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Vets seek support through education

At a time when U.S. soldiers are returning home from conflicts overseas and enrolling in colleges across the country, UNM's own student veterans have varying opinions on what UNM has to offer those who have served.

Richard Baca, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, said he believes that the system in which the benefits a student veteran receives are based on service time should be amended. He said he would like to see all benefits be equal.

"I think that if you serve at least a year of active duty service, regardless of whether it is guard or reserve, you should qualify for 100 percent tuition," Baca said.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs' national website, UNM offers 40 percent in-state tuition, a $536 monthly living stipend and $400 per year for books as part of its Post-9/11 GI Bill for those who have served 90 days of active duty in U.S. military. For comparison, veterans who have served 36 months are eligible for 100 percent in-state tuition, a $1,341 monthly living stipend and $1,000 per year for books.

Baca believes the military should do more toward its desire for all veterans to be educated, he said.

"You did the job, obviously signed your name on the dotted line, so I think you should get full benefits for school," Baca said. "Education is important."

Justin Johnston, another student veteran who has been on active duty for 12 years with the U.S. Navy and has seen much of the globe, has a different opinion.

Although Johnston did not feel the need to partake of UNM's benefits, he praised the University for giving returning soldiers the opportunity to get an education, he said.

"For the most part, all a person needs is a school to go to," Johnston said. "The fact that they have benefits for student veterans is really nice."

"UNM also offers various programs for support, including a vet-to-vet peer mentor program and a veteran transition program," according to a flyer from UNM's Veterans Resource Center,

A study conducted by the Pew Research Center stated that about one-third of veterans who served after 9/11 became full-time college students.

Baca is among those students. He works full-time at his call center job, where he spends 40 hours a week. In addition, he is a full-time student at CNM, where he is studying business and criminology.

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"I try to balance friends, gym, family, everything in between," Baca said.

Baca served seven and a half years in the Army. He was deployed in Baghdad from May 2009 until July 2010. Baca's time overseas was an enriching experience, despite the dangers that he faced every day, he said.

"It is really great getting to see how different cultures live and how they interact with each other," Baca said. "It is humbling at the same time because you can see that there are people who are in combat zones that want to do well. It is just a few bad apples that make it a really bad situation."

Baca said there is a possibility that he will be deployed again once he gets his degree.

"I like investigating things and trying to solve problems," Baca said. "I might look into starting my own criminal investigation business."

David Lynch is a staff reporter at The Daily Lobo. He can be reached at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.

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