January Wright and Chris Baber, two military veterans, recently sat down to share their experience of going to school during—and after—their deployments. Here’s how they used their military and veterans’ education benefits, along with advice they’d give to other servicemembers.
Tell us about your military experience
January: In the 15 years I served in the Army Reserves and the National Guard I was a medic, a member of the military police, and a benefits processing administrator. I joined the army at 17—when I was still in high school. As a result, I didn’t make it to college until four years after I got out of the service.
Chris: I enlisted in the army right out of high school and stayed in the service for 11 years; the last four years I focused on human intelligence collection. I signed up for ROTC at Indiana University, which paid for my education. Then, when I got my degree and commission, I was a calvary officer, doing reconnaissance and surveillance in Iraq, where I was injured.
Did you use any military benefits to pay for school?
January: I began to use my benefits after I left the service. In particular, I’m taking advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. (Note: This is an education benefit that helps veterans pay for school or job training if they served on active duty after September 10, 2001.) It pays a percentage of my tuition and it’s based on a bunch of factors, like years of service. I’m still taking a couple of college classes at a time—slowly but steadily making my way toward my degree!
Chris: As I said, ROTC was a great way for me to pay for college. I got a scholarship that covered my tuition along with a stipend for living expenses. That benefit covered my undergrad degree. When I got out of the service, I did a couple of graduate programs, which the Post-9/11 GI Bill covered. Since I attend school half-time, I also have the benefit of a housing stipend.
How easy was it to find out about these education-related benefits?
January: When I got back from my final deployment, we had two days of sessions on “how-to” topics: how to enroll in the VA, get education benefits, and make the transition back into civilian life. It was kind of an overview of all the available resources. Boy, was it overwhelming—a lot of information to get my head around in a couple of days! But it provided great information and I managed to get some direction about how to start.
Chris: The information is there if you want to find it; you have to take the first step and ask for what you need. Every base has an Education Office with all the resources. You can also arrange to take the College-Level Examination Program for college credit. I took advantage of a local community college that offered classes right on base. It’s not easy to fit college courses into your daily responsibilities, but it’s all a matter of priorities. You need to look ahead to see what will move you forward in your life.
Once you’ve left the service, the Veterans Administration is a great resource for benefits.
What benefits help active duty/veterans pay for college?
Chris: Along with the GI Bill, the other major benefit is the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) when you’re still on active duty. Any interest you’re paying on credit cards, mortgages, and student loans is capped at 6%. You’ve got to get proactive and make sure companies are including you in the program. Contact each creditor individually—and send them a copy of your orders. For details on the SCRA program, visit the official SCRA website.
How did your military experience help you with your education and in the workforce?
January: It really helped define who I am. I like the order, the discipline, knowing what to do when, and having a structure in place. That helps me thrive as a person and as a student.
Chris: The high-level responsibility I had in the service built up my confidence and leadership skills. It taught me how to solve hard, complex problems and manage stress. Boy, talk about skills I’ve put to good use in the civilian world!
Do you have any final advice to someone who’s on active duty or a veteran in terms of higher education?
January: Use your benefits! Really use them. And if you don’t want to use them, see if you can pass them along to your children. You’ve earned them, so don’t let them fall by the wayside.
Chris: I’d echo what January said. There’s no excuse for not taking advantage of everything that’s available to you. Education costs a lot, but it’s so, so valuable. Use every benefit you can to get that college or vocational education. It’s a way our country says “thanks for what you did for us; now let us help you.”