Website helps vets 'come home'

SCF organization helps in transition back to civilian life

skennedy@bradenton.comMay 8, 2011 

MANATEE -- When Jason Collins returned to college after military service, he was suffering from flashbacks of faces of people he had seen in Afghanistan.

Thoughts of his time overseas, which included being hit by a homemade explosive device, plagued him, and he was treated for post traumatic stress disorder.

“The PTSD thing -- it really does eat you up,” he said between classes at State College of Florida.

“The good thing about getting involved in school is it allows you to meet people that understand; it gives you somebody to talk to. Veterans really look for that sense of camaraderie.”

Collins, 28, of Bradenton, struggled to adjust to civilian life. So did fellow student Scott Waite, 31, of Sarasota.

Out of their struggle came a campus vets’ organization and a new website,

The two men and others appear in videos on the website, an effort to help smooth the transition for their fellow military vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to the United States and college.

Waite said he hoped to help others prepare for what they might face, and to avoid mistakes, like taking too much time off before returning to school.

Collins wanted to encourage vets suffering from post traumatic stress disorder to seek psychiatric help, and to lean on fellow vets who have returned to school.

The men were asked to help with the website by Peg Lowery, executive director of the State College of Florida Foundation Inc., a nonprofit organization that raises funds for the college.

An anonymous donor contributed money for the website, which launched Dec. 28 of last year.

SCF got a $219,000 grant to create and operate the site through the Florida BRAIVE Fund and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice.

The donor wanted the site to be accessible to anyone, anywhere, Lowery said,

The college vets group -- now with 60 members at the Bradenton campus and more at SCF’s Venice campus -- helped to pick the website’s distinctive name.

By the end of March, the site had attracted more than 8,700 “hits” from 14 different countries, such as Afghanistan, Germany, Iraq, the Philippines, Russia, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland and Venezuela, said Lowery.

Waite said he hoped the campus vets group could take “the feel of the website” and apply it to a physical location on campus.

“We’re trying to coordinate getting a vets center on campus, to have it personalized, not cold, but friendly, like the site, a place where veterans could come and people would understand,” said Waite.

In addition to the very personal messages from vets like Collins and Waite, the website also includes seven “learning modules” about such topics as government educational benefits and financial aid, and links to other resources for military people and their families.

Under the post-9/11 GI Bill, the government pays tuition and fees directly to the school, according to a fact sheet about the website. The veteran also receives a $1,000 stipend for books and a housing allowance, based on the local cost of living, it said.

Collins, of Bradenton, was a high school drop-out who had been detailing cars before he joined the U.S. Army at 20, he said.

After returning home, he worked as a chef and a bartender before starting at SCF in 2009. He is studying Homeland Security and hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree and work for the U.S. Border Patrol.

Waite moved here from Oregon, and served in the U.S. Navy. When he got out, he worked a couple of years in office management before starting at SCF in 2009.

He is studying mass communications with a focus on newspaper journalism, and a minor in political science. He hopes to earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s in mass communications.

“With a large student veteran population at the State College of Florida, we saw the need for a forum that outlined the challenges veterans face and the invaluable resources available to them,” said SCF President Lars A. Hafner.

“Not only does this website help our local veterans, but hopefully, it will impact veterans who are transitioning worldwide.”

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