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New GI Bill offers veterans more benefits

After serving his country in the United States Army for four years, junior Jacob Dunning is hoping to make the transition from the battlefield to the football field.

Dunning, who was deployed to Afghanistan for 15 months in 2007, is pursuing a degree in exercise sciences and hopes to become a strength and conditioning coach for a professional sports team once he graduates.

More than 800 USF students such as Dunning receive veteran’s benefits, a number that Robert Sullins, dean of Undergraduate Studies, expects to increase in the fall with the implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

“This is a special group of people who have served this country and served us well,” Sullins said. “We’ve got an obligation to do the best we can do to serve them when they come here.”

The new GI Bill, which goes into effect Aug. 1, provides a significant increase in benefits compared to the former Montgomery GI Bill, Sullins said.

“With the Montgomery Bill, you can’t go to school full time without a job,” Sullins said. “Whereas with the new GI Bill, there is a possibility that a single veteran could pretty much go to school for free and not have to work — or work very little. It will be a lot easier for the veteran students to work full time on their degrees.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Montgomery GI Bill pays active duty servicemembers and veterans who are pursuing their degree full time a monthly rate of $1,321. Selected Reserve members receive a monthly rate of $329.

Dunning said he hasn’t struggled with maintaining a job under the former GI Bill because he saved money during his time in the service.

However, if he were to continue using the Montgomery GI Bill, Dunning said he would have had difficulty paying tuition this school year because his savings were diminishing. The new GI Bill will prevent that, he said.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill will fully pay tuition and fees, up to the highest Florida public university rate, Sullins said.

The new bill, which was signed by President George W. Bush on June 30, 2008, will also provide eligible veterans and their dependents with a monthly housing allowance of approximately $1,000 and $1,000 a year for books and supplies, Sullins said.

“I think (the GI Bill) is doing what we want to do for all of the students, it’s just recognizing that (the veterans) have unique needs,” said Tracy Tyree, associate vice president for Student Affairs. “We want students to integrate into life at the University, we want them to identify and really connect with being a part of the USF community.”

According to the VA, eligible recipients of the new benefits include veterans who served at least three years since 9/11, Reserves and National Guard members who have been activated for more than 90 days since 9/11, veterans who served at least 30 continuous days after 9/11 and were disabled during service, active duty service members and, in some cases, the dependants of active duty members.

Sullins said USF has the 10th largest population of veteran and veteran-dependent students in the nation. He said the University is taking several measures to better prepare services for existing and incoming veteran students.

“USF already provides a great program for veterans, but we want to do more,” Sullins said. “We want to provide them better contacts with each other, better information about choosing careers and make sure they are on track with their degree programs.”

The USF Veterans Services Office, established in 1974, provides specialized services to active duty servicemembers, veterans and their eligible dependents, said Meredith Nickles, assistant director of Veterans Services.

Veterans Services helps administer the GI Bill for benefit recipients and monitors the recipients’ coursework because all credit hours taken must be applicable to their degree or their benefits will decrease, she said.

Veterans Services also offers peer advisors and a work study program for veterans, Nickles said. Additionally, USF began a campus chapter of Student Veterans of America last year.

“One of the things that veterans coming out of the service miss is the camaraderie that they had in the service. All of the sudden they’re (on campus) with a group of strangers,” Nickles said. “So we try to connect them through the support group.”

Tyree said USF will be the first university in the nation to offer a new program that will place a VA representative on campus to assist veteran students.

A ceremonial signing of a memorandum of agreement between USF and VA will formally establish the pilot program, Tyree said. The VA undersecretary for benefits will join USF President Judy Genshaft on June 4 to sign the agreement in the C.W. Bill Young Hall at 2:00 p.m.