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Bloomsburg University group offers hand to veterans

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By Peter Kendron
Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, 6:45 p.m.

BLOOMSBURG — Brian Bengier of Millville spent 10 months in Afghanistan in 2008, serving in the National Guard as an infantry soldier until a roadside bomb exploded 15 feet from the truck he was in, riddling his body with injuries.

Back home, he found himself wishing for more help adjusting to civilian life.

So today, he's a full-time freshman at Bloomsburg University, pursuing a degree he hopes will lead to opportunities to counsel others returning from war.

Bengier was glad to find BU's Student Veterans Association, where he could talk with fellow service members.

Sometimes, the 32-year-old has trouble fitting in with the 18-year-olds in his classes.

“I had one professor talking about 9/11, and some of the students just looked dumbfounded,” he said.

Bengier is one of more than 210 students here who are veterans, receiving veteran benefits, or in the ROTC. BU is trying to do a better job helping them transition from military life to campus life.

“In the military, you know when you have to be someplace, where you have to be and what you're supposed to be doing,” said Bob Heckrote, a graduate assistant in the veteran affairs office. “Here, it's not nearly as structured.”

Heckrote's position has existed since the summer. He's set up a veterans' lounge in the Student Services Center and is assisting the Student Veterans Association with community service projects.

The veterans group and Heckrote also have organized lunches in which veteran students can network with veteran faculty and staff.

There are many faces of the military at BU. Some are like Bengier — soldiers, sailors and Marines who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq and have returned home.

One man served in the Army for nearly 20 years, retired, and is looking to learn a new craft, Heckrote said.

Others are younger members of the ROTC or reserves.

Heckrote, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Army National Guard, said part of his job is dispelling some of the stereotypes about soldiers.

“We don't all have PTSD and aren't all alcoholics,” he said. “There's a whole spectrum of good and bad, just like the whole population.”

Ben Otterbein, Student Veterans Association president, said his group has been reaching out to the community by participating in Relay for Life and raising money for the Wounded Warrior Project.

BU is trying to meet vets' needs at a time when many soldiers might be considering their next steps, Heckrote said.

The armed forces are shrinking in size.

The Army is looking to contract from its wartime high of 570,000 to 490,000 active-duty soldiers by the end of 2015 after Congress cut its funding as part of the sequester. The Marines want to drop from 202,000 active duty in 2011 to 174,000 in 2017.

Those honorably discharged receive some generous higher-education benefits.

Active-duty personnel with more than three years of service since 9/11 are eligible to receive full tuition to state schools like BU, according to government publications.

And Heckrote and Otterbein say they're working to make BU even more welcoming to veterans.

Peter Kendron is a staff writer for the (Bloomsburg) Press Enterprise.

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