SUNY eyes ways to serve military veterans

Dr. Tom Corti, left, vice president for Student Dr. Tom Corti, left, vice president for Student Affairs at Farmingdale State University, along with Eric Farina, director of Veterans Affairs, help answer questions and enroll veterans in SUNY schools across the state as part of a program called, SUNY Veterans Services Organization. (Oct. 2, 2012) Photo Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

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Thirteen SUNY campuses are participating in a new organization to share strategies about how best to serve military veterans enrolled in the university system, the group's founding members said Tuesday.

The SUNY Veterans Services Organization will be a "clearinghouse" on issues ranging from GI Bill benefits to mental health care and job referrals for veterans, said Eric Farina, the group's president, who is director of veterans services at Farmingdale State College.

"We need to be better organized to provide an efficient service systemwide," said Farina, who was a squad leader in the National Guard. "Since the Post-9/11 GI Bill was passed, more people are taking advantage of benefits."

The group, which started in July, is the brainchild of Tom Corti, vice president for student affairs at Farmingdale State. So far, the organization has met once and held two conference calls.

About 10,000 students across 64 SUNY campuses receive veterans' benefits, SUNY spokesman David Doyle said. That number includes veterans and their dependents to whom benefits may have been extended.

The SUNY Office of University Life is acting as a liaison to the group. "As the organization grows, it will be made available to representatives from all SUNY campuses," Doyle said.

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For U.S. Army veteran Patrick Zummo, 29, of Huntington, having assistance in mapping out classes would be helpful.

"I'm trying to graduate as fast as I can, but sometimes it doesn't seem like it's going to happen, because some classes are only offered in the fall or in the spring," said Zummo, a junior studying aeronautical science at Farmingdale State.

When Zummo started college -- first at Hofstra University -- he found it difficult to relate to students nearly a decade younger, who might have fallen under his command as a drill sergeant.

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"It was just ironic that if I'd stayed in the military, I'd be yelling at 18-year-old kids, and here I was in a class with them," he said.

According to recent U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, New York is home to an estimated 175,100 veterans who served only in the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The VA's constantly changing, so it's important for us to be on the same page, to notify our students in the same way, and have consistency to make experiences for veterans easier," said Livia Da Silva, a veterans' certifying official at University at Albany who joined the group.

Many students have experienced delays in receiving government benefits, Corti said. The situation became so severe in the spring that Farmingdale State established a food pantry in the veterans lounge.

"They have very unique issues," said Corti, an Army veteran. "They served us, and so now it's time for us to serve them."

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