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Veterans Affairs secretary visits CCRI
Feb. 21, 2011
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, with U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, visited the Community College of Rhode Island on Feb. 18 to meet with student veterans in a roundtable discussion about the experience of going to college after leaving the military.
Shinseki said that the services provided for veterans at CCRI, which will help them transition from leadership roles on the battlefield to leadership roles in the economy, are a gift to the nation.
Twelve student veterans, as well as officials from the Veterans Administration, CCRI and Rhode Island College, participated in the discussion.
CCRI and RIC share a VetSuccess on Campus Center, where student veterans have direct access to a Veterans Administration liaison who can help them use their G.I. Bill benefits and address any problems they may face. This is a pilot program and the Center is one of only eight in the country.
Shinseki, a Vietnam War veteran and retired Army chief of staff, said that the G.I. Bill after WWII was responsible for educating millions of teachers, scientists and engineers who helped the country to grow and prosper. The new G.I. Bill, he said, and its new generation of student veterans, can help the country in a similar way.
“They can have an equally resounding influence on America as the WWII generation did,” he said.
Shinseki said that President Obama challenged America in his state of the union address to out-educate the world so that the United States can compete in an international knowledge economy, and that student veterans will be an important part of that effort.
“CCRI and the Veterans Administration are answering the president’s call with the superb study programs that are offered here,” Shinseki said.
The roundtable discussion at CCRI focused on ways that the VA can improve services to student veterans, many of whom said that communication was an issue before the VetSuccess Center.
One participant in the discussion, Brian Fountaine, served for six years in the U.S. Army before his humvee hit an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2006. The blast cost him both of his lower legs and he now walks with prostheses.
“You leave one person and you come back completely different,” Fountaine said about the experience of war, even for soldiers who are not physically hurt.
Fountaine spent more than a year recuperating in Walter Reed Army Medical Center and undergoing multiple surgeries. He is now a student at Cape Cod Community College studying graphic design and has created some images for the VetSuccess Center.
He said that the VA could improve the way it communicates with veterans, noting that most of them have Facebook and Twitter and would be receptive to online communication.
Overall, though, he said he is grateful for the opportunities provided by the VA and the new G.I. Bill. “I think it’s great; it provides us with a lot of opportunity,” he said. “They’re just there 24/7.”
Another student, Rafael Diaz, is in his first semester at the CCRI Liston Campus in Providence and has used the resources available to him at the VetSuccess Center there.
“It’s a little weird transitioning from deployment to school,” Diaz said. “But I think they give us all the resources we need to get everything done.”
Diaz has about a year and a half remaining to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan during his active duty service between 2008 and 2010. He is taking general studies courses for now and plans to study engineering.
Diaz said he appreciated the opportunity to meet with his Rhode Island senators and the VA officials. “I like the fact that they listened to us and took the time out of their day to come see us,” he said.
CCRI President Ray Di Pasquale said the college serves about 580 student veterans. “There are some outstanding young people here today,” he said.
He added, “To be chosen as a site for one of the VetSuccess Centers and for a visit from Secretary Shinseki makes this a very proud moment for the college.”