(Editor’s note: Image provided by Filip Andrejevic at Unsplash.)
By Shayla Abney
Western Kentucky University is home to many veterans and prides itself on its Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. With this year’s homecoming falling on Veterans Day with a theme of “Big Red, White and Blue,” it raises the question: “What does it mean to be a veteran on campus?”
For six consecutive years, WKU has been ranked by Military Times Edge magazine as “Best for Vets 4-year College.” WKU provides an education opportunity for veterans and those planning to enlist with numerous military programs, such as the ROTC, and by offering 50 online degree programs and a military tuition rate of $250 per credit hour. An undergraduate who is not a veteran can expect their tuition to cost $458 per credit hour. A full-time student must be enrolled in 12 credit hours per semester. On average, a full-time undergraduate student can expect to pay $5,496 a semester in tuition. Full time veterans receive a discounted rate of $3,000 a semester in tuition.
Brandon Dunn is a WKU freshman and veteran who enlisted in 2019, five years after graduating high school. He was a factory worker before enlisting, and he decided to leave military life behind. Dunn did not know how to begin the enrollment process at WKU and how to take advantage of his military benefits.
A simple decision changed the course of his life.
“In order to do that, I Googled WKU and the Veterans Upward Bound popped up,” Dunn said. “And I reached out to Marc (Hamilton), and then Marc kind of helped me sign up for my benefits through the VA. And he’s been a big help every step of the way.”
Marc Hamilton is the director of Veterans Upward Bound at WKU, which falls under the Adult Pre-College Programs Department. His job is to help and answers to veterans seeking help.
The Office of Veterans Affairs assists veterans in accessing their benefits, advising students about procedural requirements, and certifying student enrollment to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA determines eligibility for the opportunities made available by the VA office.
Veterans Upward Bound (VUB) is one of the many financial options offered to veterans. VUB is a part of the federal TRIO program — a federally backed program motivating and pushing students from diverse backgrounds to pressure a college degree and assisting military veterans in developing academic skills. It also increases college enrollment rates.
Some veterans also get help covering tuition.
“Coming from a military background, I automatically got a GI Bill,” Dunn said.
The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 and the subsequent Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act passed in 2017 — most often called the “GI Bill” — applies to veterans completing four years of military service with an honorable discharge. The bill covers a student’s entire cost of tuition and fees at public in-state school or job training.
“I’m actually saving my GI Bill and not using it because I acquired a few injuries while in the military, and I’m disabled,” Dunn said. “So, I have a 99% disability rate. Through the Veterans Affairs, I’m able to use what they call Chapter 31. It’s Veterans Readiness and Employment.”
After signing up for Chapter 31, Dunn was able to have his schooling paid for while also receiving an additional payment to continue attending school — roughly $1,300 a month. Dunn used this to pay his rent, so he did not need to work and could focus primarily on school.
Dunn said students looking for a military career or veterans thinking about returning to school use the many military organizations at WKU.
“They’ve been nothing but a great help to me,” Dunn said. “And they’ll provide you with scholarships. They’ll provide you with supplies, equipment, whatever you need to make that leap and get your education.”
Daniel Vuleta, a senior criminology major and current WKU ROTC Cadet Battalion Commander, took the leap by taking advantage of the benefits that come with the ROTC program. He credits the military program for bringing him to WKU.
“How I got into this was I got a three-year national scholarship, and that brought me to WKU,” Vuleta said. “I had an academic scholarship on top of it, so I was able to get my entire college paid for.”
Vuleta highlighted the intensity of the program.
“You go through ROTC, which is you’re evaluated through your four years of college while taking the military science classes and getting the military science minor,” Vuleta said. “And then at the end of your junior year, you take your final examination at CST, and that’s like your final evaluation.”
CST is the U.S. Army Cadet’s Command capstone training event. Cadets attend activities preparing them for the service, such as land navigation, confidence training and maneuver training. Those who attend have already contracted with the Army and most are in their junior or senior academic year.
“You get ranked and stacked in something that’s called an OML, Order of Merit list, with the entire nation,” Vuleta said. “And that’s how you can kind of select your branch that you want to do, so, like, aviation, or logistics or whatever you want to do. And your senior year, which is what I am in now, you find your branch, and then you commission as a second lieutenant in either active duty, national guard, or reserve.”
Vuleta wants aviation. If granted, he would go into a Basic Officer Leadership Course and then flight school to train to become a helicopter pilot on various Army aircraft. Progressing further would lead to section leader – working behind the scenes on planning and leadership tasks.
However, those dreams still require four years of consistent training and early mornings. Vuleta is in year four and must continue the routine that comes with ROTC.
“A typical day is we have (physical training) Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday,” Vuleta said. “And probably my busiest day is Thursday because that’s when we also have our lab.”
A lab day goes loosely like this:
- A 5:30 a.m. wake-up
- Physical training around 5:45 a.m. on South Lawn or at the top of the Hill
- A return home around 7 a.m. to prepare for the day
- Attending classes throughout the day
- And for Vuleta, his job as a desk assistant in the ROTC office at 9:30 a.m.
A busy morning is not something cadets are unfamiliar with, but for Vuleta, the constant busyness transfers to the afternoon as well. As a senior ROTC cadet and Cadet Battalion Commander, he inherits a lot of responsibility.
The leadership team attends staff meetings where they plan for the week and for upcoming events, such as Veterans Day. Vuleta attends these meetings while other seniors, those not on the leadership team, lead training for the underclass cadets. Their priority is to guide them and help them learn the skills and tips they’ll need to make it through their next few years of ROTC training.
Despite the vigor, Vuleta recognizes the benefits it gave him.
“ROTC definitely has… it’s given me a lot more confidence, I would say, in a lot of ways,” Vuleta said. “I feel like the main focus of ROTC is, yes, you want to be, you know, intelligent, and we focus on tactics, but that’s just a way to understand leadership.”
However, the community and family-like bonds built is what ties everyone together.
“The thing that I really enjoy is those personal relationships you have with people,” Vuleta said. “Like, that personal tact that you get, you know, being able to communicate with people, express yourself. That’s something that I don’t know where else I would have gotten it.”
William Stanley, a junior, is a veteran who made the move to enroll at WKU and, like Vuleta, take advantage of its ROTC program.
Stanley served in the Army for 13 years as an infantryman in the 173rd Airborne Brigade. He was a Sergeant First Class who received orders to serve as a military instructor or ROTC cadre member at the University of Maryland through the Master Educator Course. The program trains enrollees to give them a level of teaching expertise that equates to that of a college professor.
“I was able to go to the Master Educator Course and it helped me out a lot, and it gave me a lot of credits towards my degree,” Stanley said. “So, I was able to enroll at WKU and go ‘green to gold’ is what we call it.”
Stanley chose WKU because the Master Educator Course exposed him to the level of passion of the professors on the Hill. He knew he would receive quality education provided by passionate teachers while having access to unique opportunities through the ROTC.
“The school recognized a lot of my military experiences, and I received some college credit for some of those courses,” Stanley said. “I’d argue they accept more than most schools in the nation.”
With a family — a wife and two kids — while being a part of the ROTC as a veteran and a full-time student, finding the balance might be difficult.
But not for Stanley.
“I think it’s very manageable,” Stanley said. “I think that job experience in general and being a little older helps with staying disciplined in studies.”
Stanley said the No. 1 priority of the ROTC program emphasizes focus on academics more than anything. He said the ease of communicating with program leaders about personal or academic issues helped with managing his life.
However, Stanley also recognizes that his prior experiences in the Army have set him apart from the other cadets. He said the ROTC program is about personal growth.
“I mean, with that, there are failures that you grow from, there are experiences you grow from,” he said. “There is a lot of growth that happens within the military and developing leadership with everyone.”
But the level of difficulty remains, and cadets and veterans must work to achieve an almost perfect standard.
“A lot of the course material from the lead courses helps me also in the military,” Stanley said. “So, I learn a lot of stuff from organizational leadership that I can apply to being a leader in the military. That kind of goes hand in hand.”
Being contracted into the Army through the ROTC program is not immediate. It requires commitment, and the decision does not need to come until junior or senior year.
“I joined the Army at 18 years old, and so I think for most of my life, I think that was I missed was the college experiences,” Stanley said. “Every day I walk or step on campus, it’s a very redeeming feeling for me. And for me, it’s an opportunity that I never got to have that I get to live right now. I’m very appreciative of this moment in my life.”