Easing the transition from combat zone to college

Woman who lost son in Iraq organizes event to aid veterans

March 02, 2006|By LIZ F. KAY | LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTER

.. Towson University academic adviser Tracy Miller was accustomed to counseling her son's friends -- Marines, like him -- about college. The young men would sit in her living room during long weekends away from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

They recognized the value of higher education but didn't seem to know that there were many paths to getting a degree, Miller said.

"They want college as a means to get ahead without knowing the specifics," she said. "There were just so many types of colleges, and they didn't know that."

More than a year after the death of her son in Iraq, Miller is trying to reach a wider audience of military men and women, organizing tomorrow's Operation Service to Scholarship, a college fair to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan prepare for a future at home.

Miller said she hasn't found similar programs anywhere else in the nation but hopes to share the idea with others elsewhere after testing it at Towson.

The military offers services to help veterans adjust to civilian life, but "they're not colleges," Miller said. "They're the military doing transitional advising."

Her son, Marine Cpl. Nicholas Lee Ziolkowski, was 22 when he was killed. "Nicky," as she calls him, enlisted as an 18-year-old and initially expected to stay in the service for 20 years. His ambitions changed, his mother said, and he planned to return and attend Towson after serving four years.

After her son's death, Miller decided to run for the state House of Delegates. Her son "was the spark that ignited my thought to run," she said.

She has worked for 28 years at Towson, where she also teaches an American studies course on the 1960s.

Miller has talked to veterans and military contacts, and with other parents of veterans to spread the word about the college fair. About a dozen institutions, including universities, community colleges and vocational schools, will participate, she said.

Operation Service to Scholarship will be held from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. tomorrow in Towson's University Union.

Officials at the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs estimate that about 17,000 veterans of conflicts that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks live in the state. About 6,000 Maryland National Guard and Air National Guard members have served since then, said Maj. Charles S. Kohler, a Guard spokesman.

Miller has also planned a panel discussion that will outline the benefits institutions offer to people with military experience.

Ellen Robinson, who works with veterans at the Community College of Baltimore County, said service members can get credits for military training, depending on their majors. Some other institutions have similar policies.

More than 40 community colleges and universities offer discounts to Maryland National Guard members, Kohler said. Villa Julie College offers returning Guard members a 15 percent discount on tuition and fees, said college spokesman Brian Shea.

Miller is also designing a session on choosing the right kind of college and preparing for college life.

"A 22-year-old freshman is not going to be interested in the same things that an 18-year-old freshman is necessarily interested in," Miller said. "Whereas a 22-year-old freshman may not have the patience for rushing a fraternity, he might be interested in recreational sports."

Among such freshmen is Patrick Young, 22, who enrolled at Towson in January, about nine months after returning from his second tour in Iraq as a Marine. He served with Miller's son and had discussed applying to college with Miller during visits home.

"I honestly didn't know how I would be enrolled," he said. "I hoped it wouldn't be on my high school records, because then I wouldn't get in."

David R. Segal, a sociologist who studies military organizations at the University of Maryland, said it is important to provide services such as tomorrow's college fair for prospective students not following the usual route from high school to college.

Unlike high school seniors who get help from families and teachers as they move on to higher education, veterans are "stepping back into a student role and having to learn it," he said, and colleges and universities must expect that the transition back to education might be abrupt for recently returned veterans.

"You have to assume that many if not most of the military personnel coming back from Afghanistan or Iraq have been traumatized by the experience," Segal said. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome include short-term memory loss, anxiety and trouble sleeping.

When Segal began teaching military sociology in the mid-1970s, some of his students were Vietnam veterans, he said.

"They had very personal reasons for taking the course. ... They were trying to make sense of this horrendous experience they had had," he said. "Classwork itself was part of their reintegration into society, and that's going to be happening again."

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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