University of Nevada, Las Vegas, office welcomes veterans

During the Vietnam War era many colleges removed ROTC and other military- related organizations from campuses. Today many schools have reversed those decisions. Partially because of patriotism, partially because of the expanded G.I. Bill that provides veterans with tuition assistance, veterans are receiving positive welcomes similar to their fathers and grandfathers in post-World War II.

At the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Ross D. Bryant is there to ensure that veterans are welcomed, steered in the right direction and apply for and receive all the benefits they are entitled to from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense.

Bryant, director of the UNLV Office of Veterans Services, said he enlisted in the Army in high school in 1979 when "the Army was going through transitions and I had some great officers and NCOs." Impressed with his superiors and the military life, he knew he wanted to do more to serve the nation. He was a sergeant and an M-1 tank commander in Germany. But he left the service and enrolled in Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

"I was from Virginia and there were no computers, and I was trying to get accepted to schools in Virginia" while still in Europe, without the help of digital assistance, he said.

He was accepted at Old Dominion and joined the ROTC program. Married and closely watching his finances, after his first year he earned an ROTC scholarship, and with added funding from the G.I. Bill he was able to stay in school and graduate.

He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and sent back to Germany, again assigned to tanks. He also attended airborne school.

He retired from the Army with 24 years of service and worked for the ROTC program at California State University, San Bernardino. During that time he said UNLV reopened its ROTC program and he moved to Las Vegas to operate it. He was also employed at the school by the Institute for Security Studies that was set up to help educate a 9/11 awareness training program for about 250,000 employees at local resorts. Run by a retired Army general, federal grant money ended and the program ceased.

"We made a series of five-minute educational DVDs in English and Spanish, and we used celebrities and local Strip people and local TV personalities" to host the productions, he said.

There were different DVDs for valets, guest attendants, bellmen, taxi drivers and other employees who dealt with the public.

"They were up for Emmys," he said. "But when Homeland Security funding ended, so did we."

Bryant stayed at the school in another capacity. "I was working projects for the Harry Reid Center and on various support committees on campus," he said. (The center is a research institution that provides academic units.) Another student organization began on campus called Rebel Vets.

"We wanted vets to come to UNLV," he said. "We suggested that the school have an office of veterans services."

The school agreed and Bryant now runs the program, which began in June 2012.

"We are a one-stop shop for veterans to help them be successful and graduate," he said. "We have 1,000 vets now at school. We have two certifying officials and VA-funded student workers, students who work part time and are going to school."

Bryant said a VA regional office in Oklahoma pays for the student salaries.

"Now, when veterans come to UNLV, they know there is an office," he said. "And we went to the veterans hospital to discuss the program. We have counselors to help veterans, and I do outreach to veterans groups."

He said there can be an invisible line between younger and older vets when it comes to attending college, with many of the younger combat veterans taking longer to adjust.

"We help veterans one veteran at a time," he said. "We have a website and have been named as a top veteran-friendly school by gijobs.com. We get calls and e-mails, 30 or 40 a day, asking how to apply, how to get financial aid, what to do. Calls come from Afghanistan and Japan and all over. We give them all the information and give them a checklist. We get them though all the bureauratic challenges."

Bryant also teaches a service training class to help serve veterans and an awareness class for non-veteran students and faculty to discuss issues combat veterans may face. He said many veterans returning from combat do not easily transition to a campus environment. "Walking around campus is sort of a shock," he said. Bryant and his staff help them to be mentally prepared for school.

His checklist includes Web addresses and step-by-step directions on obtaining required paperwork and completing tasks.

He pointed out the benefits that some veterans receive include a housing allowance that allows them to attend the university. "They want to get a job, and they may not be mentally prepared to go to school," he said. "It can be overwhelming. And the G.I. Bill is so good, paying tuition and a housing allowance, so they can pay the rent and get an education and get better prepared to get a job."

Seeing the results of some of his work, he said he stays in contact with many of his former UNLV ROTC cadets who are now Army officers serving overseas.

Bryant can be contacted at ross.bryant@unlv.edu. Additional information can be found at gibill.va.gov, gounlv.edu/admissions and www.unlv.edu/finaid/veterans. The veterans office is in building A 311 on campus.

Journalist and author Chuck N. Baker is an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and a recipient of the Purple Heart. He is the managing editor and the host of the "Veterans Reporter Radio Show" on KLAV (1230 AM) from 8-9 p.m. Thursdays and the "Veterans Reporter News" at 6:30 a.m. Fridays on VEGAStv KTUD-Cable 14.