As a community college classmate brushed off the significance of civilian war casualties, Daniel Acree, a machine gunner in the Iraq War, felt a searing pain, his body filling with rage.
In Iraq, Acree had watched powerlessly as a 5-year-old boy died in a rocket-propelled grenade attack. That was all he could think of as the professor turned to him for perspective.
With “all the different memories coming back, I just couldn’t go on,” said Acree, 29. “I just couldn’t be there anymore.”
With a glance at his professor, Acree walked out of class. But because he was at City College of San Francisco, he didn’t have to go far to find help.
Within minutes, Acree was talking with a therapist at the on-campus clinic run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “He just listened, had me talk it out, calmed me down,” Acree said. “I don’t know what I would have done. I was in panic mode.”
When it opened in 2010, the VA clinic at City College of San Francisco was touted as a model for the future – the first health care offered by the agency on a college campus. The staff includes a social worker and a psychiatrist who can help veterans find jobs and make appointments for other types of care at the main VA.
But three years later, there is no plan for a widespread national rollout. Although nearly 1 million veterans used the GI Bill to go to college last year, the VA says its health care system so far has served 6,000 on fewer than three dozen campuses.
The initiative remains in the pilot stage, with a $2.8 million annual budget. Funds go only to schools where both the local VA and a college administrator express interest, not necessarily to those with the greatest needs. At nearly all schools with the largest veteran populations, the VA is providing no health services.
For example, the VA does not provide health care at Florida State College at Jacksonville, home to nearly 2,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, or at any college or university in Southern California. But it does at Finger Lakes Community College in upstate New York, which has 122 such veterans on campus.
Among 150 college campuses educating the largest numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the clinic at City College remains one of four nationwide, according to a survey by The Center for Investigative Reporting.
The VA’s own studies have found many veterans struggle to adjust to academic life. The transition can be particularly hard for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
One study, published in 2011 in the American Journal of Health Behavior, found that 11 percent of student veterans with PTSD had gotten in a fight within the past year, while 48 percent had engaged in binge drinking during the previous two weeks.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have begun to wonder whether the agency is doing enough to back up its $10 billion annual commitment to veterans’ education with programs to help them graduate. In May, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office issued a report saying the VA “lacks a plan” for ensuring that veterans succeed on campus.
Colleges, the GAO said, “are generally building their own on-campus support services and resources for veterans without any guidance or assistance from VA.”
In an interview, Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who requested the audit with Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., said the VA has “already had a long time” to craft a national support system for veterans who attend school with taxpayer support.
“We have had a decade of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, and before that, we had returning veterans from the Gulf War and before that, Vietnam,” Braley said.
The VA says it is still trying to figure out a way to track the 974 students who have visited the City College clinic to see if they are more likely to graduate than those without access to on-campus services.
Although Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki has trumpeted the success of City College’s effort in a series of speeches, the initiative’s national director, Kai Chitaphong, said the agency does not have a plan for a systematic national rollout of services on campus because it is still gathering data on what works and what doesn’t. He did not say how long that would take.
The idea for creating the veterans center at City College started with the campus, not the VA. In an era of state and local budget cuts, campus officials, including the chancellor and football coach, raised private donations — most in the form of labor and materials from local trade unions — to build the clinic and a social lounge for veterans next door.
They went to the VA in San Francisco and asked whether the agency would consider opening a clinic.
“We wanted to make the transition from military to college a friendly one,” said football coach George Rush, standing in front of the lounge, with its three couches, 10 computers, refrigerator and big-screen TV. Rush was inspired by his father, a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve activated the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. His partner in the effort, then-Chancellor Don Griffin, is a psychologist who formerly practiced at the VA clinic in Martinez.
Veterans needed “a place that was their home, their place and their spot,” Rush said, a place “where veterans could talk to veterans, could communicate at the same level, share the common experience that wasn't available at other clubs and services.”
Before the center opened, the only physical indication that there were veterans at City College was a desk where a bureaucrat processed GI Bill paperwork.
The Veterans Resource Center has made City College a destination for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans across the region.
“This is a special place to me, and that’s hard to get,” said Aundray Rogers, an Iraq War veteran and president of the City College of San Francisco Veterans Alliance. The campus now has 1,300 veterans – twice as many as when Rogers started school in 2009, according to the school.
Every weekday, Rogers drives past six other community colleges on his way to San Francisco from Vallejo. City College may be fighting to keep its accreditation, but Rogers says it is the only place where he can get counseling for the flashbacks that still plague him occasionally during class.
On most afternoons, Rogers can be found in the lounge next door, laughing and backslapping with other veterans. It’s a big change from when he first arrived at City College in 2009, depressed and isolated, scanning other students’ backpacks in search of a military rucksack or insignia – someone, anyone who had shared his wartime experience.
For his part, Acree says the services available at City College have helped him make a personal transformation. When he returned from Iraq in 2004, he slept in a crouching position and reacted defensively when people approached. Once, he punched his father in the face. A job working trade shows with the Teamsters union provided money but, he said, did nothing for his soul.
He thought regularly about re-enlisting so he could go back to Iraq, where life was more “normal.” Seeking camaraderie, he re-upped in the reserves.
Now, after two years in a supportive community at City College, he is planning to transfer to UC Berkeley.
Every college should have a place for veterans to go, he said, “because who knows what one of these veterans might do. They might not get the help they need in time.”
KQED producer Monica Lam, contributed to this report. This story was edited by Amy Pyle. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.