From combat to campus, veterans hitting the books
By Carole Carlson email@example.com/302-0949 November 9, 2013 1:48PM
Justin Zandy, of Dyer, ponders a question with geology classmate Alisha Herzog, of Valparaiso on Thursday at Indiana University Northwest. Zandy is a member of the campus' ROTC program and a squad leader in an Army Reserve unit. | Carole Carlson/Post-Tribune
Back in class
The number of veterans or dependents using GI ecucation benefits:
2008 — 541,439
2009 — 564,487
2010 — 800,369
2011 — 923,836
2012 — 945,052
Source: U.S. Veterans
Updated: December 11, 2013 6:24AM
Army Spc. Justin Zandy is caught between two divergent worlds.
He’s a full-time college student at Indiana University Northwest in Gary and a part-time soldier.
While his days now are spent in the classroom, his mind still wanders to the front lines and the months he spent in Kandahar province with the 833rd Engineers Battalion in Afghanistan.
“The first few months back were kind of hard,” he said. “Things have gotten easier. I’m definitely one of the fortunate individuals.”
Zandy, 27, of Dyer, is taking advantage of tuition benefits provided through the Post 9/11 GI Bill. The 2004 Lake Central graduate is not alone.
As U.S. troops complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan next year, returning veterans are entering colleges and universities at record numbers.
Last year, 945,052 veterans or their dependents enrolled, according to the U.S. Veterans Administration. That’s a 43-percent jump from 2008.
Most of these battle-tested students are looking for degrees, not pep rallies and frat parties.
“I’m not wild and crazy. I don’t have time for it,” said Zandy, a squad leader with his Darien, Ill.,-based reserve unit. “I’m always in the books.”
Universities are smoothing the transition with support programs like “Boots to Books” to help veterans acclimate to college life.
Locally, IUN, PUC, Purdue North Central, Calumet College of St. Joseph, Valparaiso University, and Ivy Tech Community College all have earned “Military Friendly School” status by G.I. Jobs magazine.
The list honors the top 20 percent of higher education institutions that are committed to meeting the needs of active-duty and veteran students.
Purdue University Calumet’s program counts 147 veterans, IUN has 175, and Valparaiso University has 35 veterans and three serving in reserve units.
A former Marine, Valparaiso University senior Nick Moore spent seven months in Iraq’s Anbar province with a mobile assault platoon. He was in Marine boot camp 17 days after graduating from South Central High School in 2005.
Fitting in tough
Moore is on track to graduate next month with a degree in sports management. He’s also engaged and the father of a 1-year-old. Moore says he has little in common with VU’s traditional students.
“Being older makes it a little difficult, even in dealing with professors. I’ve got a little more experience handling stressful situations.”
Moore came to VU in 2010 because it offered the best financial aid package.
A private school, VU participates in the GI Bill’s Yellow Ribbon program, allowing Moore to qualify for additional Veterans Administration aid. As a result, he said, he has a free ride, plus a $1,200 monthly stipend.
Another former Marine, Lauren Miller, 24, is on pace to receive a degree in nursing from VU in 2015.
She spent part of 2009 and 2010 in Iraq as a computer maintenance specialist. “I took care of the equipment and computers on everything from a Humvee truck to a computer mouse.”
Miller, who’s married to a Marine recruiter who works in Crown Point, said she was with one of the last intelligence units to be deployed to Iraq as that war wound down.
“It was smooth sailing. There was not a lot of conflict,” she said.
Still, Miller finds herself feeling most at home with other veterans. “I met another Marine at Valpo, I saw her backpack with ‘Marines’ on the back. We’re inseparable now. She’s my best friend.”
Zandy has three years left on his commitment to the Army Reserve and the criminal justice major decided to join IUN’s ROTC program.
“If I decide to continue my career in the military, I could do it as an officer,” he said of the ROTC training. Because he’s in ROTC, he wears a uniform to campus on days his class meets. There are 26 students in IUN’s ROTC program.
While in Kandahar, Zandy’s 833rd Engineers Battalion trained their successors — Indiana National Guard soldiers from the Valparaiso-based 713th Engineering Company.
In 2012, four of those soldiers died and a fifth soldier was injured when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb as they cleared a supply route of bombs. Later in the same year, two other soldier from the same battalion died in an ambush.
“We trained them. That was rough,” said Zandy.
Veterans Day holds a special meaning for him.
“It’s a very emotional holiday for me. It’s more of a day of reflection. I think about everything that happened every day of life.”