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Kucivers’ fight typical for veterans

Kucivers’ fight typical for veterans

“In the Army, we’re all brothers. We protect each other. Here, there’s no bond, it’s everyone for themselves.”

Dan Kuciver, retired Army staff sergeant

Stories and photos by ROBYN ZELICKSON

Retired Army Staff Sergeant Dan Kuciver sits quietly at the table in his dining room, hooked up to his oxygen machine. His wife Karen, the newly elected president of the Student Veteran’s Organization, is by his side.

He is also kept company by his favorite of the six family dogs, a black lab mix named Rocky. In the Arizona room, there are several birds and a well-loved guinea pig.

The military is a proud tradition in Dan Kuciver’s family, going back to the Civil War. His mother’s family fought for the South and his father’s family for the North.

In 1985, Dan Kuciver enlisted in the Army, and after eight weeks of basic training, went to Fort Benning in Georgia for Infantry School. From there, he was stationed in Colorado Springs.

Over the years, he was deployed to Somalia, Desert Storm in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Panama and some others he can’t mention.

He was responsible for four to six men, depending on the team. These men were 20-30 years old and, like Kuciver, were being asked to die for their country if necessary.

In 1997, Kuciver was honorably discharged from the Army.

Coming home was a difficult transition. Kuciver was drinking a lot, and he was arrested for fighting and DUI. He suffered from nightmares due to severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, so he self-medicated.

According to the Mayo Clinic website, PTSD is defined as follows:

“Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”

At the time, there were no real resources from the Veteran’s Administration upon leaving the military, so Kuciver found himself on his own to try and resolve the issues he brought home.

“In the Army, we’re all brothers,” Kuciver said. “We protect each other. Here, there’s no bond, it’s everyone for themselves.”

Dan Kuciver stands with his wife, Karen Kuciver, in front of their Tucson Home. Dan
Kucivar needs a double-lung transplant, but has refused the procedure.

HEALTH ISSUES

Aside from PTSD, Kuciver had hearing loss. Later, there was lung trouble because of his time in Desert Storm.

He currently needs oxygen just to be able to breathe. His lungs have deteriorated to the point where he needs a double-lung transplant, which he has refused.

“It’s weird,” Kuciver said. “I couldn’t handle someone else’s organs inside my body.”

Kuciver, who is in his early 50s, also believes the younger soldiers coming home now need lungs more than he does so that they can grow old with their families.

“My kids are all grown now,” he said.

When his children reached age 16, he talked to them about his time in the military. He described to them the methods that he learned in training as a sniper – either kill or be killed.

“The first time, it’s hard,” Kuciver said. “The more you do it, it’s easier, but that bothers you later on.”

Only one of Kucivers’ boys joined the military. He fought for four to five years in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

Kuciver says that he’s proud of his son for defending his country. Although his son was deployed into dangerous combat missions, Kuciver wasn’t afraid for him.

“I respect him so much for fighting for his country,” Kuciver said. “Even if he died for his country, I would be more proud. And I would go again, if I could and they asked me.”

FINANCIAL ISSUES

Karen and Dan Kuciver were high school sweethearts. They parted ways, then reunited after 20 years. Now, she’s his advocate.

One of the promises made to Kuciver was that Japan would send money for U.S. soldiers, rather than getting involved in conflicts like Desert Storm. Instead of giving them the money, the U.S. government set up life insurance policies of $1 million for each soldier.

Unfortunately, the soldiers weren’t told they had to keep up the premiums when they returned from active duty. Those who didn’t had their policies cancelled. This was the situation with the Kucivers. No amount of fighting with the government could change it.

However, Karen Kuciver was successful in obtaining medical benefits for her husband. It took her three years and he was denied benefits twice. His lung issues were easier to prove, but he was told that his hearing could have been damaged before he deployed.

Because he was claiming disability insurance for his PTSD, Dan Kuciver had to undergo psychological testing. The Kucivers learned that if veterans are declared 70-100 percent disabled due to PTSD, the government can take over their finances and make decisions for them.

ONGOING BATTLES

The Kucivers both believe that veterans shouldn’t have to fight so hard or wait so long in order to receive medical or disability benefits.

“I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Dan Kuciver said. “I struggled with a loss of power and have to fight just to get through the day.”

When Karen Kuciver leaves the house for work, she leaves a list of chores for Dan Kuciver so that he is able to occupy his time while she’s gone. He can’t do much exertion because of his lungs, but he can get outside to water the garden, she said.

Dan Kuciver believes that PTSD is an even bigger issue for veterans returning from service now than it was in his time in Desert Storm or for veterans who fought in Vietnam.

“They aren’t given the coping skills that the guys were given before,” Kuciver said. “They used to be better prepared for combat than they are now. They’re not training them for sleep deprivation either.”

Kuciver’s unit had one-hour guard shifts in their barracks at night. They also did three-day training exercises in the woods where the soldiers were not allowed any sleep at all. That, he’s been told, is a thing of the past.

His advice for those recruits joining the military today?

“Don’t try to be a hero, everything will come naturally,” he said. “The only heroes are the dead ones that don’t come back. But, always have your buddies’ back. Always.”

Karen Kuciver new president of Student Vet organization

Karen Kuciver is the new president of the Student Veterans Organization at Pima Community College. Kuciver started as the East Campus liaison to the SVO, then became secretary. Recently, she was elected president.

The purpose of the SVO is to provide a stable, safe place for veterans. Although the group provides tutoring, its main function is to assist vets in dealing with everyday stresses.

“The sense of camaraderie that the SVO gives the student vets helps them in transitioning to student and civilian life,” Kuciver said.

There are 200 veterans at East Campus and 800 at PCC overall. While the Downtown Campus has a Veterans’ Center at RV-155 and the West Campus has a room at A-225, Kuciver would like to see the program expanded.

“Each campus should have an area like the Veteran’s Center at the Downtown Campus,” she said. “Soldiers write a blank check to serve us. Now, it’s our turn to serve them.”


Vet Services to honor graduates

Military and Veteran Services will host its first annual veteran graduation recognition ceremony and dinner on May 3 from 5-7 p.m. in the Downtown Campus Amethyst Room.

Graduating veterans were sent an invitation via PCC email.

For more information, call 206-2266 or email Hector Acosta at hacosta@pima.edu or Jorge Camarillo at jcamarillo@pima.edu.


SVO elects president

Karen Kuciver is the new president of the Student Veterans Organization at Pima Community College. Kuciver started as the East Campus liaison to the SVO, then became secretary. Recently, she was elected president.

The purpose of the SVO is to provide a stable, safe place for veterans. The group provides tutoring and assists vets in dealing with everyday stresses.

New SVO president Karen Kuciver.

“The sense of camaraderie that the SVO gives the student vets helps them in transitioning to student and civilian life,” Kuciver said.

There are 200 vets at East Campus and 800 vets at PCC overall. While the Downtown Campus has a Veteran’s Center at RV-155 and the West Campus has a room at A-225, Kuciver would like to see the program expanded.

“Each campus should have an area like the Veteran’s Center at the Downtown Campus,” she said. “Soldiers write a blank check to serve us. Now, it’s our turn to serve them.”

The Veteran’s Center is open 8 a.m.- 5 p.m., Monday – Friday during the Fall and Spring semesters.

Vet office clears audit backlog

Vet office clears audit backlog

By MICHEAL ROMERO

When Pima Community College appointed Hector Acosta as acting director of military and veteran services in June, he set his sights on one goal: repairing service for the sake of the students.

“My No. 1 priority was fixing the audit issues and perceptions that were in the community,” Acosta said. “All the expertise was there but there was no leadership.”

Student veterans previously had issues receiving their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, in part because just four staff members were available to handle customer service, audit issues and certifications.

There are now 12 employees in the Veterans Services office. They include a support specialist, four student services coordinators, five campus veterans advisors and two student services specialists.

With a self imposed deadline of Aug 1, and extra help from Desert Vista Campus Vice President Ted Roush, Acosta and the 12 employees finished an audit of backlogged files of former students.

The process was completed in time for an upcoming audit by the Department of Veteran Affairs Education Compliance office.

The audit, which may happen at any time, will check for compliance in certification, documentation and distribution of services to veterans.

“Of all the errors they found last time, they’re coming to see that we fixed them,” Acosta said.

Acosta was brought in after the resignation of his predecessor Daniel Kester on April 7.

Kester resigned when the plan he put in place failed to yield desired results. He said the remaining 1,500 files could not be completed in time for the Veterans Affairs visit and charged there was little institutional support for veterans at the college.

Using Kester’s compliance action plan, Veterans Services employees finished auditing the backlogged files by the end of August.

Acosta said the success comes down to the hard work by those in the Veterans Center.

“From my perspective, the main issue was bringing the team together,” Acosta said. “Now, we have young people in charge at the campuses and we have a coordinator responsible for the Vet Center, which has an increasing number of vets coming in for support.”

Acosta attributes the increase in the number of veterans to the work of the Student Veterans Organization.

“Now that the SVO is up, even more exposure gets out to the other campuses,” he said. “The Veteran Center was averaging 20-30 vets a month and we’re at over 140 per week now.”

Military and Veteran Services Coordinator Jorge Camarillo makes it a priority to ensure that veterans know help is available if they need it.

“I travel to all the campuses and make sure the SVO is visible,” Camarillo said. “Because it’s about the student, that’s why I come to work, to find what I can do to help students succeed.”

Camarillo also helps make sure veterans see the appropriate advisor at each campus to ensure they get the proper benefits or know that the Veterans Center exists.

The Veterans Center at Downtown Campus has a full computer commons available with free printing and a conference room. It doubles as a quiet space for veterans.

The center also houses office space for advisor Anna Brown and for Camarillo.

“It’s like a one-stop shop,” Camarillo said. “When a veteran comes, they have an advisor that can take care of their benefits.”

Camarillo said the Veterans Center was in the process of hiring tutors for math and writing to help maximize the help that can be provided.

“We want them to get a certificate or a degree” Camarillo said. “We also work with UA and NAU to provide a bridge to get them into four-year schools.”

Camarillo successfully organized a barbecue honoring Veterans Day that featured guest speakers, representatives for Martha McSally and representatives for various colleges and programs.

Student Veterans Organization President Selah Hadi said the situation for veterans is better overall, noting it shows in the graduation rate for veterans at Pima.

“We have one of the highest graduation rates for a junior college in the entire United States,” Hadi said. “We are at about 35 percent now and the average is 33 percent, which is great.”

Looking forward, Acosta feels there is still work to be done. He plans to do all that he can to help the college and its student veterans.

“There are still complaints because we’re not perfect,” he said. “But for the most part, the veterans who need it are getting support.


Veterans and students gather at Pima Community College’s Downtown Campus on Nov. 10 for a Veterans Day celebration and barbecue. The celebration included a speech by instructor Gregory Ivan Redhouse. Representatives for U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake and U.S. Sen. John McCain also spoke.      Micheal Romero / Aztec Press

Veterans and students gather at Pima Community College’s Downtown Campus on Nov. 10 for a Veterans Day celebration and barbecue. The celebration included a speech by instructor Gregory Ivan Redhouse. Representatives for U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake and U.S. Sen. John McCain also spoke.
Micheal Romero / Aztec Press


From left, Student Veteran Organization President Selah Hadi, Student Services Coordinator Jorge Camarillo, Advisor Anna Brown and Acting Director of Military and Veteran Services Hector Acosta gather at the Veteran Center at Downtown Campus after a successful celebration for Veterans Day on Nov. 10. Micheal Romero / Aztec Press

From left, Student Veteran Organization President Selah Hadi, Student Services Coordinator Jorge Camarillo, Advisor Anna Brown and Acting Director of Military and Veteran Services Hector Acosta gather at the Veteran Center at Downtown Campus after a successful celebration for Veterans Day on Nov. 10.
Micheal Romero / Aztec Press

Student vets left in the dust

Student vets left in the dust

By PABLO ESPINOSA

Pima Community College student veteran George Burdelte, who spent 10 years in the Navy and Army, depends on his veteran’s benefits to make ends meet. He is still waiting for this semester’s Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.

The delay in payments left him with a negative bank account balance. His car has been repossessed and he is behind on his light bill.

“Maybe the people at the top don’t give a shit about veterans,” Burdelte said.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill pays college tuition directly to student veterans, and provides a monthly housing allowance known as a Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH.

PCC student veteran Luis Cuevas, a father of two who works 40 hours a week and attends school full time, is also waiting for his payment. He used a tax refund to stay afloat.

“I come here full time for the BAH,” Cuevas said. “Thank god for taxes or I don’t know what I would have done.”

Cuevas and Burdelte are among nearly 1,000 PCC student veterans who faced delays receiving payments through the GI Bill.

As of Feb. 23, approximately 200-250 student veterans had received benefit payments.

Problems persist almost six weeks into the semester, despite PCC passing a compliance audit from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

VA officials made a site visit Dec. 8-10, 2014 to verify the college’s compliance with federal regulations. The audit followed sanctions placed on PCC last April by the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services. The sanctions were lifted in May.

As part of a new emphasis on veteran services, Pima created an administrative position: director of veterans and military affiliated services. Daniel Kester, a veteran himself, was hired and began work last October.

Kester partially blamed the federal audit for the current delays in processing benefits paperwork.

“We had an audit shortly after I got here,” he said. “On Dec. 8, that was kind of an all hands on deck situation.”

PCC student veteran Joseph Cole criticized the delay in benefits. “The system may pass its audit but what about the veterans? They don’t care about our side,” he said.

Every PCC student veteran using the Post-9/11 GI Bill must be certified.

All necessary paperwork and requirements must be completed, reviewed and approved before the veterans or the college can get paid.

Certification delays occurred when veteran services personnel at PCC’s district office were tasked with passing the audit.

Vacancies at the veteran services office also contributed to the delays.

The office has four full-time employee positions to work on three primary tasks: customer services, the audit and certifications.

“These guys get beat up every day and I get beat up every day by veterans who I don’t think realize that we’re really on their side,” Kester said.

One of the four positions is currently vacant. Kester said that left him with one full-time employee to answer an ongoing flood of emails and calls from veterans.

One employee worked full time on the audit, and the other was responsible for certifying all PCC Post-9/11 GI Bill student veterans.

Every student veteran is now assigned a student veteran counselor. Those campus counselors support the district office certification effort by collecting paperwork and entering information into the college’s records.

Although they cannot certify students themselves, the counselors do a large part of the work.

The process has also been delayed because many student veterans did not know they needed to see a counselor to initiate the certification process.

Kester said 80 percent of certifications are waiting on veterans to fulfill their side of the requirements.

“There is an email being sent out and there is also a notification on the veterans tab,” he said. However, the only email Kester produced was one asking veterans to check their veterans tab.

He insisted the need to see a student veteran counselor for certification is not a new requirement, only “old rules that should have been implemented.”

Cole, the PCC student veteran who criticized the delay in benefits, heard about the need to see a veteran counselor from a fellow student veteran, but only after the semester had started.

“A student services counselor says to take a class, then the vet counselor says to take a different class after it’s too late,” he said.

The deadline has passed for Cole to drop the class for a refund and the GI Bill won’t pay for it because it is outside of his program of study.

With all veterans having a designated counselor to make sure they have paperwork and requirements completed, why have such a high percentage of veterans not fulfilled their side of the certification process?

The most obvious answer may be that most veterans have not seen their counselor, but another answer may be the counselors themselves.

Despite their best intentions, the veteran counselors are newly appointed to veterans, with no training required.

Kester said student veterans can look forward to a much smoother process next semester.

The school has a new database system, VA Once, to deal with certifications. It allows PCC student veterans to make sure they have all documentation needed to be properly certified.

“This has really helped the school in terms of compliance and it’s going to really help the veterans,” Kester said.

He also plans to eventually send every student veteran counselor to VA Once training.

Yet another change will be adding one student service specialist who can complete certifications at every campus.

“That will multiply our efforts quite a bit,” he said.

In addition, a new MyPima veterans tab will inform students what information and documentation they still need to complete certification.

“Next semester, the certification process is going to run super sweet,” Kester said.

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Veterans from the five branches of the military are facing delays in receiving their GI Bill benefits. (Aztec Press photo illustration by Larry Gaurano)

 

Pima passes VA audit

Pima passes VA audit

By NICK MEYERS

Pima Community College passed a compliance audit from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs following a campus visit Dec. 8-10.

“This is excellent news for our student-veterans and their families,” Karrie Mitchell, assistant vice chancellor for student development said in a news release.

The audit was intended to verify Pima’s compliance with federal regulations related to veterans’ benefits. It follows sanctions placed on the college last April by the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services that were lifted in May.

“Many veterans have earned educational benefits serving our country and use them to transition back into civilian life,” said Daniel Kester, the college’s director of veterans and military affiliated services. “It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that these taxpayer funds are spent wisely.”

Kester, who was hired last October, said the VA has specific and occasionally complex rules in place to ensure veterans are enrolled in programs that will prepare them for careers and higher education.

Mitchell credited the leadership of Kester and his team for playing a vital role in passing the audit.

“Dr. Kester and his team are restoring the fullest measure of trust in the quality of PCC’s service to veterans,” she said.

Kester praises his core team of district compliance officers and certification officials who put in hundreds of hours of preparation for the audit, as well as many of the college’s supervisors, managers, administrators and advisors.

“This significant achievement could not have been possible without a focused all-hands effort involving staff and administrators from our campuses and District Offices,” Lambert said.

The audit consisted of VA representatives reviewing 45 student files chosen at random from the nearly 1,450 students receiving veterans’ benefits at the college. Just four of the files were found to contain discrepancies, far below the allowable percentage.

“It really was the entire college coming together that impressed the VA,” Kester said. “And demonstrated that Pima, as a college, is serious about supporting veterans.”

Daniel Kester was hired as Pima's new vet director last October.

Daniel Kester was hired as Pima’s new vet director last October.

Pima locks on  to student vets  with new director

Pima locks on to student vets with new director

By NICK MEYERS

Back in ’78, Daniel Kester was a young airman recruit. One stripe on his shoulder, no more than a year out of high school, his second lieutenant asked him, “Kester! You ever think about going to college?”

Truth was, he hadn’t. College was for lawyers and bankers and senators’ sons; he was the son of a fireman who grew up in Ohio.

“Kester,” said his lieutenant. “I’m ordering you to go to college!” Kester told his officer he didn’t think he could do that. His officer didn’t think so either. Even still the officer told him to get into his car and drove him to the base education office. He sat in the car, engine running, and told Kester he’d wait there until he signed up for a college course.

“I was immediately addicted to learning,” Kester said. “I think about him every day and I’m thankful that he saw something in me that I didn’t see.”

Kester hopes to find his old lieutenant someday and tell him how his life was impacted by that almost order.

“I can’t wait to tell him what those words meant to me. It’s a constant reminder to me to help others in the same way.”

Kester is Pima Community College’s new director of veterans and military affiliated service, a newly created position to oversee veterans’ affairs at the college.

The new addition comes following mishandling of veterans’ files, which led to a temporary suspension of veterans’ benefits at PCC in March.

“In creating this position, we are ensuring that our student veterans consistently receive the best possible administrative services,” Chancellor Lee Lambert said in a press release.

Kester intends to incorporate a series of student success courses, which he hopes to teach, as well as establish a veteran’s center on every campus like the one on Downtown Campus.

Additionally, he plans on digitizing aspects of student veteran records to streamline various processes.

“I’ve been really impressed with everyone here and really impressed with their willingness to support veterans,” Kester said.

His background in education coupled with his military experience makes him uniquely qualified for Pima’s new position, which coincidently opened up shortly after he finished writing his dissertation on the transition of military personnel from active duty to post-secondary education.

“During my research I’ve always said, ‘people spend more time planning their vacations than their careers,’” he said.

He aims to improve career planning and sees his time at Pima as a counselor to student veterans.

“I’ve always been a counselor at heart,” he said.

“My very first teaching gig was at a community college,” Kester says. “And I’ve always felt like I had it right the first time at community college.”

Kester began his teaching career at Owens Community College in Ohio after spending 10 years in the Air Force. During his time in the military, he earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering technology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

“It’s kinda like an efficiency expert,” Kester said. “So you look at processes whether it’s an assembly line or a bank or an institution such as here. I look at, say, our certification process and I can see where the bottlenecks are and where there are opportunities for improvement.”

Many student veterans at Pima are already familiar with Kester due to his time spent at the college researching his dissertation, during which he worked closely with PCC student veterans.

Pima student Adrienne Lujan, a six-year Navy veteran, was one of the students interviewed by Kester during his research.

“We had no idea what the future was gonna hold. We had no idea he was gonna walk through that door and be the director,” she said. “That initial contact, though, did make it easy, I think, for everybody.”

Lujan also stressed the importance of having a military veteran to act as an advocate for service members at the college within the administration.

“We need a communication system with the upper echelon of Pima College,” she said. “Hopefully Dr. Kester along with student veterans have a chance to attend steering committees where issues can be addressed as they come up.”

During his dissertation, Kester discovered that while student veterans rated Pima’s veteran services highly, they didn’t necessarily take advantage of the services due to what he identified as culture shock.

“They really felt abandoned by the military,” Kester said.

“They built a military identity for four years, and then they only give them five days to go ‘OK, go find a job, here’s how to write a resume.’ You can’t change that identity in five days. That’s the whole idea behind this position, is to ease that transition.”

Sean Lore, a two-and-half-year Army veteran, agrees.

“Transition is very hard. It’s just a different world – a totally different world – and it’s hard to connect with people,” he said.

Kester also helps student veterans make the transition from active duty to community college. His ideas and passion for helping veterans to not only attend, but succeed, at Pima embody the goal of his position.

“What is cool is the young kids that are comin’ right out of four years, they have the whole world open to them.

“So they come out, they probably don’t have a degree, they don’t have that much experience, they’re like ‘I can do something different. I don’t have to do what I did in the military.’

“So it’s a wonderful group to talk to. It’s exciting, you can kinda live vicariously through them,” he said.

“Just say ‘wow you’re 21 again and you can go anywhere you want: you can go into the arts, you can go into music, you can go into journalism, you can go into fire fighting,’ and I just think that’s so exciting to sit down with them and choose a career.”

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New Veterans’ Director Daniel Kester wants to advocate for students. (Nick Meyers/Aztec Press)

PCC holds forums for veterans

PCC holds forums for veterans

By DAVID JOSEPH DEL GRANDE

Pima Community College recently hosted two forums to provide information regarding veteran education benefits and waiver assistance for students who received debt letters from the Veterans Administration.

Pima’s forums were held on June 21 and June 23 in an effort to assist approximately 3,700 students whom had received veteran benefits since Fall 2010.

Zach Newton, a former PCC student, received a debt letter in April and attended Monday’s forum to obtain information about the waiver process. Newton transferred to the University of Arizona in 2013, and is still receiving VA benefits that he said were recently cut by almost $1000.

“I got a debt letter in the mail saying I owe money for classes I took in 2010,” Newton said. “I don’t know if it’s too late to start the appeal process or not, but I am still receiving VA benefits.”

Newton said he was surviving by pooling funds from financial aid, veteran benefits and part-time employment. Newton receives veteran benefits from his father’s GI-Bill.

“I’ve got student loans and I do work part-time but frankly I’m broke,” he said. “The price of education is really high, worrisome and it accumulates. I’m in debt, it’s stressful and scary.

“I need the money but I have to make it work whether I get it or not,” Newton said. “I’ll just sink myself deeper in debt. I don’t know what else to do? I have to continue to go to school.”

Since March, Pima’s Chancellor Lee Lambert has worked towards solving veteran student issues with the political offices of Congressman Ron Barber, and Arizona Senator John McCain.

Maricela Solis de Kester, Barber’s Tucson district director, attended the forums in order to provide constituent support for Pima and veteran students. Solis de Kester said part of the discussions with Lambert prior to the two events involved answering some key questions.

“’How are we going to help veterans understand what the debt letters mean, where the liability lies and what the process will be to reconcile that liability,’” Solis de Kester said. “The chancellor decided to hold these forums to get the word out, and they invited our offices to participate.”

On June 16, McCain wrote a letter to Lambert expressing his concerns regarding the hurdles Pima and its veteran students continue to face. McCain did praise PCC for hosting the forums, and Lambert’s commitment to meeting with his office but called for swift resolutions to these critical issues.

“As the relatively new chancellor of PCC, I understand that you have unfortunately inherited this student veteran issue,” McCain wrote to Lambert. “I appreciate your willingness to meet with my office, on three separate occasions, since the veteran audit was announced in March 2014. But, immediate action to remedy this widespread problem is essential.”

On March 18, the Arizona Veterans Education & Training Approving Agency prohibited PCC from enrolling new veteran students for 60 days due to poor record-keeping and payments to ineligible students.

By May 20, the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services found PCC in full compliance with regulations, which allowed the college to enroll veterans for the summer and fall semesters.

PCC veteran enrollment sanctions lifted

PCC veteran enrollment sanctions lifted

By NICK MEYERS

The state has lifted enrollment sanctions on Pima Community College, allowing the college to enroll Veterans Benefit recipients once again.

During a May 20 visit, representatives of the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services found that PCC is “fully in compliance” with regulations and will allow the college to enroll veterans for the summer and fall semesters.

On March 18, PCC received a letter from the Arizona Veterans Education & Training Approving Agency informing the college that enrollment for recipients of veteran’s benefits would be suspended.

The letter cited multiple deficiencies in record keeping for veteran enrollment and degree progress.

The VETAA allowed the college 30 days to develop an action plan and another 30 days to implement it.

Pima veteran services specialist Gary Parker oversaw a team of three other specialists and more than 40 other Pima employees as they reviewed more than 3,100 student-veteran files to correct the problems found by the VETAA.

“It was very impressive to see firsthand the enormous progress your staff has made,” wrote April Monthie, senior veterans’ education and training specialist from VETAA, in a letter to Chancellor Lee Lambert. “It represents a huge commitment on the staff’s and your part.”

Lambert acknowledged the importance of serving veterans in a recent blog post.

“The college owes its student-veterans the best possible programs and services as they transition back to civilian life,” Lambert wrote. “Thanks to our dedicated employees, we have taken a big step toward achieving that worthy goal.”

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College reacts to vet sanctions

College reacts to vet sanctions

By NICK MEYERS

Although Pima Community College is under a 60-day suspension from enrolling veterans using veteran aid programs, officials are confident the problems will be addressed.

A letter from the Arizona Veterans Education & Training Approving Agency detailed numerous accounts of negligent record keeping that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has brought to the college’s attention in previous years.

Pima created an action plan to handle the discrepancies, but it was never implemented.

This is the first time that DVA and VETAA have imposed these sanctions on Pima.

While the approximately 1,300 veterans currently enrolled at Pima are not in danger of losing their government aid, new veterans cannot apply to the college before the sanctions are lifted.

While few veterans who plan on attending the college in the future have inquired about the sanctions, Pima officials have been assuring veterans that the sanctions are nothing to worry about.

“It’s just a suspension, that’s all it is,” said Constance Strickland, program coordinator for the Student Veterans Association. “They say we have 60 days but it could only take 40.”

The letter received by Pima says the suspension will not be lifted before VETAA’s scheduled inspection in June or July.

The college has a plan to fix the problems by May 20.

Pima student Adrienne Lujan, a Navy veteran who served six years and is currently secretary- treasurer of the Student Veteran Association, is not worried about the suspension.

“It doesn’t affect currently enrolled veterans,” she said. “So everyone who is here now is safe.”

However, current veterans enrolled at PCC are barred from switching from pre-approved degree programs. They also risk not being able to complete their programs if VETAA revokes the college’s certification permanently.

Lambert, a former service member, said he takes the situation seriously and has made a priority of finding a solution to the negligent record keeping.

“This issue is personal for me,” Lambert said in a press release. “My father was career military and I am proud to have served my country in the U.S. Army. We are obligated to do the best job we can in serving those who served.”

Some of these issues were brought to the college’s attention by a VA audit in 2012 and most recently in December 2013.

While the college created an action plan to handle the problems, it was never implemented.
Student Veterans Association President Scott Plotts said part of the reason for the suspension has been the college’s state of change over the past few years.

“Plain and simple, it’s continuity: the college hasn’t had any in the past few years,” he said. “You have a new chancellor, new registrars, just people shuffling in and out, constantly.”

When personnel overseeing certain projects leave and their successor isn’t aware of the problem, “then it kinda goes to the wayside and it doesn’t progress from there,” Plotts said.

The college has had two staff changes since the audit.

Last fall, the college announced the hiring of a new veterans services specialist, Gary Parker, to assist with registration and graduation for student veterans.

The college has since hired three more specialists to assist with veteran certification and enrollment.

“Obviously, there is a huge, huge issue here that goes back quite a few years,” Parker said. “I actually came here as a work study … and I had an opportunity to get into the certified official position but didn’t realize the magnitude of the issue.”

Parker and his team are reviewing 3,700 files of students currently enrolled veterans using veteran aid benefits. Each file will be reviewed twice.

Parker said part of the reason that PCC failed to meet VA standards was the lack of a dedicated staff to handle the volume of veterans at the college. He said creation of such positions will ensure a better regulated process.

Plotts, a six-year Air Force veteran, sees the suspension as a learning experience. With like-minded individuals on the job, he is confident in the college’s ability to handle the situation.

“Yeah it’s a negative thing but it can also lead to a lot of improvements,” Plotts said. “Streamlining the process, making the paperwork better, it improves everybody.”

Parker, a 28-year Air Force veteran, said he understands the problem completely. “I know we’re gonna get it fixed, I know we’re gonna be moving forward and we’re gonna do great things.”

Parker said Student Veteran Benefits recipients who have not received their veteran certification paperwork for the spring 2014 semester should contact District Office Admissions and Records, Veterans Services at either 206-4640 or 206-4715.

He also recommended that students check their MyPima email accounts to see if the office has sent them an email requesting information or documents.

Letter to the Editor: Veterans Center, fix yourself

Letter to the Editor: Veterans Center, fix yourself

I am a non-traditional, veteran full-time student pursuing an associate of science degree in order to fulfill prerequisites for a graduate program. Since I also work full time at Fort Huachuca, I have a three-hour roundtrip commute when I attend my classes or science labs in the evenings.

Due to my full-time schedule (I have taken 55 hours over the past three semesters) and the distance I am from any PCC campus, I rely heavily upon email and telephone to communicate with PCC and my instructors.

My experience with this over the past year with PCC, and especially my instructors, has been incredible with one glaring exception: the Veterans Center.

Emails sent via the “Contact Us” on the veterans page remain unanswered. Multiple voicemails left on the Veterans Center answering machine remain unanswered.

Therefore, I was not at all shocked when I discovered that PCC would no longer be eligible to certify veterans benefits for this semester or for the next 60 days due to multiple violations and compliance issues.

The apathetic response I’ve received thus far from the Veterans Center is likely a reflection of their overall attitude, and apparently the Department of Veterans Affairs agrees.

I am a former Sergeant First Class with multiple combat deployments overseas as an infantryman and in military intelligence.

Despite my extremely busy schedule, as a former non-commissioned officer, I must accept my share of the responsibility for the Veterans Center’s issues as I have not, until now, spoken up about the Veterans Center’s shortcomings and failures.

I am fortunate in that I have the means to afford to pay for my education.  However, I feel for those veterans who, in attempting to use their hard-earned veterans education benefits, placed their faith in an office that long ago abandoned them on the battlefield.

I do not know what steps PCC will take towards assisting those veterans – but an apology is insufficient for a veteran who suddenly discovers that she now has to come up with $2,000 to cover her total cost of education.

To the Veterans Center – fix yourselves, and make this right.

Kenneth Albrecht

State halts veteran admissions

State halts veteran admissions

By ANDREW PAXTON

Pima Community College is prohibited from enrolling new student veterans for at least 60 days following a suspension of benefits from the Arizona Veterans Education & Training Approving Agency.

 
A March 18 letter from the VETAA to Chancellor Lee Lambert detailed the reasons for the sanction, including failure to accurately report enrollment and incomplete record keeping.

 
The VETAA stressed that these were repeat findings, and the college had failed to act after deficiencies were found by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2012.

 
The college created an action plan but never implemented it, according to the letter.

 
“Pima clearly dropped the ball in the way we document and track the services we provide to our veteran education benefit recipient students,” Lambert said in a press release.

 
Veterans currently eligible for federal education benefits, such as the Post 9/11 GI-Bill or the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, are prohibited from enrolling at PCC under the sanctions.

 
The enrollment freeze does not affect the approximately 1,300 veterans already attending Pima.

 
The college has until April 18 to submit an action plan to the VETAA and will be subject to random spot checks for another 30 days after the plan is approved.

 
“I have directed the appropriate offices within the college to make this matter their top priority,” Lambert said.

 
“I fully expect that we will be able to regain the confidence of state and federal veteran’s officials over the next eight weeks so that we can continue to certify new veterans education benefit recipients for our summer and fall terms,” he said.

 
Summer classes at Pima begin May 27 and July 1.

 
However, the VETAA will make their formal inspection in June or July.

 
Following their visit, they will decide whether to lift the suspension or proceed with the withdrawal of approval of all programs offered by Pima for veterans education benefits.

Student vets want their voices heard

Student vets want their voices heard

By A. GREENE

If you’re not a student veteran, you might not know that Pima Community College’s Downtown Campus has a Veteran’s Center. Even if you are a student veteran, you might not know about it.

The two-room center, located inside the Student Life room, is tucked into a back corner.

The front room has a reception area, two computers and a printer for student vets to use. A “quiet room” at the back can be used to relax and get away from college bustle.

In recent weeks, center director Diane-Marie Landsinger was removed from her position. She has since resigned from PCC.

Scott Plotts, president of the Student Veterans of America club at PCC, said Landsinger’s removal boiled down to a lack of effective communication.

“She didn’t know how to talk to us, we didn’t know how to talk to her and then we didn’t know how to talk around each other,” Plotts said.

Landsinger didn’t have experience working with veterans and didn’t understand their needs, Plotts added.

“I’m not saying that she didn’t have good intentions, because she did a lot of good things for us,” he said. “So it wasn’t her administrative qualities that were the negative thing, it was just her personal relations.”

Landsinger could not be reached for comment.

Plotts said morale is now higher and more veterans have been coming in to use the center.

“It’s difficult for veterans to sit down with people who are non-vets and be themselves, or at least people that don’t understand veterans,” he said.

The change has been positive, but Plotts said Pima’s vet students need more.

“I appreciate that they worked so hard a few years ago to get the space, but now I think it’s necessary for us to grow,” he said.

Plotts estimates there are 1,600 student veterans at Pima, most of whom are based at Downtown Campus. That number only counts students who are receiving GI benefits.

Graydon Staring, a first-year student veteran, said he has been into the vet center only a couple of times.

“They’re really helpful,” he said. “I understand funds are limited. I’m grateful it’s there.”

The center currently uses three Federal Work Study students, a couple of volunteers and an interim “signing official” who is filling in until a permanent director is hired.

First on the agenda for improvements is finding a new director. This time, the SVA is providing input.

“We’re being involved in a lot of the processes,” Plotts said. “They’re listening.”

Chancellor Lee Lambert said he is ready to start making changes.

“We know we need to have a vet center,” Lambert said. “A space that addresses veterans concerns, issues and opportunities.”

Lambert, who is a veteran himself, said he first wants to understand the perspective of the student vets and make sure the changes being implemented will actually provide solutions to problems. He then wants to bring in a leader who knows vets and knows how to help student veterans be successful.

“I know it can be done, and we don’t have to go that far to figure it out,” he said.

On Sept. 23, Lambert fired Downtown Campus president Luba Chliwniak and vice president Jerry Haynes. Lambert said a “leadership change” was needed, but was hesitant to give many details about his decision.

The Arizona Daily Star reported the firings were connected to leadership issues at the Veterans Center, but Plotts said that information was misleading.

“The article by the Daily Star had quotes from people that were talking about Diane-Marie’s issues … but the article made it out to be that those same complaints applied to Dr. Chliwniak and Jerry Haynes,” Plotts said.

As far as he knew, Plotts said, there were never any complaints against the former campus president or vice president.

He doesn’t know the full reasons for the firings, but said the article drew too much of a connection between Landsinger, Chliwniak and Haynes.

Leadership changes aside, Plotts said the SVA would really like to see full-time staffed centers at every campus. Downtown Campus is currently the only Pima campus with a fully functioning vet center.

West Campus is the only other campus with a vet center, but Plotts said it isn’t much. He called it a tiny room with a broken printer.

The club would also like to expand the Downtown Campus center.

“A larger space would be preferred,” Plotts said. “As it stands, we get seven or eight people in here and it’s way too crowded.”

Ben Llamas, a first-year Pima student and a veteran, said he has used the Downtown Campus vet center three times. The size of the space deters him from coming in more often.

“It’s really small in there,” he said. “It’s like the size of a large closet.”

For the SVA, the bottom line is helping as many student veterans as possible transition into an academic lifestyle.

“I’m happy that changes are being made,” Plotts said. “I appreciate that the chancellor has come in. As he’s said multiple times, he wants to help the veterans.

“The biggest thing we can ask for is help from the top.”

 

Pg09-Vet Center

Cutline ID:

From left, Jonah Fontenot, Walter Wesch and Scott Plotts wait in the Veteran’s Center at Downtown Campus for a Student Veterans of America club meeting to begin.

(Aztec Press photo by A. Greene)

 

Saluting veterans

Saluting veterans

By LIAM McINERNEY

 

When I was growing up in Massachusetts, any thoughts I had about Veterans Day involved planning how I would spend my day off from school.

Much like July 4 or the vast number of Jewish holidays, I rarely thought about what the holiday truly meant.

I did not take part in parades or thank our veterans. Instead, I usually went apple-picking or played a round of golf.

Because both of my grandfathers served in the U.S. Navy, I now feel ashamed that this day went unnoticed by many of my peers and, most importantly, myself.

After realizing my lack of knowledge about one of our most important holidays, I decided to educate myself about our nation’s past and the events leading to up to Veterans Day.

I did what any normal person looking for information about a topic would do, and logged onto Google.

Within five minutes, I had learned more than I did in any high school classroom.

Armistice Day was established on Nov. 11, 1918, when our World War I allies signed an agreement with Germany to end the war.

The U.S. government officially deemed Nov. 11 Armistice Day in 1938, to honor veterans of WWI. The holiday is dedicated to world peace.

As we all know, WWI was not the only world war. In 1954, after WWII and the Korean War, Congress amended the 1938 act, and changed the word ‘Armistice’ to ‘Veterans.’

The legislation made Nov. 11 a holiday to honor American veterans of all wars.

As Veterans Day nears, let’s take time to thank veterans of all ages and honor their courage to fight for our freedom.

Thank you to the veterans of World War I and II. Thank you to the veterans of the Cold War and the Iraq War. And thank you most recently to veterans of the War on Terror.

Without your courageous and patriotic acts, our country would not be the free land it is today.

McInerney would like to thank his grandparents, Gene Dunifon and Jim McInerney, for serving in the U.S. military.