Frederick Community College finds a place for veterans on campus -- Gazette.Net


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While serving overseas, members of the military are surrounded by a band of brothers and sisters who share a common bond forged from the unique conflicts they must confront.

Now Frederick Community College hopes to give them a similar opportunity, as the school prepares to open a new Veterans Services center.

The center, which is scheduled to open in mid-May, will provide a place where veterans, active duty or National Guard members can come when they are on campus, said Rachel Nachlas, college coordinator of veteran services.

In February, the college board of trustees approved a bid for a $200,000 project to renovate several buildings on campus to shift offices around and make room for several more, including the new veterans facility.

When they are serving, veterans are used to being around other military members and people who have had similar experiences as them, Nachlas said.

“Then they get [to college], and it can be somewhat isolating,” she said.

Nachlas said FCC has more than 200 veterans on campus, and they are seeing more each semester as soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan use government benefits to attend classes.

Veterans can often have some of their military training translated into college credit, especially if their schoolwork relates to their military duties, Nachlas said.

Some are also dealing with the lingering effects of combat, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, traumatic brain injury or other challenges, she said.

But many of the veterans also bring valuable leadership experiences and organizational skills to the campus, and they take their education very seriously, she said.

It’s sometimes difficult for veterans to feel the “grounded structure” they are used to in the military when on a campus geared toward traditional students just out of high school, said Meisha Krutar, 30, of Frederick who served more than 12 years in the U.S. Navy including the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003.

She now serves as president of the campus veterans club, which she said has about 20 active members.

The center will provide a place for veterans to study, have walk-in counseling appointments and other services, as well as just hang out and “just be vets,” she said.

“The fact that we’re finally getting something we can call our own ... is fantastic,” Krutar said.

Corey Ferretti, 28, of Frederick said the center would provide veterans such as himself a place where they can relax and meet.

Ferretti, who spent 10 years in the Navy, including a tour of duty in Iraq, before being discharged in October 2012, said it’s hard for him to be in crowds or around large groups of people he doesn’t know.

He’s much more comfortable around fellow veterans or members of the military who have had similar experiences, Ferrett said.

Adjusting to being on campus around younger students can be a “massive culture shock” for veterans used to the structure and discipline of the military, Ferrett said.

Ferrett said he has become friends with a former infantryman in one of his math classes, and they sometimes roll their eyes at students who show up late for a 12:30 p.m. class.

In the military, you’re usually trained to work as a group to accomplish an objective and being in the individual world of a college campus can be confusing, said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Carlos Turcios, 26, of Frederick, who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and is still serving in the National Guard.

He’s getting an associate degree in general studies from FCC and plans to get a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college.

Along with being used to the military world, veterans often have a house, a family or other responsibilities that the typical student just out of high school doesn’t, Turcios said.

It will be much easier for FCC’s veteran students when they can have a dedicated place where they can come to get advice or just laugh and trade war stories, he said.

Turcios said he thinks the center will also provide veterans with “a better place to network” on campus.

‘Leading the way’

FCC is “leading the way” as one of six community colleges and public universities around the state with both a veterans center and a full-time contact to provide support, said Jerry Boden, chief of staff for the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs.

FCC’s program offers academic advice, help with the admissions process and benefits, job placement and personal counseling and referrals.

Several other schools have either a center or a full-time coordinator, Boden said.

Having a place for them to gather can help veterans avoid feeling isolated on campus as they try to reintegrate from the military lifestyle back into the civilian community, he said.

“We don’t want them to feel that way. We want them to feel like they’re part of the college,” Boden said.

He said the department has annual conferences with colleges and universities, where they discuss best practices for helping veterans on campus.

One of their recent focuses was for each school to have a place on campus where veterans can come together, he said.

That makes centers such as the one at FCC much appreciated, Boden said.

Finding jobs

While such centers can help veterans get an education, getting them jobs once they get out of school is equally important.

Veterans can sometimes struggle to move back into the civilian workforce when their time in the military is over.

In February 2013, the unemployment rate for all veterans stood at 6.9 percent, below the national rate of 7.7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the unemployment figure was 9.4 percent.

Testifying in February before the House of Delegates’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said Maryland’s unemployment rate of 8.8 percent for all veterans and 9.7 percent of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan was “unacceptably high.”

Figures for Frederick County veterans were not available.

O’Malley was testifying in support of the Veterans Full Employment Act, which would make it easier for veterans and their spouses to get the licensing or certification they need if they relocate to Maryland from another state where they are licensed, as well as require schools to provide credit for military training.

The bill unanimously passed the state Senate on March 22, and had a hearing scheduled for today in the House Health and Government Operations and Economic Matters committees.

Twenty states already move moved veterans to the head of the line, O’Malley said, according to a transcript of his testimony.

Thirteen states provide academic credit for relevant military training, allowing veterans to get their degrees in less time and for less money, O’Malley said.

“The more degrees our people have, the better that is for our state and our economy,” he said.

rmarshall@gazette.net