TAMPA — This fall, thousands of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will head to college under a new GI Bill.
Those who enroll at the University of South Florida will find a bonus: a Department of Veterans Affairs counselor ready to help them secure benefits — everything from tuition aid to help for post traumatic stress disorder.
USF is the first university in the nation to receive the on-campus VA staffing, a one-year pilot program called VetSuccess on Campus that Washington officials hope will become a model throughout the country.
After dealing with the VA to arrange his own post-service medical care, USF student Corey Elliott can see the advantage of getting help from someone who knows the VA's bureaucracy from the inside.
Having "that rep here will make that one less worry for a student who has those issues," said Elliott, an eight-year veteran of the Navy studying political science and philosophy.
In addition to placing a vocational and rehabilitation counselor on USF's Tampa campus, the VA will assign a second staffer focusing on mental health to the university in August.
"We're hoping that pilot will be successful and that USF will be the first of many sites," said Ruth Fanning, the VA's director of vocational rehabilitation and employment service in Washington.
USF president Judy Genshaft will sign an agreement for the program with a top VA official on Thursday.
The VetSuccess program was created independently of the new GI Bill, which was passed to provide a broad range of benefits for veterans who were in active service on or after Sept. 11, 2001.
Still, the timing is good. The VA estimates that up to 460,000 veterans will take advantage of the new GI Bill during its first year.
Already, during the first four weeks veterans could submit an application, 46,000 have done so. (If people are in the Reserves or the National Guard and their unit is called up while they're in college on the new GI Bill, they still go to war.)
At USF, the VetSuccess program will go beyond helping students with educational benefits, Fanning said. If a veteran enrolled in college wants help with VA housing benefits, or thinks he or she has symptoms of a traumatic brain injury, the VA counselor is there to assist in finding help.
VetSuccess also is meant to give ex-military students a place to meet and establish their own community, Fanning said. Students coming out of the military have different shared experiences, she said, than the typical 18-year-old college freshman.
So why USF?
Location and reputation.
VA officials needed a university with about 1,000 veterans-students. They needed an institution that could provide office space for the VA. And they wanted a school near VA facilities.
USF quickly made the short list.
The James A. Haley VA Medical Center is next door to USF's Tampa campus, and the Bay Pines VA Medical Center and MacDill Air Force Base are nearby.
USF also typically has 800 to 1,000 veterans or their dependents receiving military benefits that cover tuition and fees. That gives it the nation's 10th-largest population of veteran and dependent students, administrators say.
"It was just a good fit," said Michael Downing, a management analyst in the VA's office of field operations.
The university also has a track record with students who are veterans.
During the Vietnam War, USF used a $95,000 federal grant to establish a standalone Veterans Services Office on campus.
The office helps ex-military students file the voluminous paperwork needed to document that they are taking classes covered by the military benefits that pay their tuition and fees.
When the federal funds ran out in 1993, most universities folded that function into their financial aid or registrars' offices, said USF associate vice president for student affairs Tracy Tyree.
But USF kept its office separate, paying for it with a combination of tuition funds and student activity and service fees.
In 1973-74, USF had 2,280 students who were veterans. After that, the number tapered off, then bumped up again after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The university has yet to see an increase in veteran enrollment from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but most of its veteran students arrive by transferring from a community college, Tyree said. So it could be that they will first go to a two-year college and then transfer in a year or two.
VA staffer Kristin Adams reported to work at VetSuccess last month. The university is providing Adams and the other counselor with office space.
Adams is an Air Force veteran who received a bachelor's and master's degree from USF, so Adams is familiar with issues veterans face and knows both institutions.
"It could have not been a better fit," Tyree said.
Richard Danielson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5311.