Several years ago, Josh Robtoy was doing patrols in Iraq, searching houses for rumored weapons and guarding the U.S. Embassy there.
Today, he does schoolwork in classrooms at Paul Smith's College, one of the 14 veterans attending the school this year.
With more and more military veterans coming back from the armed conflicts around the world and a new GI Bill that covers more costs for some students, colleges in the area are stepping up efforts to recruit, retain and serve the veterans going to school here.
Paul Smith’s College is working on being more accessible to veterans like these, from left: Cat Heavener; Jackie Hite; Chef David Gotzmer, an adviser to the college’s veterans’ club who was active in the Marine Corps from 1969 to 1972; Josh Robtoy, a forest biology major from Brookfield, Vt. who served in the Marines from 2003 to 2007; and Jeff Bellaire.
(Photo by Ken Aaron, Paul Smith’s College)
One young vet's story
Robtoy, a 24-year-old who grew up in Vermont, spent four years in active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps. He served three tours, one in Japan and the Philippines and two in Iraq. In the infantry, he earned a Combat Action Ribbon, which means he was involved with real, on-the-ground combat.
VETERANS DAY ON CAMPUS
On Wednesday, Paul Smith's College veterans club members are organizing a display of photos and bios to let the rest of the college community who they are.
He came off active duty on Jan. 13, 2007, married his high school sweetheart, Jennifer, and worked in logging and construction until he decided to go to college.
Starting at Paul Smith's on the old Montgomery GI Bill, he switched to the new Post-9/11 GI Bill when it went into effect this year.
"This new one is just amazing, actually," Robtoy said.
While the old bill gave him a set $1,400 stipend every month, the new GI Bill covers all his tuition and fees and gives him a stipend for books and an allowance for housing.
He had to take out loans to get him through his first year on the old GI Bill, but "I don't have to pay a single penny for the rest of the three," Robtoy said.
In the military, he paid into the GI Bill on each of his paychecks.
Now in his third semester as a forest biology student, Robtoy said he enjoys Paul Smith's, but it's a big change to be in college after spending time in the military. There's less structure and more freedom.
"In the military, you're told what to do," Robtoy said.
Robtoy has experienced some Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder since his time in the military. He has trouble sleeping at night, so he drinks a lot of coffee to get through days of classes and studying, he said.
"You've got to overcome, adapt," Robtoy said. "You can't let it get the best of you."
Despite his problems, he looks on his time in the military in a positive light.
"I'd do it again in a heartbeat," Robtoy said. "They say you make and lose the best friends in the military, and it's true."
Until December 2012, Robtoy is still on inactive duty and could be called back up. Two years ago his unit was recalled, and the Marines put more than half of the people in it back into service, but they didn't take him, Robtoy said. He said he doesn't know why, but if he does get called up, he'll go.
"It's understandable," Robtoy said. "They already spent the time and the money to train you."
Paul Smith's College
At Paul Smith's, Robtoy has access to a new Office of Veterans Services, set up so vets have a one-stop shop to go to from when they are first starting to consider attending the school through their attendance and when they become alumni.
Amy Tuthill, the school's associate director of veteran recruitment and retention, has been working on making the school more veteran friendly. She attended a conference on the topic, put on by the state Division of Veteran Affairs, in Watertown, and found it so interesting that she went to the next one at Adirondack Community College in Queensbury, hosted by state Sen. Betty Little.
"I just felt it was so important," Tuthill said, who has a personal connection as the mother of an Army second lieutenant who is scheduled to deploy to Iraq next October.
Veterans are doing their homework in choosing schools, Tuthill said. Some are even browsing colleges from trailers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and if they see a college makes an effort at being veteran friendly, they are more likely to attend that school.
At the conferences, Tuthill got little tips for doing veteran-friendly things like changing the wording on the school's application from, "Are you a veteran?" to, "Have you served in the U.S. Armed Forces?" Tuthill said many of the young vets think the term "veteran" refers to older vets and people who have completed inactive duty.
One of the things Tuthill learned from the conferences is that veterans often feel isolated while attending college because they feel different from other students since they have had such different experiences.
Additionally, many veterans marry young, as Robtoy did, and some have children early as well.
"Life is so short, and we understand that," Robtoy said.
Living off campus with a spouse and possibly kids increases the amount of isolation that veterans feel, because they have different priorities and don't have as many opportunities for socializing as the students do who live on campus.
Paul Smith's has instituted several changes to battle that isolation. Creating the veterans office was one initiative.
Another initiative aimed at getting the campus veterans in touch with one another. A professor who is a Vietnam veteran had a get-together with the incoming vets and the returning student vets so they could interact with one another.
"On the very first day they met, there was an instant bond," Tuthill said. "It was a very powerful meeting."
From that meeting, the students decided to form a veterans' club. Robtoy said he hopes the club will be a way to reach out to new vets coming onto campus so they know there are people there who understand their situation.
When the vets spend time together, Robtoy said they don't really talk much about their time in the military, other than comparing their training once in a while.
"It's an unspoken understanding that everyone knows," Robtoy said. "They've been through it, too, so why dredge up the bad?"
But just being around other vets makes him feel like there are people around who understand him, he said.
In addition to putting veterans in touch with one another, Tuthill said she wants to connect them to veteran services and social groups outside the school, like the local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts and the county Veterans Services Agency.
Part of Paul Smith's enrollment goals have been to recruit more vets, said Kathy Fitzgerald, the college's vice president of enrollment management. She said she expects an increased number of vets will be looking to go to college because of the improved benefits with the new GI Bill.
The focus is appropriate for the college, Fitzgerald said, since the vast majority of the first class of students at Paul Smith's, who started in 1946, were going to college on the GI Bill from World War II, and much of the faculty and staff there now are veterans.
"There's a commitment through the community that this is something we feel very strongly about," Fitzgerald said.
North Country Community College isn't actively pushing to get more veterans to enroll, but it already has a good number of them as part of the student body, said NCCC Vice President of Enrollment Ed Trathen.
"We've always had a strong enrollment of veterans," Trathen said.
This semester, there are 36 veterans studying at NCCC's three campuses in Saranac Lake, Malone and Ticonderoga; that number usually varies between 30 and 50, he said.
Trathen said many of the students are attending on one or the other GI Bill, but they are treated as a whole regardless of whether or not they're financing their education through military benefits. Often people think that the benefits are the only issue to be dealt with when enrolling veterans in college, but there are other things to consider, Trathen said.
"There is a wide variety of issues that come up that are unique to them that you wouldn't necessarily have with a typical college student," Trathen said.
Veterans may need housing, have an expired driver's license and have health issues, and those are all things that the college can assist with, Trathen said.
NCCC is in the process of taking many of the same steps that Paul Smith's has. Representatives from the school attended the Queensbury conference and are working on a putting together a program for the school that is tentatively called the Veteran Connect Program, said Joe Keegan, acting president for academic affairs at NCCC.
"We're looking to put in place a program that will increase outreach to veterans and meet their needs," Keegan said.
The pilot program would include a one-stop shop for veterans and a point person for them to go to on everything, similar to the one at Paul Smith's. The college is looking for ways to put vets in touch with local vet services as well.
The program would also include a group that would allow vets to get together and socialize with one another, Keegan said.
NCCC has already put a page on its Web site with information for veterans who attend or are looking to attend the college, something Paul Smith's has done as well.
The goal for the program is to not only help veterans achieve academically but to also help them with reintegration into the community after military service, Keegan said. Since the mission of NCCC is to serve the community and veterans are members of the North Country community, the school wants to help be a buffer between the military and the real world.
"So many people are looking to use the GI Bill when they get out, so college is a good place to start reintegration," Keegan said.
He said that since vets don't have to leave their community to go to NCCC, it makes college an easier first step after being in active duty.
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.