NEWPORT, AR (KAIT) – Thousands of veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan are waging a tough fight on the job front.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these young men and women face an unemployment rate of 13.1 percent. The Arkansas State University-Newport campus, however, is extending its support to student veterans interested in furthering their education.
"I felt that it was important that we begin some type of organization that would allow these veterans to voice their issues, to share common problems and move beyond that and learn about their benefits," Christopher Nelson said.
Nelson started the ASU-Newport Student Veterans Organization this school year because he "realized that there was not a lot for the veteran on this campus."
Nelson enlisted in the Army in 2001, the day after the September 11 attacks. He spent four years as an infantry soldier, but few jobs were available at home that matched the skill set needed for combat. He managed to get a job at the state prison near Newport but decided to go back to school after a 10-year gap.
"Every day I was saying, 'Hey man, did you know there's a benefit out there that will help you pay for school?'" Nelson said. "It was surprising how many people said, no, I didn't realize that I was eligible at all. Finding that eligibility and helping these people go back to school has been extremely rewarding."
Nelson is currently assisting other veterans to access these educational benefits through the ASU-Newport Office of Admissions.
"We know there are literally hundreds of veterans in our communities that probably have benefits that they're not using , and that may be because they're not aware of it," Robert Summers said.
Summers is director of admissions and registrar. He also serves as the staff adviser for the veterans organization. The group recently invited Casey Thomas to join.
"This is my first actual college experience," Thomas said, who began taking classes at ASU-Newport in August.
Thomas is proving that it's never too late to learn. At 39 years old, he is pursuing a degree in renewable energy technology at ASU-Newport.
"I know this is going to be a big business in the next five, 10 years," he noted. "This is the way we need to go to make sure that we all have a better place to live."
Thomas spent the last three years on the front lines in Iraq and Kuwait as a cargo specialist, but now he is striving to create a better future for himself and the love of his life.
"I want to make a better life for (her and her children)," Thomas said, "and hopefully a better life for everyone else too."
The Student Veterans Organization says it's ingrained for its members to give back. They plan to sponsor a service project every semester. They would like to hold a flag replacement ceremony in March.