Everything about his first day of college seemed wrong.
Lee Means Jr. had arrived to his sociology class early, clean shaven and prepared to learn. Around him, 18- and 19-year-olds were yelling, texting, even wearing pajamas.
Then he spotted it. A Marine Corps ring on the finger of another student. Mr. Means approached him. "Were you a Marine, too? I have no idea what's going on here," he said.
"Stick with me," the student responded. "I'll get you through this."
That day, with the help of one of his own, Mr. Means of Bentleyville joined the ranks of the 300-some veterans studying at California University of Pennsylvania. This fall, thousands of young veterans in Western Pennsylvania will take the same step.
With one war over, one winding down and more financial support available to veterans than ever, almost every college and university in the Pittsburgh area is expecting an increase in the number of veterans taking classes this fall.
Community College of Allegheny County (approximately 850 veterans), the University of Pittsburgh (500), Duquesne (300) and Robert Morris (225) are leading the way, but all are after the goal of smoothing the transition from combat to classroom.
The increased motivation to attend school after release from active duty stems from the newest GI Bill. Updated in 2009, the Post-9/11 GI Bill allows veterans who have served for more than 36 months to attend an in-state school tuition-free. They also receive $1,000 for books and a housing stipend of approximately $1,400 per month.
Accepting veterans is smart for the universities, too, as the government pays the schools directly.
But convincing veterans to come to college isn't the hard part, said Capt. Robert Prah, director of Cal U's Office of Veterans Affairs. It's getting them to stay there.
Student veterans are nearly always older than the peers they go to classes with. They've traveled the world, been responsible for the lives of other soldiers and sometimes even survived combat-induced injuries. Data from Veterans Affairs shows 47.3 percent of student veterans are married and 47 percent already have children.
"When veterans come to my office, we're not talking about transcripts and test scores and that kind of stuff," Capt. Prah said. "We're talking about their livelihood. How are they going to take care of their families? How are they going to take care of each other?"
Many programs have tried to accommodate by making classes available online and on the weekends.
Yet most of the support offered to veterans is focused on helping navigate their way to a degree as quickly and efficiently as possible.
"The military is a very structured place," said Dwight Boddorf, a Marine veteran and director of veterans services at CCAC. "Everybody tells you where to go, when to be there, how to be. When you transition into college, you're on your own and you're expected to figure things out by yourself."
Many schools offer assistance in benefits processing, tutoring and counseling specifically for veterans. Resume and career-focused workshops are also in high demand.
It's crucial for veterans to know how to market the skills they learned in the military to those without a military background, said Duquesne law student Theo Collins, a Marine veteran from Jamestown, N.Y.
"I can lead a convoy through some very bad places, but that doesn't necessarily translate to being an energy lawyer," Mr. Collins said. "But there are so many other skills that I developed in the military that will be useful assets in my field."
Duquesne's veterans director, Don Accamando, spent 28 years in the Air Force. To him, it's just as important that civilian students and faculty simply become more aware of military life. He sees student vets shy away from talking about their military careers because they don't want people to automatically assume they have post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental problems.
"There needs to be a lot of awareness training to mitigate problems like the stereotyping of veterans that takes place," Mr. Accamando said.
Less than 1 percent of American citizens have served in the military. The students who started college immediately after high school have lived in a country at war for more than half of their lives.
"So their perception of what the military is comes largely from movies or the news," said David Vrenna, an Air Force veteran and recent Duquesne grad.
At CCAC, Mr. Boddorf and his team are launching a campaign that will identify faculty who are veterans by placing military dog tag stickers in their classrooms.
"We want to engage the students and professors, get them to start asking questions about the military," Mr. Boddorf said. "We want them to realize all that veterans have to offer."
Mr. Boddorf expects the number of student veterans to continue to increase for the next 10 years, especially if Pentagon budget cuts force military personnel to retire sooner than expected.
But as long as the GI Bill benefits are offered, it's will be appreciated by student veterans like Mr. Means, he said.
"The military has already invested in so much training for service members," Mr. Means said. "Now they're investing in schooling we can use in life. They're giving us a better future, because of the service we've given."
Jessica Contrera: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published August 9, 2013 4:00 AM