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New University of Utah center to focus on veterans

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SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly half a million veterans are expected to head to college in the next decade, which would be more than ever before. Already, there are 23 million veterans in the United States, and more than 160,000 are in Utah.

Their sacrifice is growing "increasingly more apparent" to those of us at home, University of Utah President Michael K. Young said Monday, after announcing the university's new National Center for Veteran Studies.

"We stand free because they stand at the ready," he said, adding that tying yellow ribbons to trees is "not enough anymore" to show support for the men and women who put their lives on the line for our nation's safety and security. "It is imperative that these people have a legitimate belief that we care about them."

On Monday, the U. became the first academic institution in the nation to offer such a program — a unique collaboration of departments, which will include the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the S.J. Quinney College of Law. The stated mission of the program is to improve the lives of veterans and their families and further advance American values, prosperity and security, through research, education and training, community outreach and nonpartisan political advocacy on behalf of veterans.

"We need to be more than a country that has all the parades and hoopla," said retired Maj. Gen. Peter Cooke, director of the new NCVS. He said the country needs to work on its response to the growing number of mental health issues among veterans today.

A year ago, enrollment among veterans jumped 30 percent because of a revision to the GI Bill, which provides an extension as well as additional money for student fees and/or books for members of the military who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More than a quarter of new vets are facing serious health, psychosocial, family and employment issues related to re-entry into civilian life. At the same time, their training and experience contribute vital assets to the U.S. at home and abroad, according to U. law school dean Hiram Chodosh. Recognizing both the value and issues facing veterans since 9/11 has prompted scholars at the U., which is relatively close to Hill Air Force Base, Fort Douglas and the George E. Whalen VA Medical Center, to join forces on their behalf, forming what Cooke said is a critical response to a growing need.

The center plans to conduct a survey of student veterans that will be used to identify higher education needs and how best to tend to them.

"We're all here to help veterans, but one of the best ways in which we help veterans is to recognize their special talent, training and experience and to leverage that to help our great country," Chodosh said. "We have enormous capacity gaps, abroad, in places where our military has been engaged, but also here at home."

He said the concept of the pilot program is not new and has been thrown around in academic circles before but has been modified to best fit within the context at the U. and be most effective.

U.S. Navy Capt. Wayne Porter, who was in town for the announcement, said the program is something "constructive and systemic, that will not only help our veterans, but our nation at large."

The NCVS, he said, will offer veterans and community members an opportunity for academic and professional growth they can't achieve simply by serving alongside other members of the military.

"We have a very different kind of veteran today than we had over the previous conflicts," said U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who said he has met with individuals overseas who could likely benefit from the U.'s program.

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com