Although the wars in which they fought are decades apart, Gordon Van Scotter, 94, and Jacob Lindholm, 29, followed similar paths from the military into civilian life.
Van Scotter enlisted as an Army engineer in 1942, landed at Normandy Beach in 1944 and helped liberate the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945. He was part of the first wave of American soldiers to pay for college with the GI Bill. He studied engineering at Gonzaga University and put his degree to good use, designing dams along the Snake River with the Army Corps of Engineers and working with private firms in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Lindholm, as a combat engineer in the Marine Corps, assembled bridges that carried 70-ton tanks across canals in Iraq and Afghanistan, and participated in the 2010 invasion of Marjah, a Taliban stronghold in the latter country’s Helmand province. The Mt. Spokane High School alumnus is a sophomore at Gonzaga now, studying mechanical engineering. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is paying his tuition.
It’s been 73 years since Congress passed the first GI Bill – landmark legislation that transformed the way the nation treats its military veterans. In observance of Veterans Day, Van Scotter, Lindholm and other local service members described their transitions from battlefields to college classrooms and beyond.
“The GI Bill helped me tremendously, paid for my first two children,” Van Scotter said in a phone call from his home in Clarkston. “And if it had not been for it, I would not have been able to go to school.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, or the GI Bill of Rights, into law on June 22, 1944, saying it would give “emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down.”
The bill’s passage followed a debate about the virtues of such a comprehensive safety net, which would provide not only college tuition but also health care, spousal support, low-cost mortgages and low-interest home and business loans. But lawmakers were determined to avoid the same political missteps that had followed World War I, when discharged soldiers received little more than a one-time cash allowance and a train ride home.
Hundreds of thousands of veterans currently attend college on some iteration of the GI Bill, including 290 at Gonzaga, 122 at Whitworth University, 645 at Eastern Washington University, 1,520 at Washington State University and 355 at the Community Colleges of Spokane, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I call it a scholarship that veterans earn,” said Dave Millet, a 25-year Army veteran and the director of EWU’s Veterans Resource Center.
The center, which assists student-veterans with heaps of VA paperwork and offers them a place to socialize and do homework, opened in 2012. Millet said many schools created similar offices around that time in response to a wave of incoming Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. At EWU, he said, the number of GI Bill students more than quadrupled in a few years.
“You saw this huge influx of veterans come back to school after the post-9/11 GI Bill came into effect in ‘09, and universities were realizing, to help with recruitment and retention and graduation, they needed to create systems to help,” Millet said.
Lane Anderson, who helped launch EWU’s veterans center and now does the same work at Spokane Falls Community College, said schools were pressured to assume the responsibility of helping veterans navigate the federal bureaucracy.
“When service members were out processing, the VA didn’t do that great a job of informing them about the benefits, how much they get, how to get them, how to apply for them,” Anderson said.
Millet said public institutions tend to attract more veterans, but local private schools – Whitworth and Gonzaga – also have taken pains to offer more veteran-specific resources and programs, such as the Yellow Ribbon program, which supplements GI Bill tuition payments.
Derrick Green, a 27-year-old who spent four years in the Air Force, said many of his fellow student-veterans at Whitworth are “impressed by how far their benefits are going.” He said he enjoys being at a small school where he can quickly get one-on-one time with a veteran adviser, and he’s working to create a club so that veterans can “network” on campus.
Still, the transition into college is difficult for many veterans because they have started families, or because they’re coping with post-traumatic stress, or because it’s hard to find peers who understand what war is like.
And some say the GI Bill and its myriad rules cause plenty of headaches.
“It’s run by the VA, so it’s not like there’s a whole lot of expectation there,” said Lindholm, the Gonzaga engineering student.
Lindholm said the GI Bill likely won’t cover his senior year, so he’ll either pay out of pocket, apply for Yellow Ribbon funding or seek other financial aid. He previously studied at SFCC, but because of administrative quirks, he wasn’t able to transfer all of his credits or get an honors certificate he had worked toward, he said.
Each summer, Lindholm said, he works construction in Homer, Alaska. He said he would take summer courses, but they eat up more of his benefits, so completing his degree faster is a balancing act.
And while he’s now dedicated to pursuing research, Lindholm said it wasn’t the academic path he had always envisioned.
“It was hard because I didn’t really want to go to college,” he said. “I wanted to be able to go to a tech school, and just get a technical degree and go right back into the workforce. But the GI Bill at the time wasn’t allowing for that.”
Keaton Oberlander, 24, spent four years in an Army artillery crew before he went to the University of Washington to study computer programming. He was eager to learn but quickly fell behind in an introductory class; many of his classmates already knew Python, a relatively simple coding language.
“It’s been four or five years – or even longer, for a lot of veterans – since they’ve been in school, whereas the typical college student is just straight of high school. Everything is still fresh in their mind,” said Oberlander, who’s married, is expecting a second child and now studies business management at Whitworth.
For Hunter Sheffield, college brought a culture shock. He spent a year at the University of Montana before joining the Air Force and becoming an intelligence operations specialist. He’s now back in classes at EWU, studying elementary education.
“I’m 26,” Sheffield said. “I have classes with people that are Running Start students and they’re 17 years old. So relating to somebody that has no life experience like you have is kind of hard at times.”
Despite those frustrations, student-veterans said they value the GI Bill and the opportunities it offers.
“It’s definitely a great avenue for our veterans to retrain themselves for a second career or academic path outside of their military service,” Anderson said, “and we should be thankful that we have it.”