I remember my fear and uncertainty when I took charge of my platoon as a young Army Second Lieutenant in 2006. More than those emotions though, I remember my overwhelming sense of pride. It was an honor to be surrounded by fifty men and women who volunteered to serve their nation knowing that they would deploy in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) or Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), many of them for the second, third or even fourth time.
As a brand new Platoon Leader, I made spending time with my soldiers a priority. It was important to me to understand who they were, where they came from, and where they wanted to go. While topics varied from hometowns to music to sports, I always made sure to ask every one of them, "Why did you join the Army?" The majority responded "To serve my country," but many of them quickly added, "and to get an education." Their career aspirations ranged from entrepreneur to engineer, from teacher to technician. Rarely did I hear a goal that wouldn't require additional training or education when the soldier transitioned out of the military.
In 2008, when Congress passed the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Improvements Act (Post-9/11 GI Bill), I remember thinking, "This is going to be a game changer." The bill was the most generous education benefit available to veterans to date, providing significant college tuition support as well as a housing and book allowance. Soldiers could pursue their career goals and provide financial stability for their families. Equipped with this new benefit, these men and women could also continue to have a tremendous impact on the nation after their military service. After all, the first iteration of the G.I. Bill, post WWII, is widely acknowledged for creating an entire new class of workers -- 8 million strong -- that churned out three Presidents, three Supreme Court justices, 238,000 teachers, 450,000 engineers, 24 Pulitzer Prize Winners and 14 Nobel Prize winners, not to mention millions of entrepreneurs and small business owners.
When I transitioned out of the Army in 2010, I stayed in touch with my platoon through social media, e-mail and the occasional phone conversation. It was wonderful to be asked for letters of recommendation and to see updates of acceptances into a dream school or a family picture at commencement. Unfortunately, while there have been many uplifting stories, I've also heard the opposite -- posts, emails and calls about disenrolling from school because they didn't feel like they fit in, their family situation strained their ability to commit to school, or they didn't feel supported by the administration.
In 2012, more than $8 billion in government support for eligible veterans was paid out to colleges and universities around the country. You might assume by this staggering number that veterans education is a huge success. But a tuition bill doesn't equal a degree. We know veterans are leaving college and not finishing their programs, but we don't know when, how or why. We also don't know what could have been done differently to help them succeed. Very little research has been conducted to truly understand the barriers facing veterans as they pursue higher-education during their post-service life. If the post-9/11 GI Bill is going to deliver on its promise to both our veterans and the nation, we have to do better.
There is hope on the horizon. Just a few months ago, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University (IVMF), Student Veterans of America (SVA), the Posse Foundation, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and a team from Google got together with a single goal in mind: do the work necessary to understand, and then act on the opportunity afforded to our veterans by the post-9/11 GI Bill. Through a Google Global Impact Award, the IVMF and SVA have launched a national research project to inform and empower the veterans' community, as well as colleges and universities across America, to better support student veterans in their pursuit of education. We expect the first findings from the study to be published in late spring, and it will be openly shared with government agencies, communities, colleges and universities.
In the years to come, I'm confident that I will see more soldiers from my platoon achieving their dreams through education. This generation of veterans has the intellect and drive to accomplish their post-service goals. We just need to support them -- they deserve nothing less.