U.S. Secretary of Veteran Affairs, Denis McDonough, visited Loyola March 30 to address student veteran concerns and needs, including employment, housing, mental health care and educational benefits.
As Secretary, McDonough oversees veteran benefits, memorials and health care. McDonough previously served under President Obama as the White House Chief of Staff, and has experience as the Principal Deputy National Security Advisor and the Chief of Staff of the National Security Staff.
Veteran students from Loyola, DePaul University, the University of Chicago and Northwestern University sat with McDonough, Loyola President Jo Ann Rooney and Governor Pritzkers’ Director of Veteran Affairs, Terry Prince, to discuss their unique needs of affordable education and housing.
McDonough emphasized the need for veteran benefit programs to reflect the needs of students in 2022, which was an overarching concern for students at the panel. Particularly, McDonough looks for ways to change the Post-9/11 GI Bill 1 – which is updated yearly to better reflect student needs.
“So many of these programs are based on laws written years ago, so it’s really good to get this kind of information and make sure we can update them and update our programming,” McDonough said.
Olivia Rodriguez, treasurer of Loyola’s Student Veteran Association (SVA) which has 1,500 chapters in colleges across the U.S., said some issues for student veterans at Loyola stem from the school not having a big enough resource center for students to go to.
Vice President of SVA, Carly Fournier, said that the Military Veteran Student Services (MVSS) is understaffed. She said that one employee was “doing the work of 10 people.”
Josh Jones, president of SVA, echoed that same issue, along with the physical office size of MVSS being too small. Generally, Jones said student veterans tend to be neglected in campus services.
MVSS is made up of seven people — including Rodriguez, Fournier, Jones, Galez, and associate director Alex Pirilla, assistant director Oscar Barrera and student coordinator Nick Hardie. For comparison, there are roughly 200 student veterans on campus.
“Have you seen Harry Potter?” Jones, 24, asked. “You know how he lives under the stairs? That’s us right now.”
McDonough said this is an issue he’s hoping gets addressed through these discussions with students.
“Obviously these are nontraditional students, so we want to make sure they have areas where they can interact with similarly situated students,” McDonough said.
McDonough also said making veteran programming more available and accessible to all veterans is a priority for his office. Since being appointed by President Biden in 2021, McDonough has updated the Veterans Affairs website and social media pages, which he said have gotten more interaction since.
“I think we have to do a better job of communicating to veterans where they are, making sure they’re aware of all the programming that’s available,” McDonough said.
McDonough also said his office “soft rolled out” an app — Student Veterans of America — made especially for student veterans within the past few months. He said each student vet can create a personal login which in return gives them personalized information and programming available.
However, Rodriguez and Jones said they weren’t aware of any app.
Bessie Griseto, the deputy director for the VA’s Chicago Office of Public Affairs for veteran public affairs, said McDonough’s office also implemented a text messaging service for veteran students to easily access their monthly housing allowances.
Rodriguez said she felt like McDonough did a good job addressing these concerns and needs, but she’s nervous because the process for change is slow moving and “up in the air.”
“I’m not too angry, I know that’s how things work,” Rodriguez said. “But it shouldn’t work like that,” Jones interjected.
Fournier, and Secretary of SVA Joe Galeaz, said Loyola doesn’t offer adequate mental health services for student veterans. Galeaz said that VA healthcare is limited to veterans who have a service care disability – a disability or disease that’s from active duty — so many veteran students at Loyola are left with the Wellness Center as their only resource.
“It’s a really unique experience so the care should be unique,” Galeaz, 25, said.
Matthew Bedugnis, associate director of communications, responded on behalf of the Wellness Center that student veterans are given a presentation during UNIV orientation about their available resources.
“Although there are no specific mental health resources dedicated to military veteran students, the Wellness Center provides a comprehensive suite of services including group counseling, crisis care, and therapy referrals to all Loyola students,” Bedugnis said.
Fournier said she’s concerned about student veterans committing sucide. In general, veterans are at an increased risk to suicide — about 18 veterans die from it per day. Fournier urged Loyola to act before suicide takes any of their veteran student population. With roughly 200 military veterans, Fournier said she’s worried there’s “no place for them to go” for mental health resources.
“There’s a million resources at Loyola and there’s no way to funnel them to the [veteran] students,” Fournier, 26, said.
A previous version of this article included the incorrect job title for Bessie Griseto. It has since been corrected and we reget the error.