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Vets for Vets program gears up to serve 400-plus student veterans

August 30, 2007 By Kristin Czubkowski

After trying to fit 60 people last year in its small office at 714 University Ave., President Liz O’Herrin of Vets for Vets knew it was time to upgrade.

This year, the University of Wisconsin–Madison student organization will be holding its Sept. 5 kickoff meeting at Memorial Union from 5-6:30 p.m. (check Today in the Union for room location) Although it is a social event, with free pizza for attendees, O’Herrin says its primary goal is providing information to student veterans about state and federal education benefits, with Chancellor John Wiley and Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton on hand to welcome the veterans to campus.

At the event also will be representatives from the many local organizations that provide information and services to student veterans, from the Dane County Veterans Service Office to UW–Madison’s Office of the Registrar to the Veteran Affairs Hospital, says Vets for Vets staff member Andrew Seehusen.

"With there being so many different organizations that [student veterans] need to be in contact with, this is a chance for, instead of the student trying to go all these different offices, to have all these offices come to them," he says.

Vets for Vets deals exclusively with education benefits for student veterans, but many organizations in attendance next week can also provide information about health services, home loans and other benefits for which returning veterans are eligible.

Linda Struck, who works with student veterans in the registrar’s office, says there are currently 402 student veterans receiving education benefits at UW–Madison. Although this is fewer than the approximately 2,300 veterans on campus when the organization started in 1972 after the Vietnam War, Vets for Vets founder and current adviser Chuck Goranson says it’s about 15 percent higher than before the Iraq War.

Plus, "benefits have gotten more complicated" in recent years, he says, increasing the organization’s one-on-one work advising student veterans about what they can receive for tuition and other expenses. Besides individual counseling, Vets for Vets also provides informational brochures and a newsletter published five times each year.

"There’s no way of measuring it, but the information this office has provided has probably been worth millions of dollars in benefits," Goranson says.

He estimates there are at least eight different types of legislation calling themselves "GI Bills" that student veterans need to sort through when they return from active duty. What kinds of benefits a student veteran receives, he says, can depend on factors such as whether they enlisted in a branch of the military for four years or were called into active duty from the National Guard.

By working with student veterans to inform them about and explain their benefits, Vets for Vets aims to make sure they get everything they are owed and make their transition back to school as easy as possible, O’Herrin says. And she would know: O’Herrin is an Air National Guard member who was called into active duty in August 2004, returning three days before the spring semester started in January 2005.

"When I came back, all my benefits had changed because I was officially a veteran at that point, and so I stopped in to talk with the people that work for Vets for Vets just to try to get my ducks in a row and make sure I wasn’t missing anything as far as things I was entitled to," she says. After talking with the organization, she decided she wanted to work for them, serving as the organization’s treasurer in 2006 and president beginning in January 2007.

Although educating student veterans about their benefits is the primary purpose of Vets for Vets, O’Herrin says another function of the organization is keeping track of state and federal legislation pertaining to veterans’ benefits and talking with legislators about preserving benefits.

The organization also tries to keep student veterans informed about these potential changes and encourages them to contact their local representatives. Staying nonpartisan, O’Herrin says, is an important part of that work.

"[Veterans] are as diverse as the student population, so I really think it helps us to reach everyone by being nonpartisan because it doesn’t turn anyone off to our organization," she says. "We don’t care about politics, we just want to help veterans."