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New GI Bill could open education doors for more vets
Updated 5/18/2009 12:38 AM ET
HANOVER, N.H. — Through a classroom window, Samuel Crist can see the stately buildings and tree-lined sidewalks of a picture-book New England campus. Inside, Crist refers occasionally to notecards as he reads aloud his assignment in Arabic, while nine other students listen intently and his professor takes notes.

More than four years ago, Crist lay bleeding on a Fallujah street, where he had been shot in the arm and leg on the second day of one of the Iraq war's deadliest battles. Today, Crist, 24, is in his final year at Dartmouth College.

"A lot of people in my unit didn't come back," he says. "It would feel like such a waste if I came back and didn't work to my fullest potential."

Crist is one of a small but growing number of veterans studying at Dartmouth. They're a reflection of a broader effort that encourages today's veterans to enter college in much the same way the World War II-era GI Bill gave their grandparents a shot at higher education.

That effort has been led by two former Marines: Dartmouth President James Wright and Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat. The result is a new law, the Post-9/11 GI Bill, that increases education aid for veterans who have served at least 90 days after the terrorist attacks. The bill takes effect Aug. 1.

Wright spent his career emphasizing the need to expand the number of people who consider college. After reading about the Fallujah battle, he began visiting wounded troops in hospitals and talking about higher education.

"Diversity is about more than race and religion and national background," says Wright, who served in the Marines and was the first in his family to attend college. "These veterans are part of a demographic that is being missed," he says.

Wright had concluded that the existing GI Bill, which hadn't kept up with the escalating cost of higher education, was inadequate. Wright says he contacted Webb and offered his help in winning support for a new bill.

The new law, which could potentially more than double the amount covered in the current GI Bill, could open college doors to thousands of veterans, many of whom would not otherwise have considered college because of the expense.

The law provides the equivalent of in-state tuition at the highest-priced public college in the state where the veteran lives, based on undergraduate tuition and fees. There is also a monthly housing allowance and a $1,000 stipend for books and supplies.

Volunteer force

Today's wars are being fought by a much smaller volunteer military than previous wars had. The Pentagon is working to keep the forces it has by issuing bonuses and other incentives.

Even so, many servicemembers leave the military after their initial enlistment, Webb and others point out. "There's a huge misperception in this society that the volunteer system is a career system," Webb says. "It is still a citizen-soldier system," says Webb, whose son, Jimmy, served in Iraq as an enlisted Marine.

Nearly 70% of the Army and 74% of the Marines serve one enlistment, according to Pentagon statistics. College can be financially out of reach for many servicemembers leaving the military.

"Those are the people who weren't being taken care of," Webb says.

Webb, a decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam War first elected in 2006, pushed the new GI Bill through Congress last year.

The bill traveled an unlikely path to becoming law.

The Bush administration and its allies, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., initially opposed the new bill, worried it could encourage too many people to leave the service and go to college at a time when the Pentagon was increasing the size of the military.

William Carr, a Pentagon personnel official, said the military was concerned the government would have to offer even more generous bonuses to keep people from taking advantage of the new GI Bill and leaving the military. "We were bidding against ourselves," Carr says.

The Pentagon later dropped its opposition after the bill's supporters added a clause allowing servicemembers to pass benefits to a spouse or child.

Not 'conventional applicants'

Nine veterans landed at Dartmouth, an Ivy League school.

Crist, who grew up near Lafayette, La., joined the Marines at 18. He was off to boot camp, then Iraq, arriving in June 2004. His infantry unit later went to Fallujah as part of an assault force that in November 2004 would participate in one of the toughest urban fights in recent history.

Crist was shot in the leg on the battle's second day as he and other Marines ran across a street. As he crawled away, another bullet struck his arm. His colleagues dragged him off the street as insurgents raked the area with automatic weapons fire.

At National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Crist met Wright while medicated and has only a dim recollection of their chat. After his medical retirement, Crist says, he was "just treading water." A "C" student in high school, he didn't consider himself Ivy League material.

Still, he had kept Wright's business card. Crist wrote to Wright, explaining that he felt it would be a waste of his life not to work to his fullest potential when many in his unit didn't return from Iraq.

Wright called Crist, telling him it was too late that year to apply for Dartmouth but urged him to attend any college and try the next year. Crist attended University of St. Thomas in Houston, then transferred to Dartmouth.

Wright says he doesn't interfere with Dartmouth's admissions process, but adds that admissions officials know he is interested in veterans and look beyond an applicant's test scores and grades. "These are not conventional applicants," he says.

The nine veterans at Dartmouth are focused and disciplined, Wright says. Because the new GI Bill is not yet in effect, the nine are paying for school with a combination of military benefits, scholarships and federal aid.

During the Vietnam War era, veterans were not welcome on some campuses that had become hotbeds of anti-war activism. Now, "we're able to separate the warrior from the war," says Brendan Hart, 26, a former Marine and Dartmouth junior.

New perspectives

Wright says he gave no thought about college when he graduated from high school. After getting discharged from the Marines in 1960, though, he entered college and eventually earned a Ph.D. He went to Dartmouth as a history professor in 1969. He will retire as president at the end of this academic year.

Webb, who earned a Navy Cross as a Marine in Vietnam, unseated incumbent Republican George Allen in 2006. Webb introduced the new GI Bill on his first day in office.

Veterans will bring their experiences to campus, lending a new perspective, Wright says.

Crist is studying Arabic and Middle Eastern history. Recently, he learned his Arabic teacher was from Iraq and said he felt obliged to tell him he had fought there, in the event the teacher harbored strong feelings against the war.

The instructor, Hussein Kadhim, said Crist's background posed no problem. Kadhim had served time as a conscript in Saddam Hussein's military.

"I wish he told me earlier," Kadhim says. "Transitioning from the army to civilian life can be challenging."

Posted 5/17/2009 10:04 PM ET
Updated 5/18/2009 12:38 AM ET
Dartmouth student Samuel Crist, 24, a native of Youngsville, La., and a former Marine who was badly injured in the battle of Fallujah, is one of a small number of young veterans now attending the Ivy League school.
By Josh T. Reynolds for USA TODAY
Dartmouth student Samuel Crist, 24, a native of Youngsville, La., and a former Marine who was badly injured in the battle of Fallujah, is one of a small number of young veterans now attending the Ivy League school.