Local vets return to school

2013-05-23T17:49:00Z Local vets return to schoolHollis McNeil | Contributor nwitimes.com
May 23, 2013 5:49 pm  • 

HAMMOND | Army Reserve David Kuzmar, a tall, sandy-haired veteran, recalls his early struggles with his first days of being a college student enrolled at Purdue University Calumet in the fall of 2009.

“I literally went from the dry desserts of Afghanistan to the classroom within one week,” Kuzmar said while putting the final touches on last assignments of his senior year at Purdue.

He did two tours leading up to an 18-month stay in Mosul, Afghanistan doing security detail.

“It was tough to get my mind back in the classroom," he said. "I wasn’t ready to be on campus. I was still a soldier in my mind.”

A shy Kuzmar spends his spare time on campus at Purdue Calumet surfing the Internet, and helping out other student veterans on campus. When he’s not offering his assistance to other like himself, he spends time working out in the campus gym.

“I have to keep in shape for training, and working out keeps me centered,” Kuzmar said.

The war in Iraq has ended and the war in Afghanistan is winding down, there are thousands of veterans making their way home and into classrooms. Coping with the transition from a very structured life, to making decisions on their own, on a day to day basis, is a growing battle for many soldiers.

Laws like the Post 9/11 G.I. are set in place to cushion that transition, and prepare former military members for life back home. The law provides funding for education up to 36 months, including living expenses for soldiers who have been honorably discharged.

Kuzmar spent a lot of time with high school friends partying once he returned home. He had a difficult time going to classes once he lost the structure the military provided.

Veterans like Corporal Mark Scott, 21, from Bolingbrook, who enlisted in the Marines at 17, is one out of 870,000 veterans that take advantage of the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill, according to The Department of Veteran Affairs. The VA has provided more than $24.4 billion in tuition and benefits over the past three years.

“I wanted a way to pay for college after high school and take care of my family,” Scott, who entered boot camp right after high school, said.

“The Post 9/11 G.I. Bill is a very important asset for veterans transitioning back into civilian life. It’s the help some veterans have when coming home,” Michael Hauman, veteran services coordinator at Richard J. Daley College in Chicago said.

Hauman did two tours in Iraq and Korea in 2008 with the Air Force. He remembers his early struggles after he returned home. He started applying for service jobs such as the police and fire department, looking to feel part of something again.

“I felt like I wasn’t doing anything. I wanted to feel like I was still part of something,” he said.

Graduating from the University of Illinois in Chicago with an associate degree in graphic design, Hauman wanted to help other veterans who struggle with school as well. He decided to continue school and get his master’s degree and become a social worker to help others like him.

Along with feeling lost, Hauman says, veterans long for the military in general. They have spent months on end with their unit, and developed a strong trust with other soldiers.

“You can’t replace that brotherhood they have with their unit when they return home,” he said. “The person next to you could possibly save your life. There is nothing like that trust. I still haven’t made any friends since I’ve been home.”

Like Hauman, soldiers returning home yearn for that sense of camaraderie that they find in their deployment. It’s difficult to relate to people who haven’t been through similar experiences. Isolated in a room full of 18-year-olds can be an everyday struggle for returning veterans.

Kuzmar found it most difficult to find someone he could relate to during his freshman year of college. Feeling like an outsider, Kuzmar kept to himself and recalls just going to class and coming home.

“I wouldn’t talk to anybody at first. I had my few friends, but no social life at school,” he said.

“They [veterans] miss that common bond they have with each other,” Akili Shakur, 45, assistant director of the Boots-to-Books program at Purdue Calumet said.

“Yeah, I was only 20 years-old but you grow up so fast in the military. I couldn’t talk about some of the things I had seen overseas to other students,” Kuzmar said.

“The fear of fitting in, finding somewhere they belong is something that these soldiers have to deal with everyday when going to school,” Shakur said.

The Boots-to-Books program is designed to help veterans transition back into the classroom by helping them make their class schedule and provide the counseling they need. The program not only gives these former soldiers help transitioning but it serves as a place they can have someone to relate to.

“Veterans can come to us for help or just come hang out, even just to say hello,” Shakur said.

The tiny office on the third floor of the Student Union Building at Purdue serves a sort of military base to veterans pursuing higher education. Shakur’s casual rapport with the veterans leaves them feeling like she is a firm but supportive mother, welcoming all with open arms and open mind.

“They are very protective of me as well. If I’m having a bad day they feel the need to solve the problem,” Shakur said.

The classroom can feel more like foreign territory, than some of the countries these soldiers have been deployed to. Coming from hostile environments to the quiet classrooms can be problematic without the right help.

“I once had to calm one of my students-veterans down, who had just returned home from Iraq," said Shakur. "One of his teachers had been making insensitive comments about the war. He was prepared to handle the situation alone, but he knew he could turn to me to resolve the situation.”

The classroom can be a swift change for someone use to the brash atmosphere of the military.

“From the moment you enter bootcamp there is nothing but yelling, that’s what you get accustomed to,” Hauman said.

“We handle our aggression and anger right away,” Kuzmar said.

”It was tough dealing with other students who can’t handle being adults,” Scott, who made the conscious choice to attend college on a smaller campus, said. “I wanted to be an environment that wasn’t fully immersed in the college lifestyle.”

Scott chose to attend the smaller commuter campus of College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, where enrollment was just over 15,000 students in the spring of 2013.

“I wanted to be away from the partying and the frats. I know what I want and how to get it," he said. "I didn’t want the distractions. I wake up at 8 a.m. go to work, then class and finishing my homework before I head to the gym.”

On top of a tight work and school schedule, Scott has to go to training with his unit twice a month as part of his obligations with the Marines.

“Sometimes I have to leave during the semester,” he said. “I’ve had teachers give me bad grades on assignments because I wasn’t able to attend class for a week.”

Scott also has to attend weekly physical therapy for a gunshot wound to the knee he suffered in Iraq.

“I was fortunate to be injured and not sustain major damage; I call it my million dollar wound,” Scott said, joking about his Purple Heart injury.

Lance Corporal Tom Head, who was the butt of every joke for his last name, plans to enroll in DeVry Technical University at the end of his enlistment. He believes that talking to people who don’t understand what the soldiers fought for is going to be a challenge.

“People always ask me if I killed anyone," Head said while lighting up another cigarette in his childhood home in Markham. "They only want to know about the action, but that’s a personal question though.” Frustrated with the question, it is quickly dismissed. “I refuse to answer that question anymore.”

“Sometimes we don’t have a filter, our jokes are different, and our conversation is different,” Head, who said coming home for visits with family and friends can be difficult as well, said.

Head will be the first in his family to pursue higher education,

“I’m excited for programs like the G.I. Bill, I would have never thought about college before the military,” he said.

Like Scott there are soldiers who prefer other means of education, including Sergeant Charlie Kallas, who was stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, for almost a year. He had trouble coping going back to the way life use to be. “I grew up pretty fast, and my friends didn’t.”

Kallas doesn’t like to talk about some of the tragic things he has seen overseas. “At 18 I’ve seen things people in America will never seen in their lifetime,” says Kallas.

Kallas chose to continue his education online because the military offers programs similar to the ones offered during his enlistment in the army.

“I was able to take basic English classes, along with classes that were specific to the job I was doing,” Kallas said.

Along with the troubles of interacting with peers, soldiers also have to deal with their everyday schedule.

“The military does everything for you while you’re enlisted, your whole schedule is done for you,” Hauman said. “Veterans are accustomed to that structure, and feel lost without it.”

“I never had to worry about small things like bills, food or having somewhere to sleep at night. The military always took care of that,” Kallas said.

Kelly Kallas, Kallas’s wife and high school sweetheart, said, “Charlie tends to procrastinate with his school work. He still gets decent grades,” says Mrs.Kallas while laughing.

“Charlie use to be more outgoing, and very romantic before he was deployed,” Kelly said. Although their relationship has changed it continues to stay strong, “I still love him the same."

In Sgt. Kallas’ case he is still an active reserve so juggling between harsh homework deadlines and the physical training required twice a month. That is another obstacle he faces daily.

“With his training schedule it’s always going to be a challenge, but it’s what he wants to do,” Kelly said.

With help from the Boots-to-Books program, Kuzmar is only weeks away from graduating from Purdue Calumet with a psychology degree.

“The program helped a lot, it made campus more comfortable to me, I also got to help other veterans along the way,” he said.

Outside of Veteran Affairs and programs like Boots-to-Books, there are other mean of help for student veterans. Like the Student Veterans of America organization which help research the innovative so lawmakers can put a face on the number of students looking to excel after the military.

“Before you are discharged from the military they make you go through programs to handle that transition but there is not much help after that,” Head said.

“I feel like the government could do better at helping student veterans,” Scott, who plans to use his degree helping veterans like himself, said.

“I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life when I took my first finance class,” Kuzmar said with a gleam in his eyes. “I really didn’t have an appreciation for school earlier on.”

Kuzmar will be promoted to Lieutenant in the Army after graduation at the end of May.

Kuzmar will the last out of his two older siblings to graduate college.

“These have been the most difficult and exciting last two weeks I’ve ever had,” he said.

With plans to career in the Army, Kuzmar will be stationed in Fort Know, KY at the end of June as an instructor, before being shipped off to Fort Benning, GA for training.

“I want to serve for as long as possible and retire from the military,” Kuzmar said.

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