Dan Roberts, a SUNY Adirondack freshman who has done two tours in Iraq, speaks passionately about those who helped him overcome his issues and re-adapt back to civilian life, and he speaks with equal intensity about his desire to help other veterans in the future.
“How do I pay it forward?” Roberts asked, sitting in a chair in a student government office in the SUNY Adirondack student center, then answering his own question. “We need younger people, we need people from your own time frame to help you. I want to do as much as I can to help people get on the path back. I have had parents who have talked to me about their sons who have come back, and they can see it, but the soldiers can’t.”
Roberts, a 2000 graduate of Lake Luzerne, will spend part of his Veterans Day speaking at a ceremony at the school. It will be a respite from his 16-credit semester, the beginning of a college career he hopes will allow him to repay the help of others.
“My end goal is to counsel PTSD vets,” said Roberts, who is the student representative to the school’s board of trustees. “They need to know it’s going to be OK. They need to know the help is out there.”
It’s still early for Roberts, who stands out among his classmates with a muscled body that fills his black “Wounded Warrior” T-shirt. Roberts, wearing jeans and tan workboots, sports tattoos on both arms, jet-black hair and an intense look as he describes his two tours in Iraq and his journey to the classroom.
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He is reflective at times, noting he craves structure — whether it be in the service or in the classroom. He barely notices when he points out his days begin the same way today that they did when he was in Iraq — with 5 a.m. workouts.
Harry Candee is SUNY Adirondack’s veterans’ services counselor, and he said Roberts, who he refers to as “a great student,” is one of 142 veterans enrolled at the college.
“That just counts the veterans,” said Candee, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Army and used the GI Bill while a service member and afterwards. “We have others here who are on a parent’s benefits.”
Candee, who has been counseling veterans for 14 years, said he feels SUNY Adirondack “bends over backwards” to help veterans, and added that anyone who knows a veteran should tell the veteran about the GI Bill.
“They only have 15 years to get started, so it is imperative if people know a veteran, they push them to take the benefits.”
Back to World War II
Historically, the GI Bill has been a catalyst for returning veterans.
The program, originally known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act when it was passed in 1944, allowed for education, low-cost mortgages and low-cost business loans. It has changed over the years, first in 1984 when it was revamped by Mississippi Congressman Gillespie “Sonny” Montgomery — the “Montgomery GI Bill — then undergoing even more changes in 2009, when it was referred to as the “Post 9/11 GI Bill.
“I was broke when I got out. I got $300 for mustering out, and I owed my dentist $200,” said Lake George resident Dennis Galloway, who returned from fighting in the Pacific and used GI Bill benefits to train as an electrician with his father.
“It paid for my on-the-job training,” said Galloway, who went on to work as an electrician for more than two decades and parlayed that into a career as a real estate agent. “I was an apprentice to my father. He got approved because of his experience. That was my career from there.
“The GI Bill gave you the opportunity to get trained at the government’s expense,” he said, reflecting on the situation then and now. “The fact that you can go to school gives the veterans a chance to get their lives back.”
Paul Ostrander of Glens Falls used the post-9/11 GI bill to get a criminal justice degree at SUNY Adirondack after serving as a tanker in Iraq. He credited Candee with making it possible.
“He really helped me out by taking care of the paperwork,” said Ostrander, who said he enjoyed returning to school. “I had not been to school in a long time. I think I did better there than I did in high school.”
Sam Hall, the veterans’ agent in Washington County, said adjustments made to the GI Bill after 9/11 made the benefits even more attractive to returning veterans.
“It has had a tremendous impact, especially because veterans can pass the education benefits, including tuition and books, to their family members,” said Hall, a familiar figure to many local veterans. “It pays more than it does before, and includes a housing allowance.
“The main thing veterans need to do is visit with an accredited veterans representative and see what benefits they are entitled to. For some reason, many veterans seem to think it is other veterans who are qualified, not them.”
Hall went on to point out that disabled veterans qualify for many additional services.
“It doesn’t matter what the percentage of their disability is. There are vocational rehabilitation programs, individual programs, counseling and other programs,” he said.
Both Hall and Denise DiResta, director of Veterans’ Services in Warren County, pointed to the work Candee has been doing at SUNY Adirondack.
“Harry is doing a tremendous amount of work there,” Hall said. “When people call me, I just have them call Harry and make an appointment. That’s a huge portion of it. They can go in there, and they can do any applications they need, even between their classes.”
DiResta agreed and added that the changes in the program after 9/11 make it even easier for Candee to help veterans.
“The flexibility of it all really makes a difference,” she said.
A long road
Roberts specifically chose not to attend college right out of high school.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was 18,” he said. “My mom said, ‘Don’t go to work just over college costs,’ but I really wasn’t ready.”
After 9/11, Roberts, who was working as a tattoo artist’s apprentice, quickly enlisted and by early 2004, he was in Baghdad working as a graphic artist and a gunner. Part of his graphic artwork included comic-book style publications for children in English and Arabic.
When Roberts talks about his time in Iraq, he talks about the routine and the structure. He remembers he was up at 5 a.m. lifting weights, then often was at work by 7 a.m.
He was discharged in 2006, and as he looks back he describes what he went through, he tells a story counselors like Hall, DiResta and Candee have heard before.
“My return home was not as sweet as I would have liked it to be,” he said. “I had a bad time. I was abusing alcohol. I got divorced.”
When he looks back, Roberts sees his mistakes, and that’s what he wants to help others with.
“I knew what the stereotype was, and I kept telling myself, ‘You’re not like that,’ ” Roberts recalled. “I kept thinking that was what other guys went through.”
So Roberts returned to the structure of the military, joining a reserve unit out of Utica in 2007, and the following year he was back in Iraq, but still had the same issues when he returned.
“It was almost amplified. It was reverse culture shock,” he said, noting in December 2009, he wound up in the Mental Health Unit at Glens Falls Hospital.
“That was when the light bulb went on,” he said, noting that while he was in the hospital, a therapist mentioned the book “War and the Soul” by Albany-area author Dr. Edward Tick. “That really affected me. It made a real difference.”
Roberts started going to the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center two or three times a week, and he said he owes the therapists there a great deal.
“They were wonderful. They really cared about me,” he said, noting he sensed a change in the depth of support for veterans in the three years since he had last been home.
“There just seemed to be a lot more of it. It seemed like a new focus,” he said.
That new focus led to his new focus.
He is only a semester into training for his new career, but he has a renewed sense of purpose, and at the end he sees a chance to give back.
“My full-time job is being here,” he said. “I just want to be able to keep the ball rolling. I want to be around to help veterans who need help.”
Just like, he said, the people who have helped him.