Saturday, June 14, 2008

Vets Coordinator Helps Ease Soldiers' Transition to UI Student Life

Like most veterans transitioning from the military to academic life, John Mikelson, 48, does not fit the traditional mold of most college students. After taking a 25-year hiatus from college, most of which was spent on active duty in the military, Mikelson returned to the University of Iowa in 2005.

“I found out I was unemployable,” Mikelson told the Iowa Independent during an interview. “Twenty-five years of military experience doesn’t mean anything to a civilian employer. I had comparable civilian experience for jobs I was seeking, but when potential employers discovered I didn’t have a degree, they told me to come back when I had one.”

Mikelson did just that. He recently earned his Bachelor of Arts in history and is currently enrolled in a graduate program, Higher Education in Policy and Leadership Studies. Moreover, Mikelson balances his academics with his position as the UI veterans coordinator, a full-time work-study position equally funded by the UI and the VA.

“My ultimate goal is to make the veterans coordinator job a permanent paid position on this campus and every public university campus across the country,” Mikelson said. “I think there is a need for transition centers like this one at the UI. When soldiers get demobilized, the military tells them everything they need to know in three days, but all they want is to see their spouses and family waiting on the other side of the fence.

“It’s like trying to catch a sip from a fire hose,” Mikelson said, “and when they hit the campus they realize they don’t know what they are doing.”

Mikelson, along with McKinley Bailey who now serves on the veterans committee of the Iowa House of Representatives, helped start the UI Student Veterans Association in 2005. Working through this association, members procured space to start a veterans center in 2006, which helped lay the foundation for the creation of Mikelson’s coordinator position.

The UI has around 300 veterans enrolled in classes this semester, and Mikelson’s job is to reach out to this targeted population and serve their specific needs should any problems arise during a student’s academic life. These issues range from helping a student veteran find a real estate agent who understands VA loans to helping a disabled veteran find employment in the community.

“We keep our ROCH book, or Reach Out and Call for Help, updated at all times,” Mikelson said. “This is filled with everything from information regarding current GI Bill benefits to congressional contact information. The key to outreach is knowing who to call, and we’ve already reached out to several academic advisers who are veterans. Because the military has its own language, vernacular and idiosyncrasies, it’s been helpful having contacts who speak the military language.”

Student vets face unique issues

As a veterans coordinator, Mikelson deals with a plethora of issues and concerns facing students, whether it’s before, during, or after deployment. “A common question I get from students is whether they should start classes if they know they are going to be deployed before midterm,” he said. “Midterm is the cutoff where they can receive credit or a refund. They also have the option of taking an incomplete and finishing the course after they return.”

Mikelson says that it’s more common for students to find out during the semester that they are going to be deployed by semester’s end. “When this happens, we have to sit down and evaluate what’s the best course of action for each case. The main goal is that nobody should be penalized for being deployed.”

“Professors have been very accommodating,” Mikelson said. “Most problems we’ve encountered were due to ignorance on either side, whether the student didn’t explain things very well or the professor wasn’t aware of the specifics of policy.”

Transitioning back into civilian and academic life poses other concerns, both mentally and physically, that Mikelson helps student veterans address. “We have our share of traumatic brain injuries (TBI),” he said. “Thanks to improved body armor and evacuation procedures, what would have killed us in WW II or Vietnam, is simply not the case in today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of coming back in body bags, soldiers are returning with lasting brain injuries. It’s the equivalency of adult shaken-baby syndrome."

One major problem with treating TBI is the diagnostic phase, because a lot of soldiers fear stigmatic repercussions, Mickelson said, and won’t admit they have a problem. “They’ve been told over and over that they are supermen and women, and they just need to suck it up,” Mickelson said. “When they get to the UI, they realize it’s more than a little pain. TBI is just as much an injury as a physical one; it’s the sucking chest wound of the mind.”

Mikelson is encouraged by VA and military efforts to remove the stigma. “We have been working with the VA’s peer-to-peer counselor program, outreach coordinators, and other means that are less threatening to our veterans,” Mikelson said. “The Iowa Guard has been doing really good things with its Operation Enduring Families program. After demobilization, Guard and Reservists have 90 days before they go back to drill. During the first 30 days, they have a mandatory gathering with their spouse or next of kin to gauge any problems that may have surfaced since their return to civilian life.”

Problems regarding educational benefits earned through the GI Bill have come up over the past few years, but Mikelson is optimistic the 21st Century GI Bill will address some of these concerns. “Last year, a number of people were told they didn’t qualify for the higher benefits, but after a long fight between the VA and the Department of Defense, it was determined veterans had 14 years after separation to utilize their enhanced benefits,” Mikelson said. “And despite the DoD’s retention concerns, a recent report indicates that retention rates have not been adversely effected.”

Two things Mikelson said he likes about the new GI Bill, which currently sits on President Bush’s desk, is that it will do away with the $1,200 buy-in stipulation. “New enlistees should not be paying this at a time in their lives when they can least afford it,” he said. “I also like that it will pay the benefits up front when the tuition is due and students need money for books.”

“The current GI bill was designed in peace time and has not kept pace with the rising costs of education,” Mikelson said. “Veterans tend to be older students and have spouses and dependents they are supporting, so it’s a challenge to make ends meet. A number of veterans are trying to balance family with full-time classes and full-time employment, not to mention they have the additional challenge of readjusting to civilian life. I think the new GI Bill benefits will help ease some of these burdens.”

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