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Iraq veterans return to academic routine

USF student Barbara Bustamante has spent her college career studying more than formulas and textbook pages.

She has been deployed to Iraq three times and Afghanistan once, where she served as a medic treating traumatized victims, spending three years overseas.

“You do a lot without a doctor or physician around,” Bustamante said. “You have to.”

Bustamante, a senior majoring in chemistry, is president of the Student Veterans Association (SVA) and plans to return to the military as an officer upon completing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

More than 1,200 veterans and their dependents are enrolled at USF, said Larry Braue, director of Veterans Services.

“We’ve had a pretty significant bump in enrollment,” he said. “We anticipate that trend to continue for several years. A lot will depend on what the government does.”

He said the Veterans Services office estimated that the 23 percent increase since last year and 10 percent increase since spring semester are a result of returning young adults who were deployed overseas.

The students returning from combat zones also provide new perspectives to the college experience.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like to graduate high school and go straight to college,” Bustamante said. “The military shaped me as a person. I have experience in organization and leadership.”

Mitchell Milillo, a senior majoring in international studies, is also a veteran. Part of the 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines (3/2), Milillo’s two tours of duty in Iraq as an infantryman and sniper had him kicking down doors and breaking into houses.

“There are not many job opportunities for a marine sniper,” he said.

Milillo, who hopes to work for the federal government after graduating in May, said his experience has given him the basis needed for forming educated opinions, something he feels sets him apart from many of his traditional classmates who have spent their lives at home.

“It’s given me more of a reason to have an opinion,” Milillo said. “And we (veterans) are not crazy baby killers. I’ve been told that before.”

Since 2007, the number of troops in Iraq alone has been reduced by more than 120,000, with a surge this past year after President Barack Obama announced his plan to withdraw troops from the country.

More than 144,000 troops are currently stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While all combat troops have left Iraq, the remaining 50,000 will leave by December 2011 – a plan developed by former President George W. Bush.

Over the past few years, the government has responded to the influx of veterans returning to school with legislation such as the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

Signed into effect on Aug. 1, 2009, the bill provides all veterans who have served a minimum of 90 days of active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, and a total of at least three years of active duty with free tuition and fees for public institutions.

Many schools, including USF, also accept credits through military services.

The Veterans Services office offers programs to assist veterans in connecting to the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital, where they can receive mental and health care.

For Milillo, transitioning to the college life was difficult.

When he entered college, he said he came in with 32 existing credits, and his friends, who attended USF after high school, had already graduated. Milillo then joined the SVA to meet individuals with similar experiences, and he recommends that incoming veterans get involved in activities and organizations.

“College is a joke compared to being in the military,” Milillo said. “The military made me more disciplined, alert and goal-oriented. If you’re going to school, it’s a lot less stress. You only have classes to deal with.”

For Bustamante, the military helped her develop the ambition needed to succeed in school.

“Thirteen years and I get retirement,” she said. “I’m definitely proud to be a veteran. I go about my day knowing I’ve accomplished great things and I’m here to accomplish greater things.”