANTZ: In Afghanistan, Del Rio came upon a family, including two small children, that had been shot by the Taliban.

Here at the veterans lounge, he’s been able to talk with others about his experience and learn that he is not alone.

EDWIN DEL RIO: We all slept together in the same tents, in the same camp, went on the same patrols, experienced the same hardships. And so we knew the problems that each of us might face, and we’re family.

AARON GLANTZ: Before he enrolled at City College, Daniel Acree was searching for a sense of belonging. He joined the Reserves. Acree says the community and services at City College have helped him turn the page to the next phase of his life.

DANNY ACREE: I started going to school here, and it just took on a whole different persona. I started getting really good grades. I started thinking maybe I can go to a really good university.

AARON GLANTZ: Acree hopes to transfer to U.C. Berkeley, and he wants more veterans to get the kind of help that he’s had.

DANNY ACREE: Every institution, I don’t care if you have got 1,300 vets, like we do, or 30 vets, every place should have something like this to turn to, because who knows. One of these veterans, they might have it worse than how I had it in class. And maybe they won’t get the help they need in time.