Student veterans deserve improvements in services

Last month we had the chance to profile Gulf War veteran Jason Wheeler and his prolonged struggle to receive benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. In addition to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Wheeler suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome — a nerve condition that had spread to his hands and made it immensely difficult for him to get in and out of a vehicle in his wheelchair. “It’s just a nightmare,” he said.

Despite his difficulties, Wheeler said he would have to wait years before possibly receiving the power mobility technology that would make the process easier and less painful for him. And there are thousands of veterans just like him.

This Veterans Day is an special opportunity for us to honor those who have served our country. It should also be an opportunity for the University community to evaluate how well we’re taking care of our student veterans.

The proposal from the College of Applied Health Sciences to turn Beckwith Hall into housing for disabled military veterans is certainly encouraging. Advocacy from Illini Veterans, a registered student organization, as well as the work done by the campus veteran support committee has also been inspiring.

Unfortunately, it seems like the University still has a ways to go before it catches up to its peer institutions in terms of accommodating veterans. According to the “Best for Vets: Colleges 2010” list compiled by Military Times EDGE, the University is not in the top 100 schools for policies and programs beneficial to student veterans. The list was compiled based on criteria such as financial assistance, academic flexibility, support services and campus culture. In-state institutions such as Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and Western Illinois University rank 2nd and 25th, respectively, and some of our peer institutions in the Big Ten Conference also cracked the top 100.

So, although we see a handful resources for student veterans on campus, there is always more that can be done. We should be doing everything we can for the students who risked their lives and supported this country before sitting next to us in lecture halls. The University currently lacks a permanent student veteran coordinator (Rhonda Kirts, associate dean of students, is serving in an interim capacity). Veterans could also benefit from having a designated space while the Beckwith idea waits on approval and potential remodeling.

These steps are important because our veterans are important. They have served our country and taken on a job that requires tremendous courage and sacrifice. Today, especially, we say thank you.