On his first day as a freshman at Shippensburg University in January 2009, Joshua Lang rose at 5:30 a.m., worked out, dressed in slacks and a button-up shirt and headed off to his psychology class.
He was surprised to find that students at the south-central Pennsylvania school wore sweatpants and looked as if they were recovering from the night before. It was not the learning environment he had envisioned.
"I felt like the room was closing in on me. I understood what the opportunity was, and I wanted to take advantage" of it, said Lang, 25, who was a cavalry scout in the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, serving in Afghanistan from January 2007 to April 2008. "I was kind of depressed, frustrated. It took me a few months to get into the swing of things."
Lang, now a senior majoring in political science, is one of 22,614 Pennsylvania veterans who used their education benefits last year.
The benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill (the law's latest version) for Pennsylvania veterans alone totaled $221 million over the last two years, while more than $4 billion was used for 600,000 beneficiaries nationwide during the same time period.
Veterans across the country, who tend to be older and more focused than traditional students, are using their GI Bill benefits as a pathway to jobs, careers and a more secure economic future.
Because of the influx of veterans using the Post-9/11 bill, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has had trouble processing the number of benefits requests.
More than 400,000 student veterans applied for benefits this spring, and approximately 90 percent had received payment, according to a veterans spokesman.
But, in a March 8 statement, Keith Wilson, director of the VA's Education Services, said: "We have heard from some veterans who are experiencing delays in receiving their benefits for the spring term ... We have received more enrollments than we had anticipated at one of our regional processing offices."
The VA, he said, was working overtime "to address the issue immediately."
Dan Rota, a retired brigadier general and the director of veterans education and training services at Robert Morris University in Moon, Pa., said he constantly warns veterans about potential delays with living stipends and book money.
"We tell [students] every year, 'be prepared. You are dealing with the government,'" Rota said. "Not that the government is a bad thing. They get overwhelmed."
They also face challenges in transitioning from a desert war zone or an enemy city to the green lawns of academia. These veterans as students are adjusting to a more independent lifestyle, coping with friends and colleagues who are unfamiliar with what they've been through and feeling different from their peers. They often carry the burdens of isolation, depression and post-traumatic stress with them.
Administrators and former veterans at universities across the state have developed new offices and services to help veterans going back to school.
Some veterans rely on the support of family and friends to get through the transition from a battlefield to a campus.
Justin Bakow, 24, served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an infantry sniper and now attends La Roche College in Pittsburgh, Pa. He attributes his smooth transition to academia to the support of his fiancee and family members.
But he said he understands that some veterans have trouble connecting with their younger, less experienced peers.
"Those 18-, 19-year-old kids are nothing like you. You shouldn't expect them to relate to you," Bakow said. "Treat them with respect. They made their decision and you made yours. There is no reason to look down on anybody who hasn't served in the military."
Cory Shay, the student success facilitator at the Community College of Allegheny County, Pa., works with faculty and students to ensure that veterans can cope with college life.
"We get veterans who are still suffering from disabilities that affect their class work," Shay said.
One veteran student was having trouble getting out of bed in the morning because of post-traumatic stress disorder, Shay said. After hearing the student's concern, Shay brought the professor and student together and the student was allowed to make up the work. Shay declined to name the student and professor.
One burden they often don't share with other students, though, is leaving college with a degree and a load of debt. The Post-9/11 GI Bill pays for tuition, books and living expenses, such as rent, while a veteran goes to college or trade school. Veterans have 15 years to use their benefits, or prior to their retirement, they can transfer the benefits to their children or spouses.
Lang, for example, receives $1,000 a year for books and $1,220 a month for housing while he is in school. His tuition and fees at Shippensburg, $4,428 per semester this year, are sent directly to the school from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Coming Home PA is a project spearheaded by PublicSource, a nonprofit investigative news group, with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other local media partners. Contact Michael Ringling at email@example.com.