DALLAS – After two tours in Iraq and trouble adjusting to civilian life, Jeff Hensley was looking for a new career path.
He wanted to leave his job as an airline pilot and become a counselor, though he didn’t know how he would pay for it.
“I knew there was a real need for it out there,” said the 48-year-old Frisco, Texas, resident, who served in the Navy and later the Air Force.
Like thousands of military veterans, Hensley found financial help in the Post-9/11 GI Bill – the latest version of the law first signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944.
This fall, with more American troops returning from the Middle East, a record 590,000 veterans are expected to be enrolled in universities and two-year colleges under the new bill.
GI Bill benefits allow eligible veterans to attend a public college or university for free for four years, as well as receive a monthly housing stipend and up to $1,000 a year for books.
When Hensley returned home from Iraq in 2007, his newest battles hardly resembled those he encountered on aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf or on fighter jets over Baghdad.
He and his wife divorced, and Hensley eventually underwent heavy counseling to cope with what he described as “reintegration issues.”
Inspired by the progress he gradually made, Hensley began considering leaving his job as a pilot for United Airlines. Counseling appealed to him, in part because relatively few veterans make it a career, he said.
“I’m a little bit out of my element,” Hensley said. “A bunch of my friends had their own reintegration issues.”
Now, with the help of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Hensley, who has three children, is pursuing a master’s degree in mental health counseling at the University of North Texas.
With the large number of troops coming home, it’s only natural that the bill would be an attractive option for soldiers looking to re-enter civilian life, said Tom Tarantino, deputy policy director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“We have an entire generation who has been fighting for 10 years,” Tarantino said. “People who are now GI Bill-eligible are going to be leaving service and doing other things with their lives.”
He said he expects enrollment under the bill to increase in each of the next five years.
Since the bill took effect in August 2009, almost three-quarters of a million veterans and their dependents have used the program to pursue some form of higher education.
Justin Beatty, born and raised in Denton, was deployed to the Persian Gulf three times with the Navy – the first time in December 2001.
He was stationed in San Diego on the USS Bonhomme Richard on Sept. 11, 2001.
He is now a first-year medical student under the Post-9/11 GI Bill at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
“When 9/11 happened, we didn’t really know where we were going, but we pretty much knew that our lives were never going to be the same,” said Beatty, 32.
Beatty was given an honorable discharge in November 2006 after being deployed overseas for a total of 19 months.
He enrolled as a freshman at UNT in January 2007, but failed to sign up for GI Bill benefits, not believing he would need them.
The new bill had come into law by the time he graduated from UNT in December 2010.
“I was able to use the Post-9/11 GI Bill for medical school,” said Beatty, who has a 2-year-old daughter.
Although the Post-9/11 GI Bill included new benefits, what has remained constant is the opportunity for an education that many men and women may otherwise have gone without.
That was true for Reid Lyon, whose life in high school in North Carolina had few guarantees in the late 1960s.
There was the stint in California when he’d tried to become famous making music. “I thought I was better than I was,” he said.
He wasn’t prepared for college and didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.
Yet while others struggled to understand why the U.S. entered the Vietnam War, it seemed to give Lyon at least one promise: “I knew I was gonna get drafted. That was 1967.”
After making his way through Army basic training, reconnaissance infantry school, jump school and jungle training, he was deployed to Vietnam with the 82nd Airborne Division.
He left the Army in 1970 and enrolled at North Carolina’s Wesleyan College under the GI Bill. After earning a bachelor’s degree, he went on to the University of New Mexico for a master’s and a dual doctorate in psychology and special education.
“The GI Bill was there for you,” said Lyon, 63. “I don’t think that I would have actually gone to college. The military really taught me a lot. You learn discipline – you don’t have a choice.”
Today, Lyon conducts research at the University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for BrainHealth, where he works with veterans recovering, physically or emotionally, from their time in combat.
“It’s like my second home,” Lyon said. “My passion really is to work with veterans who’ve gotten banged-up. There’s a special kind of bond. Any contributions I may be able to make – why not?”
Jim Hardwick’s introduction to the GI Bill goes back even further – to World War II.
He was on the USS Honolulu when it survived the attacks at Pearl Harbor. The ship went on to numerous naval battles throughout the South Pacific.
Then, in 1944, came the blow that would decommission the cruiser for good.
“I was on engineering watch from noon to 4 that afternoon,” said Hardwick, 88. “I was relieved on watch at about a quarter to 4. We received an alarm that there was an airplane attack.
“I just stood and watched as the torpedo hit directly in the watch station I had just departed 2 minutes earlier.”
The attack killed the two men who arrived early for their watch shift, as well as 70 others.
After the war, with the GI Bill, Hardwick earned an engineering degree in June 1951 from Southern Methodist University.
Although he needed a part-time job to support his wife and newborn daughter, the bill afforded Hardwick the chance to stay in school.
“I had no family support, and just going through high school was a tremendous struggle,” said Hardwick, who still maintains his engineering license.
“All my tuition was paid, and I managed to struggle through and graduate.”
ABOUT THE GI BILL
• Most military veterans who use the Post-9/11 GI Bill attend two-year public institutions.
• The majority of those enrolled are men between the ages of 25 and 34.
• The most prevalent degrees include general studies, nursing, business administration, criminal justice and psychology.
• Since 2009, $18 billion has been spent sustaining the program, including $8 billion in 2011 alone.
•To learn more about the Post-9/11 GI Bill and to apply for benefits, visit gibill.va.gov.
Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs 2011 surveys