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When you first meet Roy Pagans on the Radford University campus, you might think he’s a member of an indie-rock band. He wears music T-shirts and has large circular gauge-style earrings; he has a long beard and a mustache that curls up at the ends that outdo his short brown hair. But Pagans is not your average student (or a member of an indie-rock band.) He is an Iraq War veteran and the first member of his family to go to college.
Pagans is a 26 year-old Franklin County native who was inspired to join the military after the terrorist attack on Sept. 11. After deciding to dedicate himself to the United States Marine Corps, he was deployed to Al Taqaddum Air Base in Iraq, about 46 miles from Baghdad.
Among the endless sand, days that would peak at 130 degrees and frigid nights, and the constant fighting and training, Pagans got to see the real Iraq.
“A lot of people back home would say, ‘Let’s just bomb the whole place and turn it into a parking lot,’” he said. “However, I never felt that way and being there made me realize how many things the Iraqi people have in common with Americans and that there are some really good people who live there.”
James Whorley, a 26 year-old Army veteran attending Radford University, has similar memories.
“While deployed, I was able to meet some really great Iraqi people and some not-so-great ones,” he said.
As a part of his duties, Pagans and his unit performed route reconnaissance, security
patrols and gate duty.
Route reconnaissance consists of assessing the environment of possible routes, while attempting to find enemy troops and determine direct-fire range and terrain that is on the given path.
Gate duty requires the soldier to screen all incoming vehicles and personnel for possible threats at the entrance of the base.
While in Iraq, Pagans was apart of a Quick Reaction Force in addition to his regular duties. A QRF is a special military unit that is capable of responding quickly to escalating situations.
After returning home after seven months in Iraq, Pagans, along with over 100 other veterans, enrolled at Radford University to receive his degree. He said his decision to go to RU was because it’s close to home but far enough away to be independent. His classes provided a chance to meet new people, and even some other veterans.
“We found out each other had been in the service and started talking only to find out we had both been deployed to Al Taqaddum, Iraq at the same time,” said Steven Archibald, a 28 year-old Navy veteran.
Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, most commonly referred to as the original GI Bill, extended a wide range of benefits for soldiers returning from World War II including low-cost mortgages, loans to start businesses or farms, and cash payments of tuition and living expenses to attend college, high school or vocational school.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill expands the benefits of the original bill for military personnel serving immediately after Sept. 11. These benefits include payment of the full cost of any public college in their state, including a $1,000 stipend and housing allowance.
Gail Wright, the primary veteran contact person in the RU Registrar’s Office, said backlog and the high demand of benefits for military personnel and their families, cause the payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs to come a little slower than expected.
“Sometimes VA does have trouble getting out the payments,” she said. But she said they were working as best they can to get the money out as soon as possible.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America records that a little over half a million veterans have claimed their Post-9/11 GI Bill since 2009. However, that number makes up only 25 percent of total veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. With the projected arrival of about two million more soldiers in the coming years, the VA expects the number of claims to increase by the thousands.
But in terms of veterans on campus, the GI Bill and the Post-9/11 GI Bill recipients have seen a generational difference. In 1947, half of college students were veterans since a college degree was still only considered for the elite, whereas today, veterans only make up only three percent of a campus population.
Dr. Valerie Leake, leader of Radford University’s Student Veterans Research Team and faculty advisor to the Veterans Student Organization, explains some veterans have trouble integrating with their peers.
“Many veterans experience things that change them,” she said. These life events can range from injuries and combat to starting a family. These things can make it hard for civilians to relate to veterans, and vice versa.
In fact, The Pew Research Center found that only one half of one percent of Americans has served in active duty. Natalie Kiddie, RU Transition Coach at the Military Resource Center, suggests that students are not the only ones that can misunderstand veterans.
“Because of their experiences, some student veterans can feel as if they do not belong to their university or that student, faculty and staff do not understand their military background,” she said.
Pagans said he’s had a relatively easy time fitting in with other students. He says his military career shaped his future, but it’s not all he is.
“I think about the USMC all the time, but I’m doing really good here and I think my time in the military has a lot to do with that,” he said.
Both Whorley and Archibald said they had an easy transition from soldier to student, but say already knowing someone at RU helped.
According to data from the VA, as of Sept. 30, 2010 there were 22.7 million veterans in the United States. Of that number, there are between 650,000 and 950,000 veterans in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Pagans is currently the president of RU’s Veterans Student Organization. The club is open to all students, but it attracts mostly veterans. At meetings, they discuss improvements RU could make to help veterans like themselves; services like childcare and a veterans orientation program that brings awareness to new veterans and students attending college on the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The meetings also serve as a time to socialize and bond over shared memories.
“It is just nice to be around other vets or students who are supportive. No one really understands what it is like to be a vet except for other vets… It’s just that we have our own unique experiences,” he said.
What is the advice given by Whorley, Archibald and Pagan? Treat student veterans with respect, but don’t dwell on their past. Speak to and interact with them just as you would regular people because that’s what they are; they are ordinary people with an extraordinary job.
“I don’t focus on being a veteran,” Pagans said. “It was my job and I did it and now I get to go to school because I did it.”
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