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University of Idaho program offers veterans a new future

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With conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq, an unprecedented number of servicemen and women are returning to the United States with life-changing injuries. For many, the challenge becomes finding a new way to support themselves and their families.

The University of Idaho has found its own way of thanking these soldiers—by offering them an education.

Operation Education provides financial assistance beyond just tuition money. Launched last year, the program gives what the university calls comprehensive financial support, which can include everything from the standard tuition and books to child care and physical therapy.

"This is one of the best gifts we can give," said Dr. Karen White, wife of university President Timothy White. "Particularly to those who now have a disability and may have to rethink how they can be successful in society. It's our way of just thanking them."

Operation Education is unlike any other program designed to help veterans, White said.

"What makes it unique is that it's individualized to the needs of the veteran and his or her family unit," she said "It's the social and academic support to help them be successful."

White is leading the creation of the scholarship program, something designed to supplement education programs offered to veterans by the federal government.

Joni Kirk, spokeswoman for the university, said the Montgomery G.I. Bill gives participants $38,000 toward a four-year degree. But the average tuition for a bachelor's degree is $51,000.

"They still have quite a large amount of coverage to come up with," she said. "This fills in the gap."

To participate in the program, applicants must meet a set list of criteria. They must be honorably discharged from any branch of the military; have an injury related to duty after Sept. 11, 2001, which severely impacts daily life; and meet the requirements for admission to the school.

Veterans must also enroll full-time at the university's Moscow campus, unless their injury makes it impossible to attend classes more than part-time. The spouses of injured veterans may also qualify for the program.

So far, three veterans have taken advantage of the scholarship program, one of whom has already graduated.

Tailoring the scholarship to the student is an individualized process. The first veteran to be awarded the scholarship had a young son, so the university stretched the program to include child-care costs.

Another recipient needed regular physical therapy, but the nearest veterans' hospital was in Spokane, Wash., an hour and a half drive away. The university worked with an area medical center to provide him with free physical therapy.

The third student suffers from short-term memory loss because of his injury. The university has used the Operation Education program to match him with school services designed to help him academically.

"It's tailored to what the student needs," White said. "We're not trying to duplicate what the [Veterans Administration] gives them."

The scholarships are funded through private donations. Many donors are university alumni, although others simply see it as a way to give back to the veterans, White said.

While no qualified applicant has been turned away, the program can only support three or four new students each year, White said. She dreads the day when the scholarship committee will have to tell someone they can't help them.

"I'm not ready to face that yet," she said.

Because of patient privacy laws, the university cannot contact potential applicants directly. Instead, the school depends on various agencies spreading the word among veterans.

With the number of wounded veterans returning to civilian life on the rise, White said she is expecting an onslaught of applicants.

The Veterans Administration has been alerting schools about an influx of veterans from the Iraq War in the coming months, said Frank Zang, spokesman for Boise State.

Zang said the school currently offers two scholarships specifically for veterans, one for $750 and the other for $300.

But the alert from the VA has Boise State officials looking at ways to better serve that population. Zang said the school's Student Affairs office is looking into new programs specifically for returning veterans.

"We are aware that this is a group of potential students who may need special services," he said.

"We do recognize that there are some unique scenarios."

For White, timing is key when it comes to implementing programs like Operation Education.

"We're just on the cusp of these things exploding," she said. "There's a [large] number of veterans surviving this war that would never have survived the same kind of injuries in previous wars. We don't know what's going to be out there on the horizon. We have to have these things in place."

If the school does have to choose between applicants, White said preference will be given to Idahoans. From there, the decision will come down to the person who will be most helped by the program.

While other universities across the country are giving financial assistance to wounded veterans, White said none are offering the comprehensive program found at the University of Idaho. But the university isn't being territorial about Operation Education. White said she hopes schools across the country use the program as a model for similar scholarship programs.

"Use the name, use the materials," White said. "We're happy to show what we've learned so far."

The school is in the process of sending out packets of information to universities across the country in an effort to expand the program.

"We're really going to do a media blitz to let other universities and colleges know what we're doing," she said.

There's already been interest in the program, and White said she'd ultimately like to see it available to every veteran, regardless of where they live.

"We all know that Idaho can seem like the very far corner of the country if you're from the southeast," she said. "It's vital to get other schools [involved]."