By Chris McGuinness
Killeen Daily Herald
After Matthew Keller took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, he was asked to train for military intelligence. He turned the offer down, insisting on becoming a combat medic.
“The only thing I wanted to do was take care of our soldiers,” said the 26-year-old Washington state native. “So I told them it was either that or nothing.”
For four years, Keller was a combat medic, serving two tours in Iraq. After leaving the Army in 2010, he decided to continue his education at Central Texas College.
Like many veterans who leave the military for college, the environmental change was a shock to Keller. “It is a completely different world, a different lifestyle and a different culture,” he said.
With soldiers coming home after years of global warfare, colleges and universities anticipate a number of them will transition from boots to books. In preparation, higher education institutions, including those in Central Texas, are consolidating their services and support for the influx of veteran students.
Keller learned to navigate the ups and downs of transitioning from solider to student during his time at CTC, and along the way he helped develop the Veterans Student Organization. That experience led to his current position as the community college’s first Wounded Warrior and Veterans Advocate at the Veterans Services Department.
“I have to wear a lot of different hats,” said Keller, who graduates in December. “Basically, there are a lot of resources out there for veterans from a lot of different entities, but a lot of people don’t know everything that is available. What (I) do is try to tie all of those together and show (veterans) where to go and how to use them.”
On campus, Keller acts as a bridge between veteran students and academic life. He assists them with everything from seeking education and other benefits from the government, helping them find financial assistance and counseling, or even just providing a sympathetic ear.
“It can be anything from helping an instructor accommodate someone who is having trouble in class, to helping with stress management or referring them to a counselor,” said Keller. “If these students have any kind of problems or questions, they know they can come to me and we can work to figure it out.”
With more than 6,000 veteran students enrolling at the community college each year, serving the needs of the school’s military population is a must, said Annabelle Smith, director for the college’s Veterans Service Center.
“We try to be a bridge and buffer for these students,” said Smith, who served in the Women’s Army Corps from 1959 to 1962. “We want them to know that we are the place to go to ask questions, not just about their education but about anything that might be on their minds.”
The center primarily helps veterans with getting information and filing for their education benefits under the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the Montgomery GI Bill, the Department of Veterans Affairs Vocational Rehabilitation program and other federal programs. Besides helping veteran students understand their benefits, the center also serves as a clearing house for information.
“You have to look at the student as a whole because other issues associated with the transition from the military to (civilian life) can come into play,” said Smith. “If you have other stressors in your life that is going to have an effect on your education.”
Smith said she her staff have worked to make the center a place where veteran students can feel comfortable and at home. Attached to the center is a lounge, which offers a quiet place away from the hustle and bustle of the busy campus, to have a cup of coffee and chat with other veteran students.
Besides Smith and Keller, the center has 12 work-study students and five full-time staff members. Whether student or staff, most of the center’s employees are veterans, many of whom have served at least one tour in Iraq.
“I think that’s a very important aspect of what we do,” said Keller. “They can come to us because they know we have had a similar experience,” Keller said.
Next door to the community college is Texas A&M University-Central Texas, which also is trying to better serve an estimated 850 service members, veterans and dependents at its campus.
Cliston Jones, TAMUCT’s director of veterans affairs, said the campus’ veterans center, which opened in February, consolidates several services, including information and assistance on veterans’ benefits in education, employment, health and other services.
“We wanted to have one place where all the information is easily available,” said Jones.
In October 2010, the school partnered with Veterans Affairs to bring the VetSuccess program to campus. The university is one of only seven schools in the nation to have the program, which focuses on employment and job placement and has hosted workshops on resume writing and opportunities for veterans in the federal jobs sector.
Emmanuel Tamarez, 28, a veteran student and vice-president of the university’s Central Texas Student Veteran Association, said the various programs on campus were a good start but his group is working to create a true “community” for veteran students and their dependents.
The association has 30 members, and Tamarez said the challenge in getting more members is the work involved to remove the stigma in using some of the resources offered to veterans. “They don’t want to be labeled as having an issue or a problem, so it can be hard to get them to use some of those programs,” said Tamarez, who is an undergraduate business student. “Our job is to communicate that it’s okay and that we know what they are going through.”
In the end, both Keller and Tamarez said they hoped to create a supportive, responsive educational community for student veterans on their respective campuses.
With the war in Iraq drawing to an end, Keller said he’s all too aware that the number of veterans seeking an education will be growing exponentially in the near future.
“I’d want to see a person doing what I’m doing on every campus,” said Keller. “We have to participate and be active. We have to be leaders. We have to be the ones who will point the way.”
Get service, support
Texas A&M University-Central Texas
Veterans Affairs Office
Location: Room 135A (Clear Creek Road Campus)
Hours: 7:45 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 8 a.m. to noon Friday.
Phone: (254) 519-5423
Central Texas Student Veterans Association
Phone: (254) 542-2748
Phone: (254) 519-5404
Central Texas College
Office of Veterans Services
Location: Bldg 111, Room 222 (Killeen Campus)
Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 8-11 a.m. Friday.
Phone: (254) 526-1160
Student Veterans Organization
Phone: (254) 526-1160