SKOWHEGAN — T.J. Hebert enlisted in the Navy right after graduating from Lawrence High School in Fairfield in 2003.

Within a year, he married his high school sweetheart while on a two-week leave from active duty on a ship overseas. The couple had two children over his six years and settled in Skowhegan in 2009, after Hebert was discharged.

Hebert always wanted to go to college after serving, but his wife was working toward her bachelor’s degree at the time and the young family needed a steady income. He landed a job as a medical assistant at Redington-Fairview General Hospital to pay the bills, putting his education on hold for the foreseeable future.

Everything changed for Hebert, however, when the Post 9/11 GI Bill came into effect in August 2009. The federal legislation redefined the scope and amount of education assistance benefits available to veterans.

He qualified for the veteran benefits and enrolled in fall 2010 at the University of Maine at Farmington, where his wife, Jessica, had graduated that spring.

Hebert, now 26, is studying to become a high school health teacher and plans to graduate in 2013, a goal that seemed all but impossible just a couple years ago.

“If I didn’t have GI benefits I would have probably had to keep working, and I really don’t know if I would have gone back to school,” he said.

He is among the roughly 3,000 Mainers today who are getting education benefits through the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which pays for them to attend college, get career training or pursue other new job skills, according to Robert Haley, director of the Maine State Approving Agency for Veterans Education Programs.

Haley characterized the bill, which has doubled the number of Mainers getting the education benefits when compared to 2009, as the biggest step forward in supporting veterans in a long time.

Among the many changes to the older education benefit programs for veterans, the bill makes it possible for veterans to transfer benefits to dependents. There have also been enhancements added to the bill this year tied to expanding access to higher education institutions, along with other improvements, Haley said.

“The Post 9/11 GI.Bill is the most exciting thing to happen to GI education benefits, literally, in decades,” he said.

Residents in Maine are getting about $20 million per year from the program, which has provided more than $14 billion in benefits nationwide since its inception, he said.

Haley is employed by the University of Maine System, which receives federal funding to support his office, which oversees veteran education programs statewide.

Although other federal programs were already giving veterans education assistance, the bill allows Hebert to attend classes full-time, avoid accruing college debt and have money to support his family, he said.

He is getting benefits that cover all of his educational expenses, including a stipend to help pay for his family’s housing. Hebert is among the group that qualifies for 100 percent of the federal assistance, with the percentage dropping based on years of active military duty and other factors.

The education benefits gave Hebert an alternative to remaining in the Navy or taking out loans to pay for college, both being choices that would have been difficult on his family, he said.

“I will have a decent paying job when I graduate and will have no debt, so I can focus on paying for my kids’ college instead of worrying about my college bills,” he said. “I love the Navy and miss serving a lot, but it’s really difficult to do those things with two small children.”

Beating the financial hurdle

Christian Carson graduated back in 2000 from University of New England with a bachelor’s degree in business, having attended the college part-time while working as a police officer.

He was 32-years-old at the time and raising two sons with his wife, Lauri, and wanted to get his master’s degree. But he struggled to find a way to earn enough money to support a family while continuing to pursue his education, he said.

“The financial was my biggest hurdle because I couldn’t afford to (stay in school) and still work,” he said.

Carson, who is a reservist in the Coast Guard, finally saw his chance when he returned home to Winthrop in 2010 after a tour in Iraq, he said.

He had served in a specialized unit consisting almost entirely of law enforcement professionals in the Coast Guard. They worked with the Army and Navy on security details, both on land in Kuwait and guarding an oil rig off the coast of Iraq, he said.

That military service — as well as another active duty tour in 2007 when he served at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — qualified him for increased education benefits through the Post 9/11 GI Bill, he said.

Instead of getting about 40 percent of his college expenses covered by older federal assistance programs for veterans, the new bill jumped his education benefits to nearly 100 percent, he said.

“It really lit a fire underneath me to go back to school,” he said.

Readjustment back to education

Carson, 44, is a full-time student at University of Maine at Augusta. He started taking classes in May and hopes to transfer next fall to a master’s degree program at University of Southern Maine.

He wants to use his veteran education benefits to shift from his over 20-year career as a police officer into social work, working in a mental health field to help veterans transition back to civilian life, he said.

Carson credits the veterans services staff at UMA with showing him the importance of getting veterans the help they need to succeed in life after the military. The staff consists of veterans who help other veterans navigate their unique educational experience, he said.

For Carson, his biggest challenge was learning the computer skills required to enroll in college classes and apply for his veteran benefits via the Internet. The support staff walked him through the process that had changed drastically during the decade he spent away from the classroom, he said.

“It’s like a readjustment back to education in how they’re helping you out,” he said.

There is also a lounge at the college dedicated to veterans, giving them a place to relax away from the other students. It’s a feature that is especially important for Carson because many of his classmates are half his age, he said.

“It’s nice to have the peer support and be able to sit in the lounge and talk with people who have similar experiences as I do,” he said.

Because of the financial assistance and other support services, Carson has gone from being overwhelmed by the college experience to feeling comfortable with he can handle any challenge, he said.

“I’m really proud of how far I’ve come,” he said.

David Robinson — 861-9287

[email protected]

About the Post 9/11 GI Bill:

There are about 3,000 Mainers today who are getting education benefits through the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which pays for them to attend college, get career training or pursue other job skills.

Residents in Maine are getting about $20 million per year from the federal program, which has provided approximately $15 billion in benefits to 649,573 people nationwide since taking effect in August 2009.

Depending on each individual’s situation, benefits could include payment of tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance, a stipend for books and supplies along with other assistance programs.

There are also circumstances that allow a veteran to transfer their benefits to a dependent.

Individuals who serve at least 90 days of aggregate service after September 10, 2001, are eligible.

To be eligible for 100 percent of the benefit, an individual must have served an aggregate of 36 months of active duty service, or have been discharged for a service-connected disability after 30 days of continuous service.

For those who served fewer than 36 months, the percentage of benefit ranges from 40 percent to 90 percent.

Veterans must have an honorable discharge or other qualifying discharge (hardship, condition interfering with duty, etc.) to be eligible.

For more information about the programs and benefits, visit the website www.gibill.va.gov or call 1-888-442-4551.

Source: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Maine State Approving Agency for Veterans Education Programs.


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