Students, soldiers balance two identities in higher education

Passage of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill continues to open doors for vets

By Lara Szott

John Herbert, 28, began his military career as a freshman at Virginia Tech University when he joined the Army ROTC and the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets.

It was something he’d been planning for 14 years.

Herbert had been raised in the small town of Southampton, Pennsylvania, and didn’t come from a family with a strong military presence. His father worked for a company dealing with military contracts and his mother worked for a religious non-profit. Herbert’s parents were hesitant about him joining the service, he said.

April 2012: John Herbert while stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan

April 2012: John Herbert while stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan

But September 11, 2001, at the age of 14, Herbert’s future was forever shaped.

“I actually remember the next day, a friend of mine was talking about Osama bin Laden and I had no idea who he was talking about,” Herbert said. “He was the first person I ever heard say that name.”

Time made an impression. “Both of those days had an impact on me, and I instantly wanted to serve,” Herbert said.

As a junior pursuing a bachelor’s in biology, Herbert was commissioned to the U.S. Army Reserves as a second lieutenant, which earned him a scholarship that waived tuition and supplied a monthly stipend.

Upon graduation from Virginia Tech in 2009, Herbert meshed together his undergraduate studies with training and began working as a field biologist conducting ecological research while also serving as an active member in the U.S. Army Reserve.

February 2010: Herbert conducting field research research before deployment to Kandahar

February 2010: Herbert conducting field research research before deployment to Kandahar

At roughly the same time, Capt. Rick Frantz, 28, was attending Virginia Military Institute pursuing a history degree.

Frantz grew up in Houston, and didn’t spend much time elsewhere until joining the Air Force in 2010. He describes the educational experience for those pursuing a career in or around the  military as standard, but “you’re a college student when you’re in class, but when you’re not, you’re a military cadet essentially 24/7.”

In 2011, Herbert was transferred to the 668th Engineer Company in Orangeburg, New York, as an executive officer, which is second in command behind the commander. In December of the same year, this unit deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

After spending six months in Kuwait, Frantz, has been on active duty for the past five years, three of which he is on assignment in Washington. He is currently an associate professor of aerospace studies and teaches ROTC at Howard University.

“I love teaching people things and seeing the light bulbs go off like that,” Frantz said as snapped his fingers. “You find something you’re good at and you see that it helps people and you just wanna keep doing it.”

With the help of the Post-9/11 GI Bill,  Frantz will start his second master’s degree at George Mason in Cyber Security

Herbert began his master’s degree at University of Arkansas when he returned from serving a year in Kandahar in 2012.

However, Herbert and Frantz weren’t aware of a way to continue service while earning a higher degree until a friend mentioned it.

The opportunity was the ability to further his education and serve his country while giving back to not only himself and family but the community as a whole, Frantz said.

“It’s a win-win all around for the military, me, my family, my education,” Frantz said.

Members who began service on September 10, 2001, are eligible for a number of benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Various resources provide financial assistance, and the most famous is the Montgomery GI Bill.

Frantz describes the benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill as “awesome” and wishes more people knew about the opportunities it offers for education. “Not everyone can just afford a degree or afford to take on so much debt,” he continued, “It opens up doors.”

Herbert is currently teaching biology at Tulane University while he conducts field research for his Ph.D. Prior to starting at Tulane.

“The military helps people get back into education after leaving active duty and they are continuing to improve on this topic,” Herbert said.

Disability compensation is not so simple for Vietnam veterans, families

Photo courtesy of Jerry Knouff, right, who flew with the Vietnamese Air Force in the Delta during his time in Vietnam.

Veterans, especially those who served in the Vietnam War, are signing up for disability compensation later in life due to lack of information about benefits after retiring, according to
veterans and their families.

By Naoko Branker

Kristal Wortham was raised by veterans on the East coast. Her mother volunteered to serve in the Army, and her father was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. After three tours during the war, he continued to serve for another 30 years as well as work for the government.

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 11.07.37 PMWortham’s father conducted activities to track the opposition in Vietnam, and doctors told her father these activities would change his psychological state, she said He was diagnosed with depression, she said.

In addition to the psychological changes, other health conditions would arise that would be directly connected to Agent Orange exposure, and Wortham said doctors told her father that there would be a series of health benchmarks he would reach in his lifetime.

Claims representatives from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs were contacted about associations between health conditions and Agent Orange exposure, but were unable to comment due to privacy restrictions for veterans’ health information.

According to a 2012 report titled “Veterans and Agent Orange,” there is a limited association between Agent Orange exposure and health conditions such as lung cancer, a condition Wortham’s father died of in 2011.

“People don’t know where to go.”

Veterans often have difficulty connecting with organizations for resources once they return from war, according to Wortham, who is the executive director of the D.C. branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The nonprofit works with active duty servicemen, women and veterans to get them help, and primarily serves those with mental illness. Wortham works extensively with veterans with mental health conditions helping them access resources, which is something her father had very little, she said.

Families tend to not understand why these resources are necessary to regaining a sense of normalcy, she said.

“A lot of times, veterans feel like their families don’t understand they’ve been traumatized, and that these different diagnoses take a lot of care and sensitivity training, and advocacy,” Wortham said.

Families are often unaware of aftercare for veterans, and veterans themselves are not aware of their options, she said. When veterans do submit applications, some have to wait frustrating amounts of time to receive disability compensation, she said.

Ron Startzel, 51, a Marine veteran who applied for disability compensation a few years ago, had no problems signing up, but he knows that his case is not typical.

“I’ve known people who have gone through, who’ve went through the process; stuff’s gotten done with their ratings and they’ve been perfectly fine, and then others had to go through months or years of trying to get what they feel they deserve,” Startzel said.

Startzel, Jerry Knouff and David Boyd, all of whom received disability compensation, were not at liberty to say what their specific disabilities were because of their current jobs, but Knouff and Boyd agreed that there should have been more information about disability compensation to Vietnam veterans sooner.

‘Nobody ever told us’

Knouff, 66, just recently started receiving 30 percent disability compensation. Like Startzel, Knouff, a retired Army aviator CW 2, had no problems with the system.

“My dad’s 92 and served in World War II, he didn’t sign up for the VA until he was 88, and he talked me into it so it was 40-something years from Vietnam,” Knouff said. “I just signed up last summer,” said Knouff.

He said he went down to Richmond, Virginia, to obtain his ID card and fill out the required paperwork and receive the necessary medical exams. The benefits have been valuable, Knouff said. Free prescriptions, as well as a bi-annual physical, come with his disability compensation.

One problem Knouff had with the system was that he did not know about it sooner.

“Last summer, July 3, was when I went [to sign up for disability compensation],” he said. “They didn’t tell us anything after Vietnam. They didn’t even ask us.”

It is common for veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam, to file for disability compensation decades after retirement, because of the lack of communication between the VA and service members returning home, according to Knouff.

Boyd, 68, is a retired lieutenant colonel who, like Knouff, did not know about disability compensation when he came home from Vietnam, and only knew about the possibility of applying after he retired from the Army..

“You go through these mandatory evaluations and at that point they rated my disability and I got a check. If they hadn’t given me that [evaluation], I wouldn’t have known anything about it,” Boyd said.

Wortham explained that while The National Alliance on Mental Illness does not specifically deal with compensation-related help, they provide other resources.

“What we try to do is at least bridge the gap to the appropriate services that are going to achieve whatever their particular objective is. That’s where we find where a lot of the grey
area is,” Wortham said.

Special courts for vets offer treatment

Photo Illustration by Sarah Edwards 

Fairfax County becomes first Virginia locality to give some veterans alternatives to prison

By Sarah Edwards

Steven Daniel has a daunting to-do list for the winter months: clear outstanding bills, plan his next culinary career steps and complete the final phase of his court treatment plan.

But the hardest task to check off? Buy Christmas presents for his three granddaughters.

“If I mess around buying things for them, they’ll hate me the rest of their lives,” said Daniel.

This year marks Daniel’s first holiday with the girls. Neither of his two sons had children when Daniel disappeared from their lives 10 years ago. Lost to alcoholism, Daniel said he spent the last decade in and out of jobs, homeless shelters and courtrooms. Worst of all, he said, he cut off contact with his family.

Then, last year, Daniel was arrested and charged with petty larceny and possession of a controlled substance. At the same time, the district court in Fairfax County, Virginia, was preparing to launch a Veterans Treatment Docket, a special court for veterans involved in the criminal justice system. Daniel, a 57-year-old veteran who served three years in the U.S. Army and eight years in the National Guard, signed up to be a “guinea pig” in the program, he said.  

Involvement in the docket over the last 10 months has “changed a lot of things,” Daniel said, especially his relationships with family.

Daniel is back in their lives again.

Fairfax County joins national movement

Daniel is one of five veterans participating in the Fairfax County Veterans Treatment Docket — the first in Virginia — that diverts veterans from the traditional legal system who struggle with substance abuse, mental illness or trauma.

Instead, those in the program work with a team—a public defender, commonwealth attorney, judge, parole officer and volunteer veteran mentor, among others—who help veterans address the root causes of their behavior with holistic treatment.

“We put together a team that would learn to work collaboratively rather than in the adversarial way that you normally see in the courthouse,” said Don Northcutt, mentor coordinator with the Fairfax County Veterans Treatment Docket.

Nearly one in five veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan alone suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and the same percentage report experiencing a traumatic brain injury while on duty, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The administration also concluded that 50 percent of veterans who qualify for treatment seek help, and only half of those who receive treatment can access high-quality care.  

This often lands veterans behind bars, on probation or trapped in a cycle of re-offending that limits access to opportunities like employment, education and public benefits. But just how many veterans are involved in the criminal justice system is unknown. The most recent national survey was conducted by the Department of Justice more than a decade ago in 2004—one year after the United States deployed troops to Iraq.       

“It’s not that veterans need a break or that [this docket] is something special for them. It’s about recognizing that behavior is caused by traumatic events that happen during military service, and addressing treatment needs there,” said Northcutt, who served in the Air Force from 1967 to 1973.

Fairfax County’s first Veterans Treatment Docket hearing took place in February after then-District Court Judge Penney Azcarate, a Marine Corps veteran, heard of the program’s success in other local jurisdictions. The model is based on drug courts, which serve to help people who are arrested on drug charges with their addictions, rather than impose jail sentences. It was first applied to veterans’ cases in Buffalo, New York, in 2008 by Judge Robert Russell. While presiding over drug and mental health courts, Russell observed a number of veterans pass through his courtroom; one Vietnam veteran in particular refused to cooperate with Russell’s requests.

“The judge had a lot of trouble reaching him. He was non-responsive, low affect, kept his head down low,” said Chris Deutsch, director of communications for Justice for Vets, a nonprofit organization that leads training and advocacy for Veterans Treatment Courts.

As the story goes according to Deutsch, in a moment of exasperation, the judge asked a court staffer, also a Vietnam veteran, to try and talk to the client in the hallway, said Deutsch. One hour later, he returned to the courtroom and stood before the bench at parade rest, head raised.

The judge asked the veteran if he would accept their help, and he agreed, said Deutsch.

And so began Veterans Treatment Court.

“The camaraderie that exists among veterans can be therapeutic. Perhaps the courts weren’t doing enough to serve veterans and the very specific and unique issues they’re dealing with,” said Deutsch.

State and local governments cover the bulk of funding for the courts; federal grants and nonprofit fundraising fill the difference, said Deutsch. Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice allocated $5 million to Veterans Treatment Courts—in 2016, stakeholders are hoping for an increase to $15 million in federal grants. These partnerships between federal and local governments and community-based organizations are evolving into a “one-stop shop” for veteran services and benefits, Deutsch said.

“[Veterans Treatment Courts] pull resources together so the vets who really need them most have access. That collaboration becomes very powerful,” said Deutsch.

Vets step up to serve each other

Without “any real national structure to do so,” more than 200 Veterans Treatment Courts have formed in local jurisdictions across the country, said Northcutt.

Every court is tailored to its own state laws and community needs, but all adhere to a central rule: veterans are only eligible if they have a treatable condition contributing to their destructive behavior—conditions like substance abuse and mental illness. Courts are generally limited to misdemeanor, drug and non-violent felony cases, though advocates in some areas are working to expand the scope of eligible charges.

What makes Veterans Treatment Courts unique among other courts is a mentorship component, in which court-involved veterans are paired with a volunteer veteran mentor for the duration of the program.

Mentor Oct 14 2015-2

Volunteer veteran mentors for the Fairfax County Veterans Treatment Docket gather for a photo. The group is growing, with nearly 27 mentors now in the program. Photo Credit: Fairfax Veterans Mentors

“A mentor is someone who can be there to listen, to keep the finger on the pulse of the veteran,” said Northcutt. “[They’re] not therapists. Not social workers. But people who are there to support and encourage and listen.”

Daniel and his mentor, a Vietnam veteran, talk two or three times a week. Sometimes he takes Daniel out for lunch to “get an insight on what’s going on;” other times they talk shop about Daniel’s education or benefits applications.

“He’s not like the in-between person. He’s the person that if I need someone to talk to, he’s there for me,” said Daniel.

When his mentor learned that Daniel had to visit the South County Center, a county-run resource and social services building, to access a computer, he gave Daniel the spare one he had at home. He also helped Daniel with his resume.

“In a nutshell, that’s it. Veterans who are willing to support fellow veterans,” Northcutt said.

Homecoming

Part of Daniel’s court “homework” is to write in a journal about where he wants to go after the program ends.

And does he have plans.

Daniel served as a chef in the military, and he hopes to continue cooking—a passion since he was 15 years old. Daniel wants to open his own soul food restaurant in Alabama, his home state. Or maybe a food truck (or three)—the kind of trucks that serve breakfast and on-the-job snacks to construction workers.

If Daniel stays on track with his treatment plan, his case should wrap up this winter, or in the early part of next year. For the first time in a long time, Daniel said, his goals are within reach.

“Now that I’m doing the docket program, it’s showing me that I was wasting my life away. Not caring about anyone. Not caring about my family. I was just surviving,” he said.

Back in the family circle, Daniel is proud of his two sons’ success—both of whom work for the federal government. And he is pleased with Christmas gift choices he made in early November for his granddaughters, with his former wife’s assistance: two sets of outfits for each granddaughter, plus a few toys.

“Everybody is doing pretty good. Now it’s my turn,” he said.