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School's First Responders Program now also includes war veterans
By William J. Carroll | Columnist
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Published: 10/3/2008 12:04 AM

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We see them marching in formation as they prepare to go overseas. We see their bravery demonstrated time and time again on the evening news. Sadly, we see many of their flag-draped caskets escorted by grieving loved ones to their final places of rest.

These are the brave men and women, of every age and generation, who serve our country and defend our democracy. What we do not see is what happens to them when they no longer wear the uniform, when they become civilians once more.

As civilians, they shop with us in the supermarkets, attend the same athletic events and struggle in the same job market. Rarely is it remembered that they once wore the uniform on our behalf. After World War II, the nation remembered these brave men and women. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Serviceman's Readjustment Act (commonly known as the G.I. Bill) in 1944, it provided tuition, books and a living stipend for education to all veterans

At that time, this phenomenal program produced the largest generation of college graduates in the history of the nation. It was the driving force behind the higher education system as we know it today. In fact, private institutions like Benedictine University greatly expanded as a result of the influx of veterans.

But as the decades following World War II passed, the G.I. Bill did not keep pace with the rising costs of education. Only recently has Congress made adjustments so that today's veterans are better able to realize the same level of welcome as the veterans of World War II.

In past columns, you have read about Benedictine University's First Responders Program. This unique program provides Illinois police and fire personnel from Naperville to Springfield access to affordable and quality higher education. There are no tuition costs. Police and fire personnel pay only for their textbooks and fees.

Over the years, the program has received support and assistance from our Congressional representatives including former Speaker Dennis Hastert, Congresswoman Judy Biggert and Senators Richard Durbin and Barack Obama.

Currently, more than 400 fire and police personnel are enrolled in two undergraduate and two graduate programs at Benedictine. First responders represent 115 firehouses and police districts in Illinois, with 20 learning programs of 15 to 25 students at various locations in DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Will and Sangamon counties. To date, more than 150 first responders have graduated from one or more of these programs.

In addition to a free undergraduate education, the university makes its graduate programs available to first responders. If pursuing a master's degree in business administration, public health or organizational behavior, a first responder pays a portion of tuition, textbooks and a graduation fee. Often, a first responder's company will match the cost of his or her tuition.

This unique program was born of my association with our local first responders. In addition to strenuous and daunting work, the hours are long for the salary they earn. While getting to know them, I was amazed by their professionalism, courage and kindness in the face of unimaginable danger.

In our conversations, it became clear that many of them wished to continue their education but could not afford to do so. This caused me to think: how could it be that the very people who protect us could not afford to attend the institution they protected? Every fiber in me said that this was wrong.

As a result, we instituted the First Responders Program, At first, the program was available only to members of the Lisle-Woodridge Fire District. But over the years, we have expanded the program to make it available statewide. To those who ask why we do this, the answer is simple: it is the right thing to do.

When our men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan take off their uniforms, they quickly blend into the general population and are soon forgotten as the special people they are. They faced terrifying destruction of lives and property. No matter what position one takes on the war in Iraq, soldiers follow orders. Whether the political decisions were right or wrong, these brave men and women offered themselves in defense of their country.

Theirs was not a position to ask why; they simply did what they were asked to do by their leaders. Many died. They served believing that what they were doing was in defense of their country, their loved ones and their way of life.

Benedictine University has not forgotten their sacrifice or service. To demonstrate the institution's gratitude, the First Responders Program has been extended to include Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Although Congress should be commended for recently enhancing the G.I. Bill benefits package, the action should not preclude institutions like Benedictine from stepping forward and saying thank you to our first responders in a special way - no matter what the funding level of the G.I. Bill is.

As our veterans worked in teams on the battlefield, they work in learning teams in Benedictine's liberal arts-based curriculum. The program encourages students to become more self-confident in academia. It examines major situations before encountering them at work or in daily life. Students learn skills such as evaluation, comprehensive synthesis, problem-solving and critical thinking.

Several months ago, I wrote about Ralph Fogarty, our 97-year old Benedictine volunteer who served as a lieutenant colonel in World War II. He received his college and law school education on the G.I. Bill. When I told him Benedictine was inviting veterans to become part of our first responders program, he was excited.

"That is a great thing," Fogarty said. "We should recognize that these vets need some help to get an education they cannot afford. I'm proud. Benedictine is the perfect place for them to learn."

There is no better way to say "Welcome home and thank you" than to open our doors and welcome a new generation of veterans.

• William J. Carroll is president of Benedictine University in Lisle.