Returning from military service and adjusting to civilian life again can be difficult enough. Add sifting through the various veterans bills and preparation for a college education, and the process is even more difficult.
“After 9/11, I started seeing more and more veterans serving in combat and hearing from our vets that they would rather serve in combat than navigate through the G.I. bill system,” said Sierra College veteran counselor and coordinator Catherine Morris, who served in the Marine Corps, Army National Guard and Air National Guard from the 1980s to 2009.
“It is ridiculously compacted with VA health benefits, trying to find the right classes, unemployment and disability claims. It all becomes overwhelming.”
Because of the challenges, Morris had been striving to create a veterans building at the Sierra College Rocklin campus, which has about 800 student veterans, she said. The resource center that was created about two years ago was separate from Morris’ office and the VA certifying official.
About six months ago, GTECH Corporation offered to donate funds for a technology lab, a site was located, and the veterans center officially moved into the new site last week.
The center received a donation from GTECH as part of its Technology Giving program to build the technology center, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and celebration Friday.
The center received seven desktop computers, a big screen monitor for group instruction, two state-of-the-art color printers, partial funding for new furniture and a remodel of the center, including the installation of new carpet.
The center is available to the veterans and their families as a safe and supportive environment where they can conduct job searches, apply for positions online, take online college courses and improve their computer skills.
The Nevada County campus of Sierra College in Grass Valley has also created a veterans center, which is in its developing stages.
Located in the N-1 building on campus, the center includes a single counselor, student Loren Havranek, who served in the U.S. army from 1985 to 1997, and rooms for potential counseling services and a computer area specific to veterans.
“We have kind of a cheat sheet with all the numbers and resources available and if I don’t have the information on hand here, I have access to folks down in Rocklin and get it from them,” Havranek said.
“What we’re hoping to do is bring on more vets as peer mentors and have somebody staffing that area five days a week.”
Counselor Marcia Braga, who works at the Rocklin campus but lives in Grass Valley, will begin helping at the Nevada County campus veteran center in the next couple of weeks.
Havranek admits he served during peace time and does not recall any particularly scarring experiences, but he has certainly seen the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on many others, including his stepson.
“Having a place where they can get away or just even having someone to talk to, a lot of times is what they’re after, and it’s more effective when the person they’re speaking to has also gone through the process,” Havranek said. “That sense of ‘OK, you’ve been through the same thing and I know you’re not just feeding me a line.’”
Havranek said the lack of information can frustrate or limit many veterans.
“Going through all the paperwork for the VA can be rather daunting,” he said.
“A lot of times, it seems people are misinformed or people get bits and pieces, and it can lead to frustration. They can think they’ve got all their paperwork in line and find out they are missing one form and have to go back.”
The multitude of bills for veterans range from the post-9/11 Montgomery G.I. Bill and different benefits for the National Guard, survivor benefits, etc., Havranek said, adding it is like “trying to navigate through a labyrinth.”
He became involved with the Nevada County campus veterans center after a visit to the county Veterans Affairs office, which had little information about the veterans re-education assistance program that Havranek was trying to access. He went to the Rocklin campus and received information from the veterans center.
“A lot of the people who helped staff that area are vets themselves attending school there,” he said.
“They have established a peer mentoring system, and I know it sounds cliche, but it’s a unique dynamic amongst veterans. Immediately you have something in common.”
The expansion of the veterans services at the Nevada County campus will open up more opportunities for veterans, with the intent of mirroring the well-established Rocklin campus center, Havranek said.
“We’re hoping, as time progresses, that we can have the same amenities that they have at the Rocklin campus,” he said.
“They specifically designate their area with computers there for the veterans to use, a relaxation room if a vet is feeling stressed and information on a lot of other resources available.
“I think we do have a large veteran’s population in the Nevada County area that just maybe isn’t taking advantage of the benefits available to them. The more we can do to get the word out to them that these educational benefits and health benefits are available, the better.”
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