Director of UNLV's Office of Veteran Services, Ross Bryant, sits for a portrait in his office in the Student Services Center on Nov. 1. Bryant, a retired U.S. Army Major and former commander of UNLV's ROTC, works to ensure that veterans are welcomed, steered in the right direction and help get all the VA benefits to which they are entitled.
Clark County has certainly had its share of reports of negative treatment of veterans. From the recent death of advocate and Navy veteran Sandy Niccum, allegedly partly due to mistreatment at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in North Las Vegas, to complaints of mistreatment of those who reside at the state veterans home in Boulder City, the news is seemingly all bad when it comes to caregiving for those who served in the military.
But a recent look into UNLV’s veterans programs, and interviews with program administrators and students alike, point to changing experiences for veterans on the local campus.
Under a law that took effect July 1, non-resident veterans are allowed to pay in-state tuition at UNLV or any other institution part of the Nevada System of Higher Education. The law grants Nevada residency to veterans who enroll in school within two years of being honorably discharged from service.
“More than 180 veterans qualified this past fall,” said Ross D. Bryant, director of the UNLV’s Office of Veteran Services. In addition, the university and the board of regents developed a policy stating if a student is re-deployed in the middle of a semester, his grades are not adversely affected, and no additional fees are charged upon his return.
According to a Review-Journal article in November, “an estimated 1,267 active-duty military personnel, reservists, National Guard members, veterans and their dependents are attending UNLV. Of that number, 916 are receiving tuition benefits through some version of the G.I. Bill, Bryant said. About 700 of them are receiving benefits from the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill.”
During the Vietnam War era many colleges removed ROTC and other military related organizations from campuses. Today many schools have reversed those decisions and veterans are receiving positive welcomes similar to their fathers and grandfathers in post-WWII, and even ROTC is welcome again.
Bryant works to ensure that veterans at UNLV are welcomed, steered in the right direction and helped to apply for and receive all the VA benefits that they are entitled to. Bryant, who works for the university, is the director of the UNLV Office of Veterans Services.
Bryant said there can be an invisible line between younger and older vets when it comes to attending college. Many younger combat veterans take longer to adjust.
“We help veterans one veteran at a time,” said Bryant, a retired Army officer. “We have have been named as a top veteran-friendly school by GIJobs.com. We get calls and emails, 30 or 40 a day, asking how to apply, how to get financial aid, what to do. Calls come from Afghanistan and Japan and all over. We give them all the information and give them a check list. We get them though all the bureaucratic challenges.”
Bryant also teaches an awareness class for non-veteran students and faculty to discuss issues combat veterans may face. He said many veterans returning from combat do not easily transition to a campus environment.
“Walking around campus is sort of a shock.”
Bryant has seen a total reversal in how colleges treat veterans. Rising to the rank of sergeant after starting in the ROTC in high school, he left the service and enrolled in Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., during the Cold War era.
“There was nothing at all for veterans,” he said of the time. “Probably the first six months…my sense of ‘what am I doing here’ and ‘what was the purpose?’”
Things improved when he met and bonded with other ROTC students. But getting VA benefits was still not an easy task. Schools had no one to help file claims, and faxing was considered high-tech.
“Back then you used to fax your paperwork for veterans checks. For me it was $319 month, with no accountability. It was not enough to cover everything, and no one cared.”
Back then, checks were sent directly to veterans and if they chose to take the money and party, the VA did not ask for verification. If tuition went unpaid, there was no school credit earned. Bryant remembers how difficult it once was for students to even get into schools in the non-digital age.
“I was (originally) from Virginia and there were no Army computers (in Germany), and I was trying to get accepted to schools in Virginia” while being stationed in Europe.
Today Bryant advises students to stay the course.
“When a vet arrives here and we tell them everything we need (from them), and we tell them about the services on campus, about other vets in their curriculum, and about vets on the faculty and staff who are there to assist,” it serves a need, Bryant said.
After a 24-year Army career, he resigned and worked for the ROTC program at Cal State, San Bernardino, and later transferred to UNLV’s then-struggling ROTC program.
Bryant had several positions at UNLV, but its wasn’t until a student organization called Rebel Vets was established that an office for veterans services was discussed. Bryant was asked to run the program.
“We are a one-stop-shop for veterans to help them be successful and graduate,” he said. “We have two certifying officials and VA funded student workers, students who work part time and are going to school.” The VA pays the student salaries. Bryant and his staff do program outreach, including going to the local veterans hospital.
“We have counselors to help veterans, and I do outreach to veterans groups,” he said.
Bryant’s checklist for veterans includes step-by-step directions for requesting qualifying paperwork and task completion for VA and state benefits.
While Bryant’s UNLV-sponsored office has had success, the VA opened a separate veterans office staffed by a VA employee on campus last year. Bryant insists they are not competitors.
The new office, run by Anthoneal Newman, provides “counseling.” But Bryant points out that his “counseling” is different. Bryant can refer vets to 800 numbers, advise them of available benefits, connect them to academic resources, help them obtain scholarships and tell them which companies are hiring veterans. He can also send them to the VA hospital to wait in line for more information, even under the best of conditions. An advantage Newman has is he can “pull up VA records, tell them about their (personal) VA benefits, their medical, dental, how much is left on their G.I. Bill.”
Newman views Bryant and the university’s office as a partnership.
“We work a lot together,” she said. “We both take care of the veterans.”
Newman also contends there is not a lot of overlap.
“Not particularly,” she said. “(Bryant) is very helpful with educational benefits, making sure they are certified, helping with paperwork. But it’s limited on the compensation part, on the healthcare part. He can refer them to other sources, but can’t actually process it … so I can get them into the VA system immediately.”
Newman is also an Army veteran with a master’s degree and much experience as a counselor.
“I always wanted to work for the VA,” she said. Her background includes work as a counselor for at-risk youth for the state of Georgia. She began her VA work in Nashville after earning her master’s in counseling psychology. First she was an intern, then a rehab counselor. After another year of work in Florida, she was offered the Las Vegas position. Her business card reads “VetSuccess Counselor.”
Newman said she also helps vets prepare for employment after school.
“We just have to make sure they have the right training for the appropriate job,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m on campus, to help vets obtain and maintain employment that they can sustain over long periods of time. I do career counseling here. Sometimes they are struggling maybe financially, they have mental or physical health issues. I can refer them to the proper places so they can overcome, complete their training and get a job.”
The range of veterans on the UNLV campus go from Vietnam through the first Gulf War, to recent veterans. Newman said Vietnam veterans are mostly looking for work, and more education. “They feel a little bit more comfortable coming in here than other places.”
“We want to give them the tools they need to be successful so I do mock interviews, I go over resumes with them … we try to get their resumes into more of what they are going for, instead of just a general resume.” She has second and third parties review resumes to give them fresh ideas.
“If they have the training and no confidence, they’re not going anywhere,” she said.
UNLV sophomore Christina O’Gara is an Air Force veteran studying nursing while on active duty with the National Guard. She said one of the reasons she joined the Air Force was its focus on education
“I thought it would be a good time before I got any older,” the 29-year-old said. “I know the military really wants nurses, it’s a good job whether civilian or military.” She said she would enjoy being a nurse in the Air Force, “but I just hope I’m not too old, the Air Force is cutting down on personnel.”
O’Gara said she chose UNLV because she is a Las Vegan and the campus is veterans-friendly.
“Everytime I called and needed help, they were always happy to help and make it a lot easier for me. I spoke with (Bryant) on the phone about using my benefits about a year before I went to school here. He was very helpful.” O’Gara said she is getting Post 9/11 VA benefits, and dealing with the VA is not always easy. “It’s such a big entity, you need (campus) offices as an intermediary . . . there is no way being a brand new student that I could know everything I needed to know to make it an easy process.”
U.S. Army veteran Jeff Detrick is also studying to be a nurse after serving as a medic in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the veterans office “made it a lot easier” to enroll.
“I had all that stuff, but they made the transition a lot easier. It’s amazing how many veterans the office has helped. They make it very easy to get their stuff going.” He said many veterans “don’t have a complete understanding of the Post 9/11 G.I Bill, they don’t have an understanding of how it works. Where do they start?” Bryant’s office explains all that, and more, he said.
Detrick has noticed his own uniqueness as a veteran in class.
“It’s hard talking to somebody who hasn’t been in the military,” he said. “You sit in class and people talk about transition, but you’re the oldest person in class and others have no clue about the rest of the world. It’s not their fault.”
Certainly UNLV veterans offices offer respites, and even solid opportunities to learn how to overcome the pressures of transitioning. Collective counseling seems to be one answer to helping student veterans. Newman summed it up best by saying “An informed veteran is a veteran who can advocate for themselves, and they can help other veterans. Because they’re strong and they can do it. It’s just that sometimes they need a little help.”
CHUCK N. BAKER writes extensively about veterans issues. He is a veteran of the Vietnam War and a recipient of the Purple Heart. He can be heard Thursdays on KLAV-AM, from 8-9 p.m. on “The Veterans Reporter Radio Show.”