From Combat to the Campus

A new program helps recently wounded soldiers attend college.

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Former marine Brendan Hart is heading to Dartmouth College this fall, thanks to the new program.

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Brendan Hart took a few community college courses before joining the Marine Corps in 2003 and always planned to go back to school to study history. Assigned to one of the Corps's elite fleet antiterrorism security teams, Hart, 25, was stationed in Bahrain in May 2005 when something went wrong: His body reacted unexpectedly to a smallpox vaccination, and Hart slipped into anaphylactic shock. "Then my condition got drastically worse," he says. The Marines shipped him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for treatment, but a series of complications confined Hart to crutches or a wheelchair. The war was over for Hart, so he turned his attention back to dreams of a college sheepskin.

The military is many things, but a college counselor is not typically one of them. Sure, about 270,000 veterans are currently using the benefits of the Montgomery gi Bill to attend college. But if soldiers are wounded or discharged from the military, they can lose access to active-duty perks like educational counseling. A new program run by an education-oriented nonprofit organization is working to change that.

Ivybound. Hart was taking a few classes at the University of Maryland when he learned about the American Council on Education's new pilot program for wounded vets, currently running at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. Since it began in April, the program, which offers college counseling, tutoring advice, and mentoring, has helped 50 wounded vets enroll in college and provided similar academic help to 100 more. Through this pilot program, Hart applied and was accepted to Dartmouth College, where he'll begin classes later this month.

The ACE program, funded through more than $300,000 in private donations, could ease the transition into higher education for veterans, especially those who weren't on the road to college before they enlisted. "Veterans are not your cookie-cutter, high-achieving high school students," says Hart. Compared with traditional first-year college students, veterans are more likely to have earned average grades in high school and have been out of school for several years.

Then there's the cultural chasm that separates soldiers from students. In recent years, the military and higher education have been at odds. It took a Supreme Court ruling last year, for example, to force some colleges to allow military recruiters on campus. For wounded vets, that gap can be even more difficult to bridge. Once on campus, they may need psychological and medical treatment in addition to academic support. Corey Smith, 20, was injured in a mortar attack in Iraq last year and lost his leg below the knee. Confined to a hospital, Smith decided that he wanted to pursue a degree in justice studies. "I just didn't know where to begin," he says. The ace pilot program found him a math tutor, signed him up for the act, and helped him through the application process to Kent State. He is currently a freshman there and says the school seems able to accommodate his needs.

Many college admissions offices, in fact, say they would like to see more students with the real- world experiences that veterans carry. At least 32 states this year have considered new veteran education benefits, while 11 states have signed new programs into law. Services for vets also vary greatly by school. Mississippi State, for example, has one of the country's largest veterans services programs, with about 400 vets on campus. "I think of it as a halfway house for veterans coming back from the war and getting reacclimated to civilian and academic life," says Doc Foglesong, president of the school and a retired Air Force general. "It benefits the college, too," says James Wright, president of Dartmouth and a former marine. "A student who has a gunshot wound from a battle in Fallujah is going to bring something intangible to any classroom discussion."