Sixty years ago, a generation of Americans returned from war, went to college and created the American middle class. The original GI Bill redefined the American Dream and made our nation the most prosperous, innovative democracy in the world. Today, a new generation of veterans — men and women — is returning from combat and transitioning back into our communities. And for many of them, that means life on our college campuses.
Veterans bring a unique maturity and life experience to the classroom — an experience that in most cases enhances classroom discussions and benefits every student's learning. But as each war is different, so is every generation of veteran. Today, with this new reality in mind, presidents and officials from community colleges and public institutions of higher education will sign the Maryland Campus Compact for Student Veterans, taking an important step to recognize the new challenges facing this generation of veterans.
The men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are more likely than any previous soldier, airman, sailor or Marine to come home with invisible scars. Post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury afflict a higher proportion of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans than veterans of any previous war. Suicides and suicide attempts among active-duty personnel are more prevalent today than at any other time in our history.
The state of Maryland has taken great strides to expand veterans' access to behavioral health services. In 2008, the O'Malley-Brown administration and the General Assembly passed legislation that provided additional care for veterans living in rural regions, established the Veterans Behavioral Health Advisory Board and protected vital veteran scholarship and business loan programs.
More than 22,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have returned to Maryland in recent years, and thousands more are coming home. Notwithstanding our best efforts, too many of them are struggling to navigate their transition. Each will take a different path. And as we've seen on campuses across the state, for many, this path includes higher education. In fact, nearly 15,000 Maryland veterans received GI Bill education benefits during the fall 2010 semester. As more veterans choose to take advantage of the new GI Bill and make college a part of their new civilian life, we simply cannot afford to leave them feeling isolated on our campuses.
Regrettably, we learned this the hard way last November, when the student newspaper at the Community College of Baltimore County published a troubling essay about a student veteran's war experience. Many of his classmates, college faculty and community members — ourselves included — were alarmed by the content of the essay. In the interest of campus safety, CCBC made what proved to be a controversial, albeit necessary, decision to remove the student from campus until a psychological review could be conducted.
While some have debated the college's handling of the incident, it has raised important questions every college and all public officials must answer: Are we prepared to welcome our veterans returning from combat? Are our campuses equipped to address the challenges they face? How well do we understand their experience?
To begin to address these questions, the Office of the Lieutenant Governor started a conversation with veterans' advocates and higher education officials — work that led to today's agreement. The compact calls on our higher education community to do more for the men and women who have sacrificed on our behalf. Each campus will pledge to designate an office or staff person as a "go to" for all student veterans to help them navigate everything from GI Bill paperwork to behavioral health counseling. It requires campus officials to provide training for faculty, staff and student leadership to promote greater awareness of veterans' issues. And it encourages campuses to create student veteran organizations to provide incoming veteran students with necessary support from their peers who are also transitioning back into our communities.
Ultimately, the compact aims to improve and educate our campuses, increase our ability to recognize symptoms of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, provide veteran students with the support they need, and ease the transition from combat to college.
The incident at CCBC was unfortunate and atypical, clouding CCBC's firm commitment to "serving those who serve." But misfortune spawned opportunity. It is an opportunity to inspire collective action at our institutions of higher education and an opportunity to serve those who have served in our name. We have a duty to provide every veteran with a chance to succeed. It is a responsibility we fulfilled 60 years ago. We can do it again.
Anthony G. Brown, a Democrat, is Maryland's lieutenant governor and a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves. Sandra Kurtinitis is president of the Community College of Baltimore County.