Officials at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania say they are trying to do a better job helping veterans transition from military life to campus life. (Jaime North/Bloomsburg University)
BLOOMSBURG, PA. — Brian Bengier spent 10 months in Afghanistan in 2008, serving in the National Guard as an infantry soldier until an improvised explosive device exploded 15 feet from the truck he was in, riddling his body with injuries.
Back home in Millville, Pa., he found himself wishing for more help adjusting to civilian life.
So today, he’s a full-time freshman at Bloomsburg University, pursuing a degree he hopes will lead to opportunities to counsel others returning from war.
He was glad to find BU’s Student Veterans Association, where he could talk with fellow service members.
Sometimes, the 32-year-old has trouble fitting in with the 18-year-olds in his classes.
“I had one professor talking about 9/11, and some of the students just looked dumbfounded,” he said.
Bengier is one of more than 210 students here who are veterans, receiving veterans benefits, or in the ROTC. BU is trying to do a better job helping them transition from military life to campus life.
“In the military, you know when you have to be someplace, where you have to be and what you’re supposed to be doing,” said Bob Heckrote, a graduate assistant in the veteran affairs office. “Here, it’s not nearly as structured.”
Heckrote’s position has existed since the summer. He’s set up a veterans’ lounge at the Student Services Center and is assisting the Student Veterans Association with community service projects.
BUSVA and Heckrote have also organized lunches where veteran students can network with veteran faculty and staff.
There are many faces of the military at BU. Some are like Bengier — soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq and have returned home.
One man served in the Army for nearly 20 years, retired, and is now looking to learn a new craft, Heckrote said.
Others are younger members of the ROTC or reserves.
Heckrote, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan with the Army National Guard, said part of his job is also dispelling some of the stereotypes about soldiers.
“We don’t all have PTSD and aren’t all alcoholics,” he said. “There’s a whole spectrum of good and bad, just like the whole population.”
Ben Otterbein, Student Veterans Association president, said his group has been reaching out to the community by participating in Relay for Life and raising money for the Wounded Warrior Project.
BU is trying to meet vets’ needs at a time when many soldiers might be considering their next steps, Heckrote said.
And Heckrote and Otterbein say they’re working to make BU even more welcoming to veterans.