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Program helps Mass. veterans rejoin civilian life

By Alana Melanson
Sentinel And Enterprise / April 1, 2012
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GARDNER, Mass.—When military servicemen and women leave their duty, readjusting to civilian life can be difficult.

Even more daunting can be transitioning into a postsecondary educational setting, according to veterans Jason Catalano and Brian Laprise, co-presidents of the Veterans Group, a local chapter of the national Student Veterans Association at Mount Wachusett Community College.

At the college's Center of Excellence for Veteran Student Success, veterans are assisted in that transition, as well as given a haven to connect with other folks like themselves.

"It allows the veterans to have a place to go that's away from the normal academic life," said Catalano, 32, of Leominster, a second-year business student and U.S. Army veteran. "Most of the answers for anything school-related can be found here. I know personally it helps take away a lot of the stresses because as veterans, we're usually at a different place in our life than other students that are here, so it's nice to be around like-minded individuals that are in similar stages."

"I can't relate necessarily to the 18-, 19-, 20-year-old students fresh out of high school who haven't been the places I've been and seen the things that I've seen, and they don't really understand me and I can't really understand them," said Laprise, 32, of Gardner, a second-year criminal justice student and a U.S. Navy veteran.

The setting allows those who have already navigated the waters of the transition, such as Catalano and Laprise, to give guidance and support to newer veterans just coming in.

In addition to these aspects, the center also offers unlimited printing, smart pens, laptops, tablets and other technology for veterans to use, according to Kristine Larkin, assistant program director of the center, as well as a program to which current students can donate their books for future veterans to use.

The Center of Excellence for Veteran Student Success is only one of 15 nationwide, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. It serves 222 veteran students, a number that is expected to rise to 350 next year, Larkin said, with the return of those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Catalano and Laprise are able to go to school through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, through which they also receive additional coverage for living expenses because they are registered as full-time students.

Up until last August, veterans who were going to school full time would receive the same amount for living expenses each month, whether the semester was in session or during school breaks.

Now, they say, the amount they get is prorated based on the days they spend in school -- if there is holiday or school break, which are beyond the veterans' control, they get less money for that month. Unless they take summer courses, they don't get their benefits during that time. Also, finals week doesn't count.

"We did what we were supposed to do and now we're not getting what we were promised," Laprise said.

Because of this change, they are facing uncertainty as to how much they get paid and when. Catalano says there have been delays of up to a month or two, which he believes is due to the number of veterans using the services and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs having to sort through the differing schedules of the various schools. He expects the situation to only get worse as more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans take advantage of the benefits.

"What allowed me to go to school was the initial program. I was able to say, `OK, this is how much I'm going to get a month, I can make school work for me and my family, without impacting us negatively, and get a degree.' If it was the way it is now, I would not be in school," Catalano said. "Going a month or two without pay, here and there, that's a big impact."

He worries the changes will dissuade future veterans from pursuing degrees and cause others to give up on programs they've already begun.

"There are a lot of us, myself included, that are thinking about leaving school now so that I can go and get a job and know that I can have a steady income, because I can't depend on this anymore. I can't live not knowing what I'm going to get paid," Laprise said.

Another issue is that if a veteran decides to drop out of school during the semester, the tuition is no longer covered by the benefits and the veteran becomes responsible for the cost.

During a roundtable discussion last week at MWCC, which included local state representatives and senators, as well as Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and Commissioner of Education Richard Freeland, state officials were surprised to learn of this issue -- and the veterans say they were even more surprised to find out they had no idea about it.

Catalano, Laprise and Larkin all agree that awareness is key to bringing about change, and they hope if it can't be achieved on the national level, maybe something can be done first on the state level.

Larkin said helping veterans to obtain higher paying jobs would lead to more taxes for the state and create a "win-win situation if we all just work together."

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