Veteran’s Week highlights service benefits

by Tyler Jensen

Nine men and women relax in a lounge-like room in King Hall. In many ways they are different, but as members of the U.S. Armed Forces, they have lived the experiences, benefits and challenges that come with that role.

Some sit around the conference table covered with scattered papers, others have placed themselves at the computers along the wall, turning around occasionally to join in conversation. Others rest by the coffee machine and fridge, listening. Flags representing every branch of service, both state and federal, and those brothers and sisters-in-arms missing or imprisoned, rest in holders along a wall.

The students’ ages vary from 20-year-old Minnesota National Guardswoman and criminal justice major Hope Pickhartz, to a student in his sixties named Donald.  They represent only a few of the almost 200 registered service members, both active and retired, at MSUM.

They were meeting in the Veterans Resource Center to hammer out plans for upcoming university events celebrating Veterans Week. The meeting was executed with military efficiency and related to the university’s aims to thank them for their service. But despite the show of support from MSUM, Cody Spears, 29, who’s served as a marine and is now a psychology major, used the meeting, also, to reflect on problems facing veterans.

His life during his deployment to the Philippines was especially structured. He had lived in strict discipline, and it was challenging to return to civilian life.

“When I moved to Denver,” he said, “I had a lot of roommates who had no military experience, so when they did something I thought were undisciplined because of my experiences, I didn’t deal with it real well. I was confused and upset when someone would drive drunk, and that was something that didn’t make sense to me, because I was drilled for five years ‘you do not drive drunk,’ and here were people doing things I had been told for years not to do, with no consequences.”

When Spears, a South Dakota native, came to MSUM, where he had originally planned to enroll before going into the Marines, he found that there were many resources for veterans, from the Veterans Resource Center to disability services, that helped coordinate with teachers to help meet individual student needs.

Pickhartz said many of the criminal justice professors are understanding of drill and the mandatory two weeks a year Guard members need to take off for training.

But, “I’ve heard some math professors aren’t,” she said.

Similarly, Spears has found that not everyone on campus is “veteran-friendly.”

“We’ve had a student be asked if she had ever run someone over in a tank, so odd misconceptions that if you were in the military, you must have just gone around killing terrorists,”  he said. “That’s not necessarily true for everyone.”

In an office next to the desk where Spears works, sits Aaron Jensen, 36. He is the Northwest regional coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs and is working on his Associate of Arts degree. He is also a member of the Minnesota National Guard, going to drill once a month and two weeks out of the year. He and his unit deployed to Baghdad in 2004, where he was struck by the contrast: On one hand, coalition forces were still undertaking offensives against insurgents, and on the other, he saw women and religious minorities, who had never previously had the right to vote, walk out of polling booths with purple ink on their fingers as politicians drafted the country’s new constitution.

Now, he deals with the intricacies of veteran benefits: Are you active duty or reserve? Are you in the regular military or National Guard? Have you done a deployment? What state are you from?

All these questions affect what educational benefits look like for service members. For example, if a student is in the Minnesota National Guard, the state repays the student for any class he or she gets a C- or better in, up to $17,000 a semester.

Meanwhile, North Dakota pays a quarter of service members’ tuitions and fees up-front, plus reimbursements at the end of the semester — but only if the student attends a North Dakota school. 

In other cases, soldiers who leave the military after their contracts end lose certain Federal VA benefits immediately, but keep some for 10 – 15 years if they have a deployment, Jensen said. 

In many cases, Guard members don’t know what resources are available to them. Pickhartz, who joined the Guard for school, only found out about the Veterans Resource Center and the benefits she was entitled to after a tour guide found out she and her roommate were in the Guard. She said many veterans don’t get their benefits simply because no one tells them about them.

“I think (Veterans Week) is awesome, because hopefully it will get people to see us more,” she said. “I feel like people forget we’re here. Not many come in, so I hope when you put the spotlight on us, people will remember us and it will hopefully help us get resources to veterans.”

Tuesday’s Veterans Day Program features motivational speaker Mark Lindquist, a former Sergeant in the United States Air Force, Afghanistan War veteran and former MSUM student. The program starts at 10:30 a.m. in the CMU ballroom and is open to students, staff, faculty and the public.

There are no classes Wednesday, since MSUM scrapped Fall Breather this year so students and faculty could observe the federal holiday. 

A chili cook-off starts at 10 a.m. Thursday in the center. Supportive cooks will be bringing food to feed the veterans and the public.

“Bragging rights are on the line” for the title of best chili, he said.

Spears also mentioned an upcoming clothing and food drive for homeless veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Fargo branch. The center will be accepting donations from students and staff.

In November, Kise will be offering student-veterans one free meal, thanks to a partnership with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

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