MC veterans unite to face the challenges of civilian life

With the intense war in Iraq finished and the fight in Afghanistan raging on through its 11-year mark, a noticeable amount of veterans are now returning home and piecing back together the civilian lives they had once left behind. During this often difficult and complex transition, veterans are also starting to fill the classrooms of colleges and universities across America.

Once a rare sight on campus; as more combat veterans join the ranks of everyday American students, many of them are reaching out to one another for both camaraderie and for help.

At Montgomery College’s Rockville campus, the veteran population has taken initiative and formed a small but tightly knit student club with a mission.

“We work with Combat to College as a way to give veterans an avenue to find out what resources are available,” explained Nick Vasiliou, a Marine veteran and one of the leaders of MC Rockville’s Veterans Club

Returning veterans often find the task of accessing their Post 9/11 GI Bill or applying to the Veterans Association for healthcare benefits a complex process. A process many of them face alone.

“Compared to the rest of the population, they’re not going to be the first to ask what their resources are or go asking for help,” said Thomas Sietsema, a Marine and Veterans Club member. “Combat to College is vital in addressing that issue.”

In addition to benefits education, the club also focuses on bringing veterans together to provide social support for those who are still adjusting from the unique culture of the military, said Vasiliou.

“As veterans, our personalities are very different from the regular student body, so they would be more inclined to do things with people who are more like them,” Vasiliou elaborated. “Instead of just always being isolated because you are a veteran in a student body, it gives you other people to relate to.”

However, Being different it is not always a bad thing, as Sietsema pointed out, “By and large, most veterans have an understanding of … sacrificing on a personal level for a greater good.”

Returning service members have a strong set of positive values instilled in them from years of military service, Sietsema said. “That’s something, at least for me, that I transition into on campus.”

While club members and Joanna Starling, the Combat to College program coordinator, do what they can to help veterans, there are still many things the college can do to help.

“A big part of a veteran’s life is fitness,” stated Vasiliou.

“We would like to get our fitness program back — we lost it this semester,” Vasiliou said. “Along with mental wellness and educational wellness, there is still a physical wellness that veterans require.”

With over 47,000 veterans returning home with wounds from combat since early 2012, some even missing limbs, it is not hard to see why physical fitness might be a top priority for veterans.

Hundreds of veterans are joining the college, and a larger school staff is also necessary to help the returning troops, said Vasiliou. “Have more than just [Starling] running Combat to College.”

“More employees in Combat to College means more help for veterans,” he added.

In addition to helping students and showing support for America’s veterans, there is also another compelling reason for the college to attract veterans: payment.

Veterans can use the government-funded Post 9/11 GI Bill to pay for college, Vasiliou remarked. “For one, we’re a guaranteed tuition payment; they will always get their tuition from us on time, every semester.”

“We have perfect credit,” joked Sietsema.

To learn more about the MC Veterans Club or the Combat to College program, students can visit the Student Services Building at the MC Rockville campus, or contact Joanna Starling by calling 240-567-7103. More information about Combat to College is also available on the MC homepage and on their Facebook page.

After contributing to their country, veterans are ready to start new lives and contribute to their colleges and communities. As more troops return home, combat veterans will continue to remain an important demographic and help enrich student life at MC Rockville.

Photo by Sonia Matos.