Remembrance

Today, I wanted to share directly, without much of my own words, a story written about one of the service members, Major Adrianna Vorderbruggen, who was recently killed in Afghanistan.  Her story intertwines cultural issues of the growing number of women serving in the military, our society’s changing attitudes towards same sex marriage, and once again, a small reminder of the separation that exists between the military and non-military members of society.  The service members we have lost (and unfortunately will lose in the future) represent significant losses for their respective military communities.  It is more important to remind ourselves how their deaths alter the future of their families and we must understand how our communities can support these loved ones in their time of need.  Her family thankfully will have access to various VA benefits because Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed.  If Major Vorderbruggen had died prior to DADT being repealed, her wife and son would not have access to these same benefits.

Please keep Major Adrianna Vorderbruggen in mind when you think of who makes a ‘warrior’ and how that person should be remembered.

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VA Education Benefits: 48 Months of Money

GI Bill® benefits are my topic of discussion today and more specifically, I wanted to talk you about my own benefits.  My education benefits are a significant reason why I am successful today in my educational pursuits.  I have accrued some student loan debt, which is (always) a personal choice.  This post is NOT about recommending student loan debt to anyone as a means of affording a college education.

Debt (of any sort) has significant consequences.  I went into default on one student loan during the timeframe of my first deployment.  It was the only loan I did not get deferred prior to deploying.  Instead, I asked my dad to pay my loans using my bank account information.  While I was away, he had trouble accessing my account and no payments were made.  As a direct result of my pre-deployment and deployment situation, my loan went into default.  I was greeted with nasty collector phone calls upon my return stateside and a short while after returning home, the majority of my deployment savings were eaten up by the debt payoff.  It took seven years to get this crappy stuff off my credit report.

Now, I still have some undergraduate student loans to pay and a modest amount taken out while I’m attending graduate school.  There are–and always will be other options–to pay for non-tuition related expenses associated with school and life.  My decisions to take out those loans (and any loan in my future) are specific to me and should never influence another person to decide taking out loans are right for them.

I went through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University a few years ago and I am working towards a debt free life as best as possible.  Will I “slip up” here and again? Yes.  Trust me, if you were ever to see how crazy my grocery bills are at times, the answer is ‘yes.’ Will I also make the choice to take on some forms of debt? Yes.  My decisions though will be better researched and more deliberate.  Debt will be treated like a condiment rather than an entree in my life, if that helps make sense to anyone questioning my approach.

For my current state, my GI Bill® benefits help tremendously in my financial planning.  After a yearlong unemployment in 2012 and the second bout of unemployment in 2013, my family’s finances looked scary. A significant turning point in our lives after gaining employment with Arizona State University was my decision to start a graduate program sooner than originally planned.  I had 13 days of the Montgomery GI Bill® remaining and upon exhausting those benefits, my 12 months of the Post-9/11 GI Bill® could kick in to pay for my education.

This newest chapter of education benefits is pretty amazing.  My tuition and fees are covered at 100%, I receive a housing allowance (when applicable), and I receive book stipend money.  The tuition and book stipend money are great by themselves, but the housing allowance is that extra something that mattered greatly in reestablishing my family’s finances.  My husband also receives a housing allowance through his use of the Post-9/11 GI Bill®.  My housing allowance has become my family’s supplemental income.  Currently, my husband not working full-time while he works on his undergraduate degree.  This is a necessary arrangement for my family to avoid unnecessarily high before and after school care for our daughter.  We will incur those expenses again starting in the fall once he starts his law degree (and is not permitted to work that first year).

For this semester, I used ASU’s tuition waiver.  If my family was less dependent on the Post-9/11 GI Bill® housing allowance, I could have certified less credit hours each semester to 1) cover my tuition in full and 2) avoid being taxed for using the tuition waiver.  Once again, my decisions are intentional and appropriate for my circumstances.  I am not a financial advisor so what works for me, may not be appropriate for others to follow.

So, would you like to know how much I’ve benefitted from those GI Bill® benefits?  The numbers might surprise you.

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Below is an example of University of Wyoming’s costs for its Outreach Program.  I am a little too lazy at this moment to sift through my bank account statements from 2009 to 2012 to tell you specifically what it costs me to get my two Bachelor’s degrees.  This information is good enough for my illustrative purposes today.  While I was attending University of Wyoming, I used my Montgomery GI Bill® benefits.  This type of education benefit is paid flat rate based on training time to students and students, in turn, still pay their institutions for their semester expenses.  I’m oversimplifying the process here, but current payment rates are available here if you’re interested in learning something new.

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Don’t let the low numbers fool you. Multiple factors, especially outside tuition cost, are important when considering where to get an education!

I made a conscious decision after the Post-9/11 GI Bill® came into being that it wasn’t right for me at that time to relinquish my Montgomery GI Bill®.  Given the lower cost of education (and housing allowance) in Wyoming and the fact my education benefit was supplemented by the Marine Corps College Fund and the $600 Buy Up Program, I would have lost money converting over to the newer benefit earlier in my education career.

Instead, I had the financial freedom to earn two Bachelor’s degrees and pay 4 of the 5 semesters of my current Master’s degree with thePost-9/11 GI Bill®.  The earlier numbers of my disbursements do not yet factor in spring’s tuition and fees (listed below for your convenience), my housing allowance payments, or the book stipend money.  At the end of this program, I will still have roughly 1 month of Post-9/11 entitlement to spend on a future education program.

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This spring the current balance you see plus a $75 third party billing fee will be covered in full by my Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.

My graduate program might seem expensive to some, especially given those earlier numbers reported for the University of Wyoming Outreach Program.

I am privileged to work for Arizona State University, which played a role in looking at schools.  More importantly, my particular graduate program is the only one of its kind in all of North America.

Each and every day I am thankful large sums of educational debt do not stand in the way of my current and future dreams.  My GI Bill® benefits make this reality possible.

I owe gratitude to everyone who played a role in establishing (and maintaining) veterans’ education benefits, both past and present.    I am thankful for the recruiter, SSgt Killough, who sat down with me and told me the College Fund was available as an enlistment incentive.  I am thankful for my command at my first unit; along the way there, I learned the Buy-Up program was possible and I paid $600 to earn higher education payouts later.  I am thankful to the teams of people who process my educational benefits.

My lifelong outcomes are greatly improved because these benefits exist.  I am the first of my siblings to graduate college with undergraduate degrees and in spring, a graduate degree.  Those strengths will shape and mold my daughter’s educational attainments and the lives of her friends and peers that enter our home.  My family’s wellbeing is greatly improved in the short term while we are not fully a two-income family.  Every additional dollar of my housing provides an additional dollar to pay for healthy groceries, pay for recreational activities, pay off debts earlier, etc.  Society is better off as well as I return my educational investment back into the workforce in how I coach and support others in the community.

For anyone who is thinking of not using his or her education benefits, I’m curious.  Why lose out on the money you’ve earned?  Why deprive yourself of a self-improvement opportunity?

Keep learning about who you are and what you want out of life.  Build an understanding of your GI Bill® benefits and use those benefits to propel you into the future vision you have for your life.

~Cheryl

 

Semester Recap: Success & Nightmares

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Yes, I am back to writing again (on here).  You all know that I juggle many life responsibilities: full time job, caring for a 5 year old, and going to school part time.  In the meager amount of “off time” that remains, my life is full of hobbies.  One such hobby is walking through different neighborhoods, even unfinished ones.  I was quite surprised recently to see Annecy, with its beautiful exteriors and gated entrances, to be a project lost in time.  Without knowing anything of its origins, my guess is it went unfinished during Phoenix’s housing crisis and so far, no builder has the inspiration (and perhaps, money) to built it up again to the original vision.

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What would you think if you lived in a partially finished community?
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So beautiful.
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This portion of the community reminds me of old romantic neighborhoods.
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There are large sections of the community left unfinished like this one.

During this semester especially I needed a break from chaos.  My course work was more demanding and the day after Kiernan’s funeral, I was faced with the fact my dad suffered another heart attack.  He is recovering well, I understand, but I had a few real rough weeks this term.  This incomplete community, a mix of dreams and harsh reality, provided a great venue in which to just relax.  I walked quietly with my spouse and we found ducks and geese waddling towards us for food by the lake.  Sadly, without the promise of food, they ignored us quickly and went back to the water.

Today, I wanted to tackle a difficult subject few people probably think of sharing in their lives.  My grades show off my academic skills and more importantly, my fixation on self-improvement.  I brought my GPA up from last semester.  However, as my earlier comments reveal, the challenges are not so readily apparent.  One of the hardest things I’ve faced as a full time worker and part time graduate student is the burden of additional stress.  For me, this stress associated with midterms and finals, manifests itself as nightmares.  I’ve had one each semester since my program began.  As well, I’ve never had nightmares of this sort before.  

These nightmares, in their own weird ways, combine elements that bridge my military and veteran identities.  In sharing one–the worst so far–with you all, please balance out your perception with the fact I’m succeeding in the classroom.  The problems I deal with are not limited to our veteran community and as my successes illustrate, do not prevent me from being an active, invested individual in my community.  I will never own the label “dysfunctional veteran” and I would not want anyone to read into my nightmare and feel disgusted with me as a person (and representative of the veteran community).

The nightmare I had occurred late this semester.  After the most Paris terrorist attacks on November 13th, after Kiernan’s funeral, and after learning of my dad’s health issue, my brain concocted a completely horrific scene for me.

For some people, it may be painful to read about my nightmare, so use your own judgement before reading further.

It’s important to identify to you all I have not been the victim of improvised explosive attacks.  This is however an element that appeared in the nightmare.

NOVEMBER 2015 NIGHTMARE

Unlike other nightmares where I may be solely in the company of strangers or a veteran friend, I was with my husband and daughter.  We were part of a tourist group of sorts.  We did not know those in our company but we were not fearful of our surroundings or the strangers.  There was a general sense we got along at least in the typical pleasantries you share with strangers in public settings.  We were in an outdoor venue.  There was plenty of open space and older style buildings.  It is clear to me however we are not in any part of America I’ve ever visited.  The scenery does not give off the impression of well known modern areas in Europe nor is there Middle Eastern architecture.  The landscape reminds me more of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings, perhaps because I love the style, more than anything I’d expect today in modern cultures.  Below is an example of the Johannes Vermeer painting that most resembles the buildings in the nightmare.  The buildings are of mixed heights and areas close to me are more dirt paths and open space more than anything else.

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Some individuals who blended well in the scene approached clusters of us.  The individuals who were approached were offered trinkets of some sort.  They were palm sized and had bright colors.  It was apparent the packages were meant to be opened.  The strangers left after leaving these “gifts” and without an exchange of words, the group generally understood those trinkets were not to be opened.  Although I previously did not hear conversations in the nightmare, a hush was identifiable by the odd situation of these adults holding these small things they knew not to open and also burdened by not knowing what to do with them.

Our bewilderment was broken by multiple sudden explosions and screams directly on the other side of buildings behind us.  In the nightmare, our group is in the foreground, the buildings in the middle, and the victims on a street behind that I could not see.  We all scatter in different directions to avoid shrapnel and I cannot identify exactly where either my husband or daughter are, but I move in the direction that seems best to avoid the impact of the explosion and the shrapnel.

As I move away though, the body parts are instantly visible.  It is such a disgusting scene of heads and arms and bits of everything thrown out in multiple directions from those trinkets which turned out to be handheld improvised explosive devices.  We are not privy to the violence on the street but we see the human debris rise over the buildings and towards us.  Unlike other dreams, movement occurs in a realtime.  In past ones, it’s been unrealistically slow or disjointed.  In this one, the pieces that remain of those victims unfortunately pelt me as I fall down from the blasts.  I feel (quite literally feel) the weight of blood and pieces of tissue fall down on my back.

And then nothing else happens.

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I wake up from the worst dream I’ve ever had and for a little bit of time, it’s like I can feel the weight of those body parts, the blood and tissue, still on me.

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Can I read a lot into this nightmare?  Yes.  This semester was a bit more brutal than others.  I’ve had a lot of extra work on my plate.  There were extra burdens in my personal life.  The world witnessed the tragic loss of too many people in Paris and equally painful but less publicly recognized, Beirut’s November terrorist attack.  I lost a friend of two years and was faced with the potential loss of my father.  Let’s not forget either having the burden of those final assignments!  My brain is exhausted right now.

For anyone who’s wondering about that “W” on my transcript, I dropped my applied project back in October.  There was too much going on even back then.

For the time being, I am glad I made it successfully through the semester.

I anticipate only one nightmare awaits me sometime next semester.

If I’m lucky, once my Master’s is over and I’m not juggling the demands of student life and full time employment, maybe they’ll be gone completely.