College campuses help centralize veteran services -- Gazette.Net







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Montgomery County is looking to its public colleges to link to military veteran services, on and off their campuses.

The schools already have veterans in mind: Montgomery College serves student veterans in its Combat to College Progam and the Universities at Shady Grove campus has made several changes to its veteran services this fall.

A new initiative aims to centralize services available throughout the county under one umbrella and use schools as access points for veterans looking for mental-health counseling, help obtaining benefits or academic advice.

County Executive Isiah Leggett rolled out the initiative in November — about a year after meeting with the heads of the college campuses, as well as U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin and Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., to talk about the issue, said Michael Subin, executive director of the Montgomery County Criminal Justice Coordination Commission and the initiative’s coordinator.

Leggett initiated the meeting because “he saw gaps in the services and wanted them closed,” Subin said.

Another important aspect, he said, is not duplicating efforts in the county.

Montgomery College, the Universities at Shady Grove and Johns Hopkins University’s Montgomery County campus all play roles in the initiative. The Silver Spring Vet Center and the Mental Health Association of Montgomery County are the first among a growing group of county organizations sharing and providing services on campus, Subin said.

Colleges were a logical place because many veterans take advantage of the GI Bill benefits that cover education costs and campuses are where veterans experience the transition from military to civilian life, Subin said.

“By working with the schools, we’ve been able to identify what is out there and find the means to share that effort,” he said.

For Jason Franklin — who served five years in the Marine Corps in California — the return to civilian life at Montgomery College campus was difficult.

“I personally felt very isolated as a student returning back,” he said, describing a transition from “military discipline” to independence and free thinking.

Now, Franklin and his wife, Joanna Starling, are coordinators of the school’s Combat to College Program, which connects veterans to services.

“A lot of it is raising awareness of what’s already available to them,” Starling said.

A new veterans benefits officer recently started on the college’s campus following the formation of a partnership between the college and the state Department of Veterans Affairs, Starling said.

The officer helps students take advantage of benefits such as forms of compensation for service connected to injuries or illnesses.

Starling and Franklin estimated that they interact with about 40 percent of the more than 800 students who are veterans or service members.

Wayne Miller, chief of the Silver Spring Vet Center, said college campuses became an obvious location to find veterans using the GI Bill.

Miller said the vet center — which provides services including individual, family, substance abuse and other forms of counseling — currently has representatives visit Montgomery College and the Universities at Shady Grove campus about once a month to help both students and other veterans in the community. The representatives gather veterans’ information and sometimes work with them on the campus or set up an appointment.

The new county initiative, Miller said, doesn’t change much for the center, but he thinks it improves veterans’ access to services.

“With us having more places to go with our presence, it makes them more aware and it makes the families more aware,” he said.

The Universities at Shady Grove campus in Rockville has worked this fall to consolidate and expand services for veterans.

With about 75 percent of its students coming from Montgomery College, one main goal is to provide continuity for veterans transferring to the Shady Grove institution, said Robyn Dinicola-Wagle, chief student affairs officer.

The campus opened a new veteran services office at the beginning of the fall semester to centralize support services and let veterans gather and meet each other, Dinicola-Wagle said.

Veterans have had access to general services on the campus in the past, but the campus is increasing services geared specifically toward them, such as career workshops, a peer mentorship program and internship opportunities.

The majority of the recent changes at Shady Grove do not directly stem from the county executive’s initiative, Dinicola-Wagle said, but the campus’ services are now better linked to county services.

The initiative also has reached the Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County campus.

Leslie Ford Weber — interim executive director at the Rockville campus — said that in the past, the school directed student veterans to general services available for all students at its Baltimore campus.

The campus now aims to help direct students toward closer services in the county, such as the Silver Spring Vet Center and the Mental Health Association.

Sgt. Walter A. Ramirez — president of the Shady Grove campus’ veterans organization and a Marine veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — said student veterans have helped spread the word about available services.

New efforts at Shady Grove make it easier to know what’s available, so the “stress and effort” of word of mouth is lifted off their shoulders, he said.