GARNER — Patriotism ran high on campus at Wake Technical Community College this week as the school took a morning to recognize the nation’s and the state’s veterans.
At Wake Tech the Veterans Services Programs is working to help nearly 2,000 students ease the transition from military service to school, and build a plan for their future. Wake Tech’s Veteran’s Resource Center was built especially for that purpose.
“We want them to know how much work they can already get curriculum credit for, but at the same time we want to connect them with the outside agencies that can provide the resources that we can’t such as housing, medical treatment, those kinds of things,” said Dr. Samuel Strickland, senior vice president for Military and Veterans Programs. “The Veterans Center is a hub for those resources. They and their families can connect with each other, use the computer lab, and learn more about what’s available to them. Veterans are very special, and they have unique needs and they come into the college.”
But here on Tuesday, of the 150 students and staff at the ceremony, the number of those who traded their uniform for a backpack and jeans far outnumbered those who haven’t served. They are studying everything from engineering to education to information and technology. Each stood in honor of their branch as the 82nd Airborne Division Brass Quintet played.
“Veterans do not leave their values and skills when they take off their uniform,” said Col. Rock Booze, U.S. Army, who was there to address the veteran audience. “They use their skills to continue serving the community as teachers, elected officials, first responders. They use their skills for positive impact. A service member is one for life, and it is our duty to support them and inspire the next generation to serve.”
At the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs they couldn’t agree more. Regional teams are holding Veterans Community Action Center open houses across the state to help veterans, whether they are in school or not, apply for benefits that many may not even know they have. The agency offers monetary benefits, job training, tuition assistance and even home loans.
“We pay for the most part monetary benefits, if a veteran is injured in the military or during active duty and they have residual disability from that we can compensate them for that,” said Mark Bilosz, the VA’s Winston-Salem Regional Office director. “There are also various disabilities that we can compensate, especially Vietnam-era veterans who may have been exposed to Agent Orange. Everybody could get a benefit all the way from zero up to 100 percent, which could mean anywhere from a $100 all the way up to several thousand dollars a month, and those are tax-free benefits.”
At the open houses veterans can sit down with a professional and sometimes get a decision right away. Bilosz estimated that there are thousands of veterans in N.C. that are not collecting their benefits for one reason or another. Often older veterans don’t know what’s available to them. Younger people right out the military get extensive briefings on benefits, but those outreach efforts are relatively new.
“Some folks don’t trust VA, and a good percentage are Vietnam-era folks,” said Bilosz. “When they came back from Vietnam they were not treated very well by society, not like veterans today.
“Some folks say, ‘My condition isn’t that bad, and there are other folks out there that are worse than me, and by coming in it’s taking away from someone else.’ That absolutely isn’t true, each case is looked at individually,” he added.
For Lorena Manzanares, all the resources available to her when she was medically discharged from the service last year helped her find a new path. A mom of three, a veteran and a student, Manzanares is looking forward to a bright future out of uniform, and hopefully at the front of an elementary school classroom.
“I’ve always known I want to work with children, and teachers are developing our future leaders,” she said. “Here they are giving us a great foundation to build those skills for the next step.”
Manzanares said that friends who are student veterans in other parts of the country don’t enjoy the same support as she gets here.
“My friend is a student in Portland, Ore., and when she identified herself as a veteran in class someone vandalized her car and spray painted ‘babykiller’ on it,” Manzanares said. “I’m so glad we live in N.C. where we understand and appreciate veterans.”
She in the vice president of Wake Tech’s Student Veterans Association and part of the next generation of N.C. veterans who will continue the leadership the nation needs in a time of change and division.
“No matter what branch of service, we live an uncommon life under a common flag,” said Booze. “But what matters most is that we are Americans first. All of us.”
For more information on resources available to N.C. veterans visit www.milvets.nc.gov