When Lance Zaal finished up his active-duty commitment to the U.S. Marine Corps and decided to apply for college, he was overwhelmed.
“I had never taken the SATs. I signed up for the Marines the first week of my senior year in high school, so I really didn’t know what I needed to do and was intimidated,” he said. “I felt like I was about to climb Mount Everest with no gear.”
Talking with other veterans, Zaal, now a junior at the College of William and Mary, found he wasn’t alone in that feeling and decided to do something about it.
In January, he and a few others started the Veterans Society of William & Mary, an organization that seeks to help veterans as they prepare for and transition into college life. In its short existence, the society has already made an impact both locally and abroad through service, and its efforts have attracted the interest of people around the country, including those from other universities and the Pentagon. While the organization began just a few months ago, currently about 12 William and Mary students have joined—about 70 students at the College are enrolled in the Veterans Affairs benefits program, according to Jacquie Bell, VA coordinator.
“A lot of people coming from the military are uneasy about coming to college,” said Zaal, president of the society. “We basically wanted to help them with the process we already went through because we were in their shoes.”
Veterans face unique issues as they begin their college careers, Zaal said. They are often older than traditional college students and sometimes have families. Many are dealing with physical or other disabilities, such as post traumatic stress disorder, as a result of their combat experience. Although veterans have many benefits available to them, some don’t know about them or how to go about collecting them.
“The G.I. Bill enabled a huge swath of people to be able to go to college and not be as concerned about cost, but it leaves a bunch of issues unresolved,” said William and Mary senior and Army veteran Harry Bethke. “Sometimes these people who come from a blue-collar background will be the first of their family to attend college, so they don’t know how to comparatively shop for college, what to look for in a college, and how to prepare to come to college. One of our issues is to address the information gap in the military.”
The society hopes to help address that need with a transition assistance pamphlet they created to be distributed at military bases throughout the world. The pamphlet includes information on why veterans should go to college, how to get in and how to pay for it. The society is also working on a Web site that will serve as a single source of information for veterans entering or attending college.
“I would like to act as an enabler by providing information that is specific enough so that if someone wants to come to William and Mary, they can use it, but broad enough so that if they want to go to UC-San Diego, they can use it , too,” said Bethke.
Another challenge many student veterans face is finding ways to relate to traditional students, who are often younger and usually come to college right out of high school.
“A lot of people, when they think of veterans, they think of an old guy who gives out paper poppies on Veterans Day,” said Bethke, president of the society’s transition committee. “I’ve gotten a huge range of reactions on campus when I tell them that I’m a veteran. I just don’t fit their stereotypes.”
Likewise, veterans can have misconceptions of people in the college community.
“They presume that they’re going to be met with open hostility when they arrive, and that professors will not only disregard their experiences but openly single them out. We’re here to dispel that,” said Bethke.
Zaal said he hopes the society can help foster a better understanding between the traditional college community and the veterans.
“Through community service, school events, and forums, students and veterans can get together to talk and socialize, helping to bridge the social gap between one another,” he said.
This year, the society has already been involved in several community service projects, including Williamsburg’s “Baseball Buddies” program, the “Potato Drop,” a 5K run for shelter at D.J. Montague Elementary School and Housing Partnership’s “Paint the Town.”
The members of the society also started their own project, entitled “Project Cool Aid.” The members gathered money from donors and bought care packages for members of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines. The packages included “things that would help accomplish their mission,” said Zaal, including Cool-Aid helmet inserts for Kevlar.
“I actually used one of these Cool-Aids when I was in Iraq,” said Zaal. “I know how hot it gets in the summer. So we decided, ‘Why don’t we sponsor a unit that’s going to be in Iraq in the summer and help support them with these Cool-Aids?’.”
The society has also helped local community members who have lost loved ones in combat, both through personal contact and through events. In March, the group sponsored "A moment of remembrance and recognition," a ceremony held on the steps of the Sunken Garden “to recognize the College's commitment to the value of service and the importance of remembering the service and sacrifice of comrades-in-arms and their families,” according to the event listing.
“We do what we can to offer support to anyone who has lost someone,” said Zaal. “Talking, sharing experiences, and having somebody to listen really helps.”
Veterans in the society said that for them, that ability to share with people who understand where they’ve been is one of the greatest aspects of the organization.
“Once the doors are closed, people feel like they can blow off some steam,” said Zaal. “We tend to talk in military jargon sometimes and it’s hard to make the transition out of that. So, the second you’re permitted to revert to it, it’s almost a relief.”
Ben Story, a second-year MBA-program student, said it took him a while to talk with people again when he returned from his deployment to Iraq between 2005 and 2006 as a member of the Army infantry.
“I wasn’t really rosy-cheeked and starry-eyed anymore,” he said.
Story, who is still in the Army reserves and is an ROTC instructor at William and Mary, said the veterans society fills a big need on campus for him and others like him.
“It’s really comforting in a way to be around people who have been in combat, at least for me,” he said. “There’s nothing really that psychologists can do to sit down and walk through some of the issues you had to go through in war unless they’ve actually been there. A better counselor to me is another soldier that has been there.”
Story hopes the society can also help non-military people understand the needs he and other veterans have as they return from war.
“I think that above anything, for people coming back, it’s important to welcome them back for what they’ve done, to give them an ‘atta boy’ or a pat on the back,” he said. “I think that’s the kind of stuff that makes sacrificing a year of your life in a really crappy place worth it.”
The members of the veterans society sacrificed precious study time and their own money to get the society off and running. They hope that now that the society is a registered non-profit organization, they will be able to secure donations to allow them to continue their efforts and expand their program.
Buzz about the society has already attracted the attention of a special assistant to the secretary of the Air Force as well as veterans at other universities, including Brown and Dartmouth, who are interested in starting their own societies.
At William and Mary, the society’s next event is planned for Veterans Day. The event is open to everyone and will include pizza, soda, and two military-related movies, “Stripes” and “Heartbreak Ridge.” Between the movies, there will be a push-up contest and veterans will speak about their service and the purpose of Veterans Day. The event will take place Sunday, Nov. 11, between noon and 4 p.m. in the University Center’s Lodge One.
In the more distant future, Zaal hopes the society will expand enough so that they can start a “Veterans House” on campus. However, for now, he is happy to just be helping fellow veterans prepare for and succeed in college.
“The military is great, but there are other things available and you don’t have to be in the military to serve your country,” he said. “There are a lot of ways to serve your country and one of them is to get an education. If you take the values learned in military and combine them with an education, I think that’s a combination that’s very potent.”