As a bright-eyed and adventurous 17-year-old, Owensboro, Kentucky native Matthew Litsey yearned to see the world through serving his country. He couldn't wait to finish high school to start his journey, so he didn't. The summer after his junior year, he joined the United States Marine Corps, and three days after high school graduation in May of 2005, was shipped off to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina.
It was everything he was warned it would be: a long, hot, and brutal 70-day training that would be the ultimate test of his mental and physical strength. 12 weeks later, Litsey emerged not as a young boy, but as a man.
A man who was now a lance corporal in the United States Marines.
Due to his achievements in boot camp, Litsey was assigned to the Marine Security Force for the White House Communications Agency, where he provided security detail to former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. For four years, he traveled across the United States and overseas with the Bush administration attending high-profile events in Germany and Italy. He had given up the life he was accustomed to in rural Kentucky to be a part of something bigger than himself, to a cause that was admired and appreciated by the government he served.
After the passage of the new Chapter 33 Post 9/11 G.I. Bill, Litsey decided to use the enticing benefits that he and many of his fellow Marines had been waiting for. On May 10, 2009 at the age of 22, Litsey began his journey as a college freshman at Western Kentucky University.
Surrounded by boys four years his elder who had never experienced freedom, the rigidity of a tight schedule, or discipline, Litsey found it more difficult to juggle his books and his free time than he did any military order, excruciating physical test, or weapon.
"I found it difficult to find people that I could relate to because I no longer had my band of brothers physically with me," he said. "I felt like a stranger who had been placed in strange waters surrounded by people who just didn't understand me."
As the year progressed and loneliness grew into frustration, he began to realize the number of students that roamed the campus branding the same tattooed memories on their body as he did.
He began to realize that he was not alone in his quest to make the change to an accustomed citizen from a transitional veteran. It was from this realization that Litsey enlisted the help of the campus Veterans Affairs officer, and began the first chapter of the university's Student Veterans Alliance in 2010. Since its creation, the WKU SVA has helped countless veterans make the transition from active duty servicemen and women into successful and productive student citizens.
"It was refreshing to have veteran friends because it gave me a sense of community again," he said. "I found people that could understand my military jargon and could understand the struggles and challenges I was facing at the time."
Stories like Litsey's are not uncommon, as transitional veterans have been banding together since the end of the Second World War to overcome transitional challenges and shortcomings in order to gain educational success.
With the passage of the 1944 Readjustment Act, known as the GI Bill of Rights by former President Franklin Roosevelt, colleges and universities began to see an astounding increase in veteran enrollment. Throughout the years, and at the end of both the Vietnam and Korean Wars, the number of student veterans continued to soar, though the resources and support came to a standstill.
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks when the U.S. launched both Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, returning vets began to realize more than ever that their campuses were not providing adequate support services to help transitioning veterans receive support for specialized training, job placement, or post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2008 members from various school chapters decided to expand grassroots outreach, and the Student Veterans of America was born. Today, the organization has more than 500 chapters in all 50 states and three countries around the world, including Litsey's.
Key Congressional players have also been taking strides to ensure veterans are receiving the resources necessary to make a comfortable and positive transition into civilian life.
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.) recently introduced new federal legislation called S.863, the Veterans Back to School Act, which would eliminate restrictions on the time retired vets have to use their GI Bill. Currently, more than 800,000 veterans and their family members are currently using their GI benefits that provide vital educational opportunities and transitional support.
"Given the changing nature of today's job market and economy, many veterans are now choosing to go back to school and receive additional training and expertise," said Blumenthal. "This legislation provides a simple fix to eliminate unfair restrictions and allows current and future generations of veterans to use these hard-earned benefits."
S. 863 has been referred to the Senate Veteran's Affairs Committee where it is awaiting approval.
Many veterans, including Litsey, agree that the benefits associated with serving are commendable, but that the process to receive them needs to be made more efficient.
Programs such as the Transitional Assistance Program that was created through the Department of Labor were established to help meet the need for efficiency. Separating service members are offered job-search assistance and related services within 180 days of separation or retirement during their period of transition into civilian life.
TAP consists of comprehensive three-day workshops at selected military installations nationwide. During these sessions veterans learn about job searches, career decision-making, and current occupational and labor market conditions. They build their resumes and cover letters in preparation for interviews, and are provided with evaluations of their employability relative to the job market and receive information on the most current veterans' benefits.
Although experience shows that veterans generally enjoy a favorable employment rate in the nation's job market, many veterans initially find it difficult to compete successfully in the labor market. The TAP program addresses many barriers to success and alleviates many employment related difficulties.
Even with programs such as TAP and organizations such as SVA, benefits that lured so many troops into military service may not remain intact after sequestration and other budget cuts, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told troops at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii last week.
Joe Davis, the national spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars , told USA Today that cutting these benefits will have a crippling effect on maintaining a strong military force.
"Constant relocation hampers earning equity on a purchased home, and precludes military spouses from developing a steady career," Davis said. "Service members reentering the workforce after decades in the military have less of an edge over younger civilians applying for the same jobs."
According to Litsey, he and many of his fellow comrades agree that appealing benefits are important to attract a steady flow of enlistees, but that the government also has to strike a steady balance between offering enticing benefits post-service without throwing too much out on the table.
"Benefits are great, but veterans are independent people who can be successful with tools and resources, that's how we were trained," he said. "I don't want people to enlist because of the pay, or the benefits. I want them to enlist because serving their country by fighting for it is motivation enough."