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Advocates fight for funding to continue

Veterans advocates are trying to do the political equivalent of taking a machine gun nest single-handedly: They're trying to convince Minnesota lawmakers to add a $1.5 million program in the face of a $6 billion-plus budget shortfall.

There's no question that Higher Education Veterans Programs are good for local communities, smaller colleges and the veterans themselves -- the only issue is funding, said Becker County Veterans Service Officer Lauri Brooke.

"The return on investment for the dollars spent on that, for me it's just a no-brainer," she said. "He (Dave Bellefeuille, the program's northwest regional coordinator) has doubled the amount of federal dollars being brought into that school (M-State in Detroit Lakes) just by being there."

Bellefeuille and a dozen other staffers across the state help veterans find their way through the maze of paperwork to be able to successfully use their military education benefits.

Who qualifies for which benefits varies widely based on all sorts of factors -- length of military service, branch of service, wartime or peacetime service, regular military or National Guard.

Bellefeuille and others in the program understand the benefit system, they understand the military, and they understand the MnSCU college system.

"They've helped so many veterans," Brooke said. "There are so many vets who say they would not have stayed in school without it.

"It's like having someone who understands military language, college language and VA language, like being multi-lingual, and being able to interpret all those languages," she added.

Such help is especially important to veterans who may be returning from combat and trying to settle back into civilian life, and are also dealing with issues of reintegration, Brooke said.

The 13 program staffers are located on MnSCU campuses (including Detroit Lakes) and are state employees. There are 40 students at M-State now receiving education benefits from the VA, though the number of student veterans is higher, since some have used up their benefits.

"We're here to assist A through Z, addressing all the way through everything," said Bellefeuille, who works on 10 campuses. "We are embedded on the campuses -- we have the connections to help if they have issues with financial aid or billing."

They are very familiar with the VA system and many are veterans themselves -- Bellefeuille spent 12 years in the Navy.

"We also partnered with the Minnesota National Guard -- every soldier that comes back from deployment, we are part of their re-integration process," he said.

Even the federal VA system uses the Minnesota program -- referring calls from across the country to a center in Perham.

"It was initially set up for Minnesota," Bellefeuille said, "but we have received calls from all over the United States -- the federal VA has referred them to us."

Some veterans have even moved to Minnesota to go to college because of the unique educational support the state provides.

A woman from North Carolina testified before a Minnesota legislative panel that she came to Minnesota -- and is spending her federal education dollars here -- because no one there could help her decipher her benefits.

"We had $60 million in federal dollars last year coming into state institutions (in Minnesota) --that's a huge number when you start talking about it," Bellefeuille said.

The Minnesota program doesn't just help veterans get started using their educational benefits -- it helps them stick to it and accomplish their college goals.

"We want these students to finish their two-year or four-year or master's degree using these federal dollars," Bellefeuille said.

The program has established veterans resource centers on MnSCU campuses -- the one in Detroit Lakes is adorned with a painting of a red bull in honor of the National Guard unit here -- that empower veterans to help each other.

"Veterans on campus have kind of created their own network ... if students are struggling they will go to the veterans resource center," to work things out, he said. "They know there'll be people there that have had similar life events.

"If someone is down, maybe thinking about dropping out, other students there help them work through their problems. The program has created a system where that can happen. Without the program, the canter does not exist, and that whole camaraderie thing is gone."

The five-year state Higher Education Veterans Programs was established in 2006. By law, the program was originally designed to sunset, or go away, in June. But the Legislature extended it an extra year, to 2012, without providing funding.

For veterans, going back to school can be an overwhelming experience, especially for those over the "traditional" college age of 19-23.

"Probably the first thing I hear on campus,' Bellefeuille said, "is 'I haven't been in school for 10 years -- how am I going to do?' It can be intimidating."

"Ninety-nine percent of the students I work with are non-traditional. Some have had multiple deployments (overseas) and haven't had time to go to school."

The state's Higher Education Veterans workers fill an important niche, and it's not clear who will fill the void if the program is disbanded.

"We have seen a substantial steady increase in student veterans from 2006 to 2010 -- who will help these students?" he asked. Higher education "is a service we're providing to our military, it's a benefit. It's like saying all of a sudden we're not going to have financial aid counselors on campus -- you just need to figure it out yourself."