In the Army’s 82nd Airborne, in Iraq and Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Joe Biggs had one job – combat. He was wounded and had to have his right foot reconstructed.
Biggs needed a future that didn’t include a machine gun.
He has found it in York Technical College’s welding program.
“And after that, more schooling,” Biggs said.
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York Tech’s goal as thousands of veterans come home from wars is to help troops like Biggs transition from military to civilian lives. The school Monday opened a veterans services program to do just that.
“This is a place where we can trade ideas, among people who have been there,” Biggs said.
Veterans will receive counseling for academics and careers in a veterans-specific area inside the student services building. There is a veterans lounge, computers and direct access to academic and job counselors.
Holly Feemster, a former Army sergeant in communications and intelligence analysis, is studying administrative office technology at York Tech. Her husband, also an Army veteran, is studying nursing.
School and military officials – but most importantly, the veterans themselves – stress the importance of matching college educations with skills honed in the service to help returning troops find quality employment.
“We have the experience in the military, but we need to get the schooling to get those jobs out there,” Holly Feemster said.
Federal and state programs have been introduced in the past few years to give veterans priority in finding jobs and getting college training after years of service during wartime.
At York Tech, 204 students are going to school on the GI Bill or some other type of veterans program. Air Force veteran Jeff Page, who served in Afghanistan and other places, teaches history and government at York Tech.
He put it simply to more than 100 people who celebrated the veterans program’s grand opening Monday: “We owe it to them.”
Tyrone Hart of Rock Hill, who counsels returning combat veterans, said York Tech should be lauded for helping veterans “readjust to civilian life.” Veterans groups such as the VFW Post 2889, Army National Guard and others pitched in to turn a wing of the student center into a spot just for veterans.
Staff Sgt. Steven Sanz, an area recruiter and Afghanistan veteran, will serve as liaison between the local National Guard armories and the college. York Tech officials expect many of the soldiers with the Rock Hill-based 178th Combat Engineers, now deployed to Afghanistan, to enroll after coming home.
“When they get back, this is the place for many of them,” Sanz said.
At York Tech, veterans come in all age groups and from all branches of service.
Retired Marine Corps combat infantryman Jackie Brice, a veteran of both Vietnam and Desert Storm, is in the welding program. Vernazio Stewart, an Army supply sergeant, is studying Spanish with an eye on teaching after college.
Stewart’s brother, Cameron Sawyer, a veteran of both the Army and Coast Guard, is studying business and applied science with plans to open his own business.
Veterans have some needs other students don’t usually face. And, as so many of the officials at the college said Monday, the veterans earned the services that the college will provide.
Guys like Joe Biggs, who lost part of his foot in a war and now wants to use books and computers rather than rifles and bazookas to make a living.