COLUMBIA, S.C. — After five years in the Marines, including a tour in Afghanistan in which he saw buddies die in combat, Andrew Kispert found going back to college as a new veteran one of his biggest challenges yet. For starters, there was the strangeness of resuming civilian life.
"The hardest part is the culture shock," said Kispert, a 27-year-old veteran student at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., who expects to graduate next year with a degree in political science. "It's the shock of no longer being in the military and under that strict regimen."
There's a surge coming to America. Tens of thousands of new veterans are expected to return to the workforce or to college in the next several years as the military downsizes after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and as the Pentagon budget is pared back. The Army is drawing down to 490,000 troops from its current 522,000-strong. Defense Secretary Hagel has proposed even steeper cuts in his latest budget, which would reduce the Army alone to its smallest size since before World War II — about 440,000 troops if approved.
And that means more vets on college campuses everywhere.
The challenges of helping the veterans go to college and stick with it until they graduate is the focus of a major conference getting underway Friday at the University of South Carolina that is drawing representatives from schools as far off as California and Arizona — and as close as Mississippi and the Carolinas.
For Kispert, life after the military meant overcoming a sense of isolation he felt with younger college students who had never experienced combat.
"You can't really strike up a conversation too well because you haven't gone through the same experiences," Kispert noted.
Currently there are more than 100 veterans enrolled at The Citadel, where about 60 percent of the alumni are veterans, and which has a veterans services center and the recently ran an ad campaign urging vets to finish their degrees there.
Kispert, who takes day classes with cadets but does not participate in the military system, says being at The Citadel has helped.
"I'm still surrounded by a military lifestyle which has helped me say goodbye to one chapter of my life and open up a new one," he said.
Karen Pettus, director of disability services at the University of South Carolina, said schools across the country are trying to get ready, adding, "We all know there will be a significant increase of military veterans on campuses in coming years."
Among the challenges, schools will have to work with returning vets on establishing their academic credentials and finding areas of study that take advantage of skills learned in the military.
Pettus, who has a doctorate in educational psychology and research, said the conference is attracting academic advisers and officials who work in student affairs or disabilities services and want to expand their services for veterans.
Her university campus in Columbia is a case in point. Pettus has worked with veterans and student with disabilities there since 1994 and estimates the number of military veterans there has doubled in recent years to about 1,200 — many of them transfer students.
She said academia must better grasp the difficulties servicemen and women might have getting accepted into the university or college, and also how to help vets adapt from disciplined military life to the more free-wheeling "campus culture." She herself was a military spouse for 20 years while her husband was in the Army. Her daughter is in the Air Force stationed in Germany and her son is working with the military as a civilian medic in Afghanistan, she said.
Some veterans may be wounded or suffer from post-traumatic stress, Pettus noted. She said universities should be able to help them use the many technologies that assist in reading, hearing, or communicating in the classroom. Some veterans may need to bring service dogs with them, or need to carry a reduced course load, she added.
What academia does to help with that transition will be key, experts say.
"We want to help them transition into school. We want to help them stay there and then get out of school, and find jobs," said Lawrence Braue, the director of Veteran Services at the University of South Florida, one of several specialists planning to address the three-day conference.
Braue said he retired from the Army after 27 years in uniform and began to work with veterans at the University of South Florida about four years ago. Initially his office had four staff members, but it has grown to a full time staff of seven, has added a full-time Veterans Administration benefits adviser, and has about 18 part-time staffers.
In recent years, the veteran population at his university has grown from about 500 to 600 veterans to more than 1,500 now, he said. And the key to attracting them, and helping them succeed, has been gathering people together who can give veterans the help they need, Braue said.
"We set up a one-stop shop," Braue said, a center populated with people who understood the complex medical and financial benefit systems that they must navigate in order to pay for their education.
Braue said many vets also need help with academic issues, and they are often loathe to seek help.
"My advice to other schools will be to not just set up a veteran's center, set up a full-service veterans center," he said.
Associated Press writer Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C., contributed to this report. Susanne M. Schafer can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/susannemarieap