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Veterans, colleges feel effects of GI Bill

| Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013, 11:15 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Marine Corps veteran and Pitt student, Matt Hannan, 36, is framed between a statue at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and the Cathedral of Learning on Pitt's campus in Oakland, Thursday, August 1, 2013. Hannan, who suffered a broken back in Iraq is attending Pitt on the Post 9/11 GI Bill aiming for a career as a rehabilitation therapist.

After eight surgeries for a back injury he received as a Marine in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2007, Matt Hannan wasn't about to lose his battle for a new life.

Hannan, 36, is attending the University of Pittsburgh on the Post 9/11 GI Bill. He is aiming for a career as a rehabilitation therapist, working part time and using his spare time as president of Pitt's Student Veteran Association to encourage veterans to take advantage of the bill, which when school starts this fall is on track to have assisted 1 million beneficiaries since August 2009.

For Hannan, a Pittsburgh native who served 15 years before his medical discharge, the GI Bill enabled him to channel his military experience into an education that should lead to a chance to help others.

“That's why I'm so passionate. I don't have to work another day in my life. I'm considered to have a 90 percent service-related disability. But there are a lot of dark things that can stalk you. It's important for veterans to stay engaged so those demons don't haunt you,” Hannan said.

Colleges throughout the region count a growing presence of veterans attending class on the benefit, which pays up to the full cost of in-state public university tuition and fees for eligible veterans and provides a monthly housing allowance and a stipend for books and supplies.

Three Western Pennsylvania universities will enroll about 800 veterans in the program this fall.

At Pitt, officials are expecting fall enrollment of about 375 veterans under the GI Bill, said Ryan Ahl, director of Pitt's Office of Veterans Services. At Robert Morris University, about 230 will be enrolled, while California University of Pennsylvania expects more than 200 GI Bill students.

According to Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, the Post 9/11 GI Bill that began providing benefits four years ago has given nearly $30 billion in education benefits to veterans who served since Sept. 10, 2001.

Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America, called the program an important investment.

“It is estimated that the original GI Bill from WWII returned nearly $7 to our economy for every $1 invested. More than an earned benefit and transition program, this is an investment with a proven track record of high return,” Dakduk said.

Capt. Robert Prah, director of the Office of Veteran's Affairs at California University of Pennsylvania, said veterans there have consistently exceeded the average graduation and retention rates.

Michael Clark, 21, of Greensburg visited Cal U, where he will attend classes this fall. His visit on Wednesday was just four days after he returned home from a 10-month deployment to Kuwait.

Clark, who enlisted in the National Guard while he was in high school, had his paperwork complete and knew all the details of the program when he arrived at Cal U, Prah said.

“Education was the thing that attracted me to the Guard,” said Clark, who completed three semesters at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania before his deployment.

Although the bill provides only 36 months of tuition benefits, those who have completed undergraduate degrees can tap it for more advanced work.

“We have 18 vets starting a doctorate this fall,” said Daniel Rota, the director of Veterans Education and Training Services at Robert Morris.

Hannan said his message to vets is simple.

“Take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves. It can give you a new direction in life or enhance the direction you are already headed,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or

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