UNO_Veterans_Service_Center.jpg

University of New Orleans President John Nicklow, student Miguel Olivero and Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs Joey Strickland at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for UNO's veterans center on June 7, 2017.

Louisiana will be just the second state in the nation to offer help centers for military veterans on every campus this fall under a plan unveiled Wednesday by Gov. John Bel Edwards and other state leaders.

Each site on the state's 30 campuses, called resource centers, will help veterans navigate campus life, including how to access state and federal benefits due them.

Officials said there is often a wide gap between rank-and-file students and veterans, especially after years in the military culture and combat service.

Joey Strickland, secretary for the state Department of Veterans Affairs, recalled, at the age of 23, enrolling in a Virginia college after serving for two years in Vietnam.

"I didn't know a soul," Strickland said in an interview. "I didn't even know where the registrar's office was."

But a professor at Hampton University, who was also a World War II veteran, recognized his plight, introduced him around and helped turn his college life around.

"That allowed me to settle down and stay in school and start learning to be a student again," said Strickland, who was from Tallulah, Louisiana.

"If it wasn't for that, I would not have made it," he said of the professor's assistance. "These veterans centers are going to take care of that."

Washington state offers similar outreach programs for its student veterans.

About 8,300 Louisiana college students are veterans. 

Most ex-service students are high school graduates who never went to college, and are often first-generation college students out of the habit of attending classes and grappling with homework.

LSU President F. King Alexander said about five years ago officials concluded that LSU had about 50 former service members on campus.

After opening a state-of-the-art veterans center two years ago school officials realized they had about 500 ex-soldiers at LSU.

"They are on our campuses," Alexander said. "They just don't have a place to go."

Earlier this year Student Veterans of LSU was named chapter of the year by Student Veterans of America from among 1,500 chapters nationwide.

The program announced Wednesday, called the LaVetCorps, will cost about $520,000 per year.

State officials said federal grants are expected to take care of $320,000 and the Department of Veterans Affairs about $200,000, including in-kind contributions and $2,500 site fees paid by campuses.

Schools taking part include LCTCS, LSU System, Southern University System, University of Louisiana System and Xavier University in New Orleans.

Part of the aim of the resource centers is to make campus life for veterans more vibrant.

Many of the centers will be staffed by men and women who served in the military and their dependents.

"It is important for veterans to seek out other veterans, "said Edwards, an Army veteran himself and graduate of West Point Military Academy.

Higher Education Commissioner Kim Hunter Reed said the centers will let veterans know "we have more than just a welcome mat out there. We have a success map."

Student-hungry colleges and universities also have an incentive to attract and retain the students.

Ex-service members bring in more than $185 million per year in federal dollars to Louisiana through G.I. Bill funding.

Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said students returning from service are winning new respect amid growing numbers.

Veterans enjoy reserved parking on the campus of Bossier Parish Community College.

Sullivan said about 6,000 students attending community and technical colleges served in the military, with about 1,400 graduating last year.

Those who serve in the centers, called navigators, will be trained by the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

They will also provide training for college faculty and staff to boost awareness of what veterans need and military culture.

"Their biggest challenge is not having been in school for four or five years and  trying to adjust, get your head wrapped around studying," Strickland said.

"They are very much more serious than the average student," he added. "I was a 23-year-old in a 44-year-old body."

Said Edwards, "When veterans see these centers I hope they see that we want them on campuses."

Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana System, recalled that, in 1943, legendary Louisiana Tech football coach Joe Aillet said goodbye to 22 underclassmen players headed to war, who then got a letter monthly from the coach during their service.

"When they got back their scholarships were waiting for them," Henderson said. 

"That is service to veterans," he said. 

"This is a great day for Louisiana. This is a great day for veterans."

Louisiana has about 284,000 veterans.

The gathering included the signing of a memorandum of understanding by Edwards, the leaders of the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs and higher education leaders.

Acadiana Business Today: One Acadiana celebrates regional successes in 2018; $6M expansion makes Lafayette General home to region's largest cardiology program


Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.