WRITTEN BY VALENTINE J. BRKICH & MARK HOUSER
Last summer, when Silas Watkins was sent to the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover Air Force Base, Del., he wasn't sure what to expect.
Watkins, a sport management major at Robert Morris University and senior airman at the 911th Air Reserve Station in Moon Twp., was charged with receiving the remains of military personnel from overseas and beginning the process of returning them to their loved ones. It was an important duty that required a high level of respect and professionalism. "I had to take my job very seriously," says Watkins, "because my crew and I were the last people to see a soldier before his loved ones did. So we treated each one as if he were our own family member."
"I didn't know how I'd react to the realness of the situation," he says. "It's a sad environment, no question. But the sense of pride and respect you feel for those soldiers is undeniable. I have never been more proud to be in the military and perform a job such as that."
RMU appreciates the sacrifices our military personnel make for us every day. So beginning this fall, veterans will study free at RMU. The university's Military Service Award will enable veterans who qualify for full benefits under the new Post-9/11 G.I. Bill to enroll tuition-free in any of the university's undergraduate or graduate programs.
RMU was among the first private universities in the country to offer free tuition to veterans under the new G.I. Bill. The university made the official announcement February 12 at the Heinz History Museum in downtown Pittsburgh, where several military and government officials were present, including State Sen. John Pippy, who is currently a major in the Pennsylvania National Guard.
"You're not just doing the right thing at Robert Morris for the military veterans," said Pippy during the event, "but I think you're doing the right thing for students." Pippy, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, served on active duty in 2003-2004 during the Iraq War. He feels that military veteran students have a different set of life experiences that can benefit those around them. "So not only are you helping make our country better because you're going to educate the future engineers and entrepreneurs and financiers of our country, but I also think you're going to make it a better educational experience for the students at Robert Morris."
"Not only are you doing the right thing and going to do well for the men and women who served," he said, "but also, I think Robert Morris will be better for it."
Since the announcement of the RMU Military Service Award, many other colleges and universities across the nation have followed suit.
"RMU believes that veterans should have as many opportunities as possible," President Gregory G. Dell'Omo said at the event. "And if they choose to study at a private institution like RMU, we want them to be able to do it and graduate debt-free."
"We're doing this because we believe it's the right thing to do," said Provost David L. Jamison at the February news conference. "That's the fundamental reason RMU became involved with this program. The Military Service Award continues our tradition of being a companion and reaching out to adults and other people who need an educational opportunity. We're unique among private schools in many ways in doing that."
The original G.I. Bill -- formally known as the Servicemen's Readjustment Act -- was signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on June 22, 1944. Among the bill's other provisions, which included financing for home ownership and low-interest business loans, its most significant benefit was tuition-free higher education for any veteran who wanted it. This groundbreaking legislation helped make going to college a reality for many veterans. The bill reached its peak in 1947, when veterans represented 49 percent of college admissions, according to the U.S. Veterans Administration.
"The G.I. Bill really did revolutionize and democratize higher education in the United States," says John McCarthy, assistant professor of history for RMU's department of social sciences. "It is almost universally agreed by historians that its creation was one of the most successful pieces of legislation ever enacted by Congress."
By the time the original G.I. Bill expired in 1956, nearly half of the 16 million World War II veterans had earned a college degree or participated in some other kind of training program. The success of the original G.I. Bill prompted the federal government to offer similar benefits to veterans following wars in Korea and Vietnam, and versions of the G.I. Bill were revamped during the 1970s and 1980s.
The new Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which goes into effect in August, will pay living expenses, a book stipend, and reimburse up to the highest public in-state tuition rate for any service member who has been on active duty for at least three years since Sept. 11, 2001. In Pennsylvania the highest public tuition belongs to Penn State, where the current undergrad tuition for the main campus is approximately $14,500. With the help of the Yellow Ribbon G.I. Education Enhancement Program, a federal 50-50 matching program for tuition over that limit, RMU pledges that qualifying veterans can attend this university tuition-free. Military personnel with less than three yearsÕ active duty also are eligible for generous federal and RMU benefits.
"Giving today's vets the chance to further their education will help fuel our economy and recovery from this crisis,"said Dell'Omo, "And it will allow a new generation of military personnel to advance their lives as well as those of their families."
Under the direction of a university task force headed by Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Larry Tomei, the university established an Office of Veterans Affairs and began reaching out to local military units and other regional organizations that impact veterans affairs. The office is headed by retired Brig. Gen. Dan Rota, with the help of program assistant Heather Jericho, and is working closely with veterans to make sure all their questions are answered and their needs met. This fall, the office will move to Jefferson Center, with renovated office space, a new veterans lounge and a videoconferencing area. The new VETS Center will also house the Veterans Education Learning Center and RMUÕs ROTC program, and will work closely with the downtown Veterans Business Outreach Center, which assists entrepreneurs who have served in the military.
Rota, a retired member of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, says there has been a big response to the new veterans program. "In the first month after announcing the new program, we had close to 300 e-mails and phone calls from interested veterans. They like how they can take any of the university's programs," says Rota. "I always tell them at RMU you can be whatever you want to be. The sky's the limit."
Rota is a professor emeritus in the university's doctor of science in information and communication systems program. He also serves as board chairman for the Veterans Business Outreach Center.
The VETS Center will be a "one-stop administrative and educational center to serve the full needs of our military personnel," says Tomei, a veteran himself who oversees the university's honors and study abroad programs, in addition to veterans and ROTC programs. Tomei was in ROTC and was commissioned in the Air Force, where he served in nine different states, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines in a 22-year career, retiring in 1994 as a lieutenant colonel. He started off in finance, then moved into computers and communications. "I grew up in the first days of the PC," he says, "back when local networking was still a pipe dream." Thanks to the G.I. Bill, Tomei earned two master's degrees and a doctorate. "Without the benefits I received from the G.I. Bill, I wouldn't be where I am today," he says. "And I'm proud that RMU is now doing what it can to offer the same opportunities to our current military personnel and their families."
RMU has a long history of serving adult and non-traditional students, including veterans. Currently, the university enrolls 130 veteran students and counts dozens of veterans among its faculty and staff. Considering the thousands of veterans who call Western Pennsylvania home, the new RMU Military Service Award could have a very positive impact on the region.
The U.S. has over 200,000 troops still serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of them are returning to civilian life in the midst of the worst economic downturn in decades, so the new G.I. Bill comes at an opportune time."During his inaugural address, President Obama issued a call to national service to remember the promises of our Founders and the sacrifices that Americans have made since to keep us free," said DellÕOmo. "Here at RMU, we take this very seriously. After all, it was our namesake who financed the American Revolution."
Besides loaning large sums of his own money to the Continental Army and helping create America's navy, Robert Morris was particularly influential in obtaining munitions and other supplies for the soldiers. The wealthy Philadelphia financier, a member of the Continental Congress, used his company to import arms and ammunition, and relied on his extensive international trading network to gather intelligence on British troop movements. In 1776, when Congress fled Philadelphia under threat of a British attack, Morris stayed behind as the sole representative of the young government. He personally borrowed money from wealthy Quakers to pay George Washington's soldiers each
a $10 bounty after they crossed the icy Delaware and shocked a Hessian garrison in Trenton. As superintendent of finance, Morris created the Bank of North America, helping to establish the country's credit with Europe and securing further revenues for the war effort.
"Robert Morris set the example," said Dell'Omo. "Now we're continuing this tradition by helping to finance the future of so many of our veterans.
Amanda Saunders understands the meaning of sacrifice. And she also understands the value of a strong education.
After enlisting in the Army in 1999, she broke her back in basic training during one of the field activities. "I had to change the way I did everything," says Saunders. Since the accident, life has been limited for the 27-year-old from Freedom, Pa. "There are things that I would love to do," she says, "such as going skiing or taking my kids ice skating, but one fall and I could be back in the hospital."
Saunders isn't one to give up easily, though. Now discharged, she is studying health care administration at RMU. "My professors have been great," she says. "If I had any issues with classes or assignments because of my medical conditions," she says, "they were more than willing to work out an arrangement so that I could participate in the activities with my other classmates."With the help of daily physical therapy, Saunders was able to work at an Army warehouse in Hanau, Germany, that supplied over 500 different units. "I worked with everything from hazmat materialsto toothbrushes," she says.
Saunders comes from a strong military family. "Growing up, we were kind of expected to join one of the services after high school," she says. "My father thought it was a great way to build self-discipline, and bring meaningful values into our life." She married her high school sweetheart, Kevin, in 1999, and together they have two children: Kaitlyn, 8; and Kane, 5.
Currently, Saunders is a hospital volunteer at Heritage Valley Sewickley. After graduating this month, she plans on pursuing her master's degree in human resources. "Down the road I'd like to work as a director at the veterans' hospital," she says. "I'd really enjoy helping my fellow veterans." Dell'Omo said he hopes the Military Service Award will enable many dedicated veterans to pursue their career goals by studying at Robert Morris University.
"We are doing this because we believe our veterans deserve it," he said at the announcement. "We pride ourselves on offering academic excellence with a professional focus; those in the armed services demonstrate excellence in action, and many of them wish to turn their attention to building new careers back home. We try to give our students a global perspective and active, engaged learning; returning veterans already have an expanded worldview and have committed their very lives to national service. We believe that individuals matter, and that an RMU education changes the lives of our students so that they can go out and change the lives of others; this is exactly what our men and women in uniform are called to do each and every day."
"RMU shares many of the goals and ambitions of our outstanding military veterans. That's why we're extremely proud to offer this new program."
"RMU believes that veterans should have as many opportunities as possible, and if they choose to study at a private institution like RMU, we want them to be able to do it and graduate debt-free."