Life after service

You served your country well, either in military training or in a war zone.

Often, you valued the lives of your compatriots more than you valued your own.

You may have emotional or physical scars, but you are proud of what you did.

But life goes on after a solider leaves the service, and some don’t know which way to turn once they hang up their helmets.

Two young armed forces veterans at Kauai Community College have experienced exactly that, and it’s why they are now in a position to help all military personnel — active or inactive — who want to further their education after their military duty is done.

After all, the same country that benefits from its citizens’ patriotism offers them financial help for higher education, including college tuition, a monthly stipend and even home loans.

“That’s what we’re trying to get out … that there is this money that they can get to go to school and get paid to do it instead of working,” said Chad Schimmelfennig, a veteran and a full-time KCC student.

This fall, Schimmelfennig and Josh Del Conte have taken a leadership role at the local chapter of the national Student Veterans of America, a nonprofit organization incorporated in January 2008 to provide programs, resources and support to student veterans.

SVAs are all over the United States, but in Hawaii, there is only one office on Oahu and one on Kauai, started in February by former KCC student and veteran Alan Walsh.

Since Schimmelfennig and Del Conte took over the Kauai SVA, the organization has grown from a “little club” to a resource center partnering with several veterans associations and services on Kauai to guide veterans to the help they are entitled to have, Schimmelfennig said.

“We changed focus, and our focus has been more outreach and helping veterans,” said Schimmelfennig, adding the SVA wants to help veterans who already are on campus, bring more to KCC and get support from various vendors.

He is the current vice president of the Kauai SVA, and Del Conte is the president. Both are also beneficiaries of the post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which went into effect Aug. 1, 2009.

Del Conte and Schimmelfennig come from two different scenarios, but both get about 70 percent of their full-time tuition paid, and receive about $1,800 per month in stipend, making it a “no-brainer” to go back to school, as Schimmelfennig said.

Del Conte served 14 months in Afghanistan, after deploying with the Maui unit. Still in active duty, he will conclude his time in the Army next April, when he reaches eight years of service.

Schimmelfennig joined the Air Force in 2003 on the east coast, and served four years. He has flown over combat zone, but has never fought in battle. Because of his time of service, he is eligible for benefits.

So far, one million veterans across the U.S. have received more than $30 billion in tuition and benefits related to the post-9/11 G.I. Bill, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The original G.I. Bill —  the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 — was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt before the end of World War II. It aimed at helping returning veterans seek higher education.

Throughout the years, Congress gradually changed the G.I. Bill to expand veterans’ benefits.

Del Conte and Schimmelfennig want to reach out to all veterans, whether they served before or after 9/11.

Military service didn’t just help their college education. They said it helped them get on track with everything else.

Schimmelfennig said he originally joined the Air Force because he was lazy in high school. Now he’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, and plans to transfer to University of Hawaii at Manoa, Oahu next fall to finish the program.

“I needed a challenge, mentally and academically,” he said.

In the Air Force, he said, he was tested every step of the way, which gave him discipline in life. He left the Air Force in 2007, but is considering returning to service next year, he said.

Del Conte had a stint in college right out of high school. He dropped out and decided to join the military, partly to bring “order from chaos” in his life, he said. Now, he’s a full-time student, pursuing a bachelors degree in business management, which plans to do it entirely at KCC.

“It restructured my life,” Del Conte said of military service.

The SVA meets at KCC library every first Monday of the month, from noon to 1 p.m. But their library-table meetings could be over soon; their work has expanded and they may open an office on campus.

SVA can be contacted through kcc.vets@gmail.com or their Facebook page, KCC Vets.

• Léo Azambuja, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0452 or lazambuja@thegardenisland.com

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