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GI Bill helps vets readjust

By Megan Workman

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Take a guy like Jason Means to a massage therapy room decorated in feng shui style, with salt rocks and burning incense with the sounds of waves clashing in the background, and he will think it's just ridiculous.

That's why Means, a 36-year-old Army National Guard veteran, adorned his South Charleston massage room with photos he took while serving in Iraq, a mounted turkey he killed last year and small (not active) rockets. The music includes Pink Floyd and Steely Dan.

His folded "American soldier" flag sits next to a hutch filled with massage creams, lotions and oils.

Means recently earned his certification to become a licensed massage therapist thanks to the post-9/11 G.I. Bill.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the original G.I. Bill on June 22, 1944 to give "servicemen and women the opportunity of resuming their education or technical training after discharge," Roosevelt said on that day.

The first G.I. Bill helped create a strong postwar U.S. economy. In the peak year of 1947, veterans accounted for 49 percent of college admissions, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  By 1956, nearly half of the 16 million World War II veterans had participated in an education or training program because of the G.I. Bill.

In 2008, the G.I. Bill was updated. The new version gives veterans with active duty on, or after, Sept. 11, 2001, enhanced educational benefits that cover even more educational expenses, provides a living allowance, money for books and the ability to transfer unused educational benefits to spouses or children, according to the VA.

The bill now extends veterans' benefits beyond the conventional brick-and-mortar campuses to learn through on-the-job training programs and vocational schools.

In many cases, a veteran's full tuition and fees are paid.

For Means, the post-9/11 G.I. Bill paid for 60 percent of his tuition at Mountain State School of Massage and the state National Guard tuition assistance program paid the rest. He also received a $585 monthly stipend to help pay for his books and supplies for school and living expenses, too.

Means, who works full-time at Packers Plus Energy, said he enrolled at Mountain State School of Massage to ensure he had a backup plan.

After rupturing a disk in his back when he returned from Iraq -- and enduring the worst pain he has ever felt -- Means said massage therapy healed his back better than medications that worked only temporarily.

The deep tissue work on his leg "was like having a new leg," he said.

The veteran said he wanted to open an office to offer other veterans a place to relieve their chronic body pains.

"I knew in this modern day and age, not having a backup plan and not being able to do something else was the wrong answer," Means said. "The G.I. Bill gives veterans an opportunity to give something back to their community."

In West Virginia, the economic impact of the post-9/11 G.I. Bill is about $80 million a year, said Skip Gebhart, administrator of veterans' education and training at the state's Higher Education Policy Commission.

Historically, the G.I. Bill has paid back the government $7 for every $1 invested because people get better jobs, Gebhart said. Though the government spends about $11 billion in post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits, it is still making money off the bill, he said.

Veterans are contributing to the state's economy by paying taxes on their wages, he said.

"It's the job creation, it's the money the veterans are spending in West Virginia, they're paying tuition, buying cars, trucks, the whole thing," Gebhart said. "The more qualification you have, the more likely you are to get a job and that's what the G.I. Bill is for."

Unfortunately, when some soldiers return from serving overseas, their job doesn't exist anymore, for a number of reasons, Means said.

More than 8 percent of all veterans are unemployed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Almost 30 percent of young male veterans, ages 18 to 24 years old, who served on active duty at any time since September 2001 are unemployed.

But if it weren't for the G.I. Bill, that number would be higher, Gebhart said.

"I would suspect many of them would not be in school. If they don't have the training for another job, they're not going to be qualified for it," Gebhart said. "In many cases, many of them don't have the family resources to go to school."

Means, who is married and has a 12-year-old daughter, said he still would have started his own business if the G.I. Bill didn't pay for his schooling, but it would have been at a much later date.

But for the millions of Americans who have taken advantage of the program, it's putting people who "have done the most for our country" back to work, he said.

"These people have went the extra mile doing their duty for their state and nation it's only fair to offer them a little help with their education," Means said.

Gebhart agrees.

"A lot of veterans do want to be independent, they do want to have their own business if they can," he said. "The G.I. Bill's purpose is to help them readjust."

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.

 


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