Norwich is heightening efforts to help veterans deal with wide range of issues

Vermont National Guard veteran Chris Pond displays the Norwich banner while serving in Afghanistan. He struggled to get back into Norwich when he returned but is now graduating in the class of 2016. The university is overhauling how it addresses veterans issues to make their re-entry easier.

Vermont National Guard veteran Chris Pond displays the Norwich banner while serving in Afghanistan. He struggled to get back into Norwich when he returned but is now graduating in the class of 2016. The university is overhauling how it addresses veterans issues to make their re-entry easier.

Chris Pond enlisted in the National Guard his junior year of high school. Attending training over the summer months, the Braintree, Mass., resident was a soldier even before he chose to attend Norwich University as a Rook.

During his sophomore year, the Vermont National Guard was deployed to Afghanistan, Pond along with them. For nine months he worked as Blackhawk helicopter crew chief before returning home.

Upon coming back, he found he had been completely dis-enrolled from the university, and struggled to find the motivation to return.

“After I got back, I really had to push myself to return,” said the now-23-year-old criminal justice major and senior. “I didn’t receive any support from the school, and I felt I was going at it alone.”

But Norwich has been overhauling the way it accommodates student veterans over the last two years in order to help them better integrate into the college lifestyle, according to the Assistant Director for Student Success/Veteran Affairs, Steve Looke.

“Before we had a veteran advocate of the staff to handle all veteran issues,” said Looke. “Now we have a veteran’s team, with a representative in the registrar’s office, financial aid, the bursar’s, and me.”

The team meets regularly to discuss their progress.

“Though physically we are spread around campus, we meet every other Tuesday,” said Assistant Registrar Amy Holt. “This is in addition to our daily contact, in order to make sure we are all on the same page.

The veteran’s team is not the only advocate for returning veterans. There is also Student Veterans Council (SVC), which handles the majority of issues facing the veterans.

The SVC is a local chapter of the Student Veterans of America, which, according to its website, www.studentveterans.org, exists “to provide military veterans with the resources, support, and advocacy needed to succeed in higher education and following graduation.”

“When I got back, I knew there were a lot of people facing the same issues as me,” said Pond. “[The Veteran Advocate] asked if I’d be willing to work with the Council, which didn’t really have a membership at the time and I, along with my incredible staff, have been shaping it for the past two years.”

The SVC has a unique role at the campus in that it has the ability to directly approach Norwich President Richard Schneider with any problems.

“It is an incredibly opportunity. [The Veteran’s Team] supports the council, but they don’t go through us,” said Looke. “The president, being a veteran himself, handles the issues directly, no excess paperwork and no red tape.”

One of the biggest issues faced by students is the issue of financially providing for themselves. For those students using the GI Bill, delays can occur in their payments that can be stressful and worse, result in severe financial problems.

According to the federal Veteran’s Affairs department’s website, www.benefits.va.gov, those qualified will receive $18,000 a year in tuition. Norwich will cover the rest under the Yellow Ribbon program. Students using the G.I. Bill will also receive money for rent and food.

But, according to Holt, an eight-year veteran of the Guard and active duty Army herself, sometimes those payments can get delayed.

“I have to go over every class [the veterans] are taking and make sure it is part of the degree plan,” she said. “Sometimes we have to switch courses around, and that can delay things.”

When that happens, things can pile up quickly for the veterans.

“Most of returning veterans are commuter students,” said Looke. “The school doesn’t have a problem waiting for the tuition if something happens, but the students also have to pay rent, car payments, and for their food.”

With no other source of income, the student vets can quickly find themselves in debt.

“When I took over the Council, this was the biggest issue. We brought it directly to President Schneider, and worked with the bursar’s office,” said Pond. “Now, as long as all of their paperwork is on file, they can receive no-interest loans that don’t need to be paid back until the students are paid. This is something only offered to veterans.”

The SVC, along with the Veteran’s Team, also has been working to streamline registration for the returning veterans.

“We have actually added drop-down menus in the registration process where students can identify their branch of service,” said Looke. “While this doesn’t kick anyone else out the classes, it gives the returning veterans a priority to be added to a class they might not of been able to otherwise get in.”

The status of Norwich as a military school also helps with better integrating student veterans.

Looke says that one of the biggest problems faced by his counterparts at other schools is the lack of respect shown towards the veterans, or at the very least a misunderstanding of who they are as a community.

“We don’t really have that problem here, at least not that I’m aware,” he said. “The students here all have a great respect for those who have served, and I think that helps a lot.”

The SVC is also working to help bridge the gap.

“So many of our student veterans have experiences that they can share with the other students,” said Pond. “A large portion of the school plan on one day joining the military and talking with people who have already served is a huge help.”

However, both the SVC and the veteran’s team face the issue of reaching out to the veterans.

“We have roughly 250 people on campus who qualify as veterans,” said Pond. “But I don’t know how many combat veterans we have, since that’s something that they have to self-identify to us.”

And many choose not to.

“A lot of people want to put that part of their life behind them and just be regular students,” said Looke. “It is a delicate balance to try and reach out to people to let them know what is available to them without smothering them.”

The veteran’s team is trying to streamline how they help those with issues. According to Looke, the team plans on training the staff in active listening in order to find the root of the problem and get it fixed, rather than just taking care of the surface issues.

“Sometimes it can be hard to get the veterans to the right person to help them,” said Holt. “But if they ever have any issues, they can come to any member of the team and we will figure out where they need to go.”

Both the veteran’s team and the SVC encourage veterans to bring any suggestions for improvement or any issues they’ve encountered to their attention.

“We take all the gripes that the student veterans have and, as long as they are legitimate, we try to resolve them,” said Pond. “The only way we can fix things is if we know that there is a problem.

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