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Iraq war veterans receive guidance for a higher education

Some colleges develop programs to teach wounded vets the process of applying for, attending, and paying for school.

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Jason Hord (l.) takes a tour guided by Dartmouth student Samuel Crist. Both are Iraq war veterans.

Joanne Ciccarello - staff

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Jason Hord ran his own construction business before his Army National Guard unit deployed to Iraq in 2006. Six months later – after surviving a nearby hit from a rocket-propelled grenade – he found himself adjusting to life with one eye, wondering what to do next.

Mr. Hord is still recovering from a host of severe injuries, but at the urging of a college counselor he met at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, he made a visit to Dartmouth College here last week. He's now considering attending in the fall to study engineering.

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Several recently wounded veterans have found their way to this snow-coated Ivy League campus, and many more have enrolled in other colleges, thanks in part to a counseling program conceived by Dartmouth President James Wright.

Simultaneously troubled and inspired by the sacrifices soldiers made in the November 2004 battle of Fallujah, President Wright decided to visit military hospitals, walking bed to bed and encouraging veterans to think about college. He says college opened up a whole new world for him after a stint in the Marines as a young man.

"In the course of these conversations they would ask me for advice," Wright says, with questions ranging from how to transfer credits to whether particular campuses had elevators. What they needed, he realized, was ongoing college counseling.

Working with the American Council on Education (ACE), Wright helped raise money to set up counselors at several military hospitals. Since April 2007, they have worked with more than 250 veterans and family members, and about half are now enrolled on college campuses or are taking online courses while at the hospital.

Efforts to ensure access to higher education are proliferating in the wake of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Individual campuses and private groups are setting up scholarships and support networks. Advocates are pushing for increased education benefits from the federal government. The personal and bureaucratic obstacles can be stark, counselors say, but they're starting to break down, one case at a time.

Wounded vets working with ACE counselors are connected with a contact person in their town or college to ensure a smooth transition. "That's really been the key," says Jim Selbe, who oversees the ACE program. "We spent a lot of time talking to Vietnam veterans ... and the predominant theme was, 'Great idea; however ... if you lose touch with them after they leave the hospital, you're not going to have any success.' "

During Hord's visit to Dartmouth, he talks with an admissions officer, Wright, and Samuel Crist, a marine who earned a Purple Heart in Fallujah and arrived here to study in the fall. As Mr. Crist leads him on a tour, they fall into conversation first about where they served and how they were injured. Then they turn to college life. Hord asks about the workload. Crist tells him, "there's definitely higher standards," and warns he'll have to prioritize when his professors assign impossible reading loads.

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When he returns to Walter Reed, Hord will continue talking over his college options with counselor Heather Bernard.

A former teacher who switched to college counseling 16 years ago, she'd been volunteering there a year before ACE hired her. So many bright students joined the military after high school, Ms. Bernard says, because "they didn't ever hook up with the grind of doing homework every day." The military provides the kind of discipline and maturity that makes for "spectacular students" in college, she says.

Her work at Walter Reed and at the nearby Bethesda naval hospital is Bernard's way of giving back to men and women who have served. "They've paid a massive price, and we really have an obligation to do whatever we can to try to set their lives in a direction where they'll be able to have something of what they've lost," she says. It also helps her channel maternal energies: Her son is on his second tour in Iraq.

Bernard reassures soldiers who are worried about how they'll cope with academics after their heads have been rattled in IED attacks. She also works with admissions officers to move the process along faster, rather than having veterans wait a long time for a reply. "They've been disappointed so many times, and they are so [concerned] that this is not going to work ... which is just silly," she says. "All of the soldiers who've gone back have done magnificently, and kind of giggled to me and said, 'This wasn't hard at all.' "

Jeff Stevens, the ACE counselor at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, confronts wounded veterans who say all they want to do is go back into battle. He helps them face the truth that it's not possible. Even with those who may be able to stay in the military, he preaches the value of a college degree.

Brooke is known for burn treatments, which can take two or three years. "Online universities have filled a void," Mr. Stevens says, helping vets feel productive during time between surgeries.

Stevens also helps connect spouses with educational opportunities. Wives and husbands sometimes have to relocate to help a vet recover, and "nobody's there to pick up the pieces," he says.

Whether their paths lead them to a public university with 40,000 students or a private one with 4,000, Marine veteran Brendan Hart wants to be sure their needs are taken into account in everything from the admissions process to housing.

He's seen both sides of college life since he had to leave his counterterrorism security unit in the spring of 2005. Despite a vaccination that left him in a frail physical condition, he insisted on deploying to Iraq with the men he had trained. He couldn't stay long, however, and ended up spending 17 months at Walter Reed. Mr. Hart's injuries aren't visible, but he spent some time at Dartmouth on crutches. Now he says he's allowed to walk on his own if he can "deal with the pain."

Before he met Wright and transferred to Dartmouth, Hart had enrolled at the University of Maryland and had been advocating for veterans at the massive campus. Now he consults with other schools interested in the network of support he helped set up there.

"Because we're so underrepresented in higher education, we are almost a novelty," he says, "and just bridging the gap between the military and academia can go a long way to opening the door to help veterans in their transition."

A history major, Hart helped found both the Dartmouth Undergraduate Veterans Association and the national Student Veterans of America (for more information, contact He wants college admissions officers to understand, for instance, that veterans shouldn't be judged on old high school transcripts and SAT scores when they have gained valuable life experience in a foreign country or a combat zone.

He says he's been welcomed at Dartmouth and hopes he can make unique contributions to discussions. At a campus World Affairs Council meeting, the topic of anthropologists embedded with the military came up. He brought the perspective of "what [it] would mean to the combat effectiveness of a military unit. I think that was eye-opening for a lot of individuals," he says.