Keegan D’Alfonso is a 25-year-old freshman at Cedarville University. He works once a month at a nearby Speedway gas station and studies journalism full time. Though he works a low-paying job, D’Alfonso will pay nothing for his degree, nor will he pay much for healthcare and housing in the next few years.
D’Alfonso served as a sergeant in the Marine Corps for five years, enlisting in 2009 right after high school. But upon his discharge from the military in July 2014, he joined the ranks of other veterans, specifically those of the millennial generation.
One in 10 non-disabled veterans in the millennial generation, ages 18 to 34, received income at or below the poverty threshold in 2014, U.S. Census Bureau data shows. This age group has the highest percentage of veterans living in poverty by the bureau’s standards.
But, the millennial generation of veterans has the greatest percentage of individuals enrolled in education, and many services, including education, are subsidized for veterans, therefore limiting their out-of pocket expenses.
“Younger people coming out of the military may be going to school, they’re not clear on a career path yet, and I think it’s possible that that’s part of the factor also why their income is less initially,” said Tim Spradlin, Greene County Veterans Services Commissioner.
The number of non-disabled millennial veterans at the poverty level about doubles that of any other age group:
- five percentage points higher than that of veterans ages 35 to 54
- three points higher than that of veterans ages 55 to 64
- six points higher than those ages 65 or older
The Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey (ACS) one-year estimates state that 10.6 percent of non-disabled, millennial veterans received income equivalent to or less than the bureau’s poverty threshold. The Census Bureau marks the 2014 poverty threshold at $12,316 for single individuals under age 65. This threshold includes money income before taxes from earnings, unemployment, Social Security, veterans’ payments, educational assistance, and more.
According to the Census Bureau’s Public Information Office, the ACS assesses a veteran’s responses to questions about vision, hearing, mobility and cognitive functioning in determining disability status. The Bureau notes, however, that determining whether mental illness is considered a disability depends on how an individual interprets the question. Thus it is unclear whether statistics for non-disabled veterans include those veterans battling a mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s hard to think of all the elements that attribute to poverty level in veterans,” D’Alfonso said. “Do I think that it’s a little bit of an issue for some veterans? Certainly. I’ve seen more people saying, ‘Veteran,’ holding up a cardboard box on the side of the road than I’d like. But I think that poverty is a problem for more than just veterans.”
Spradlin said that though poverty is more apparent for young veterans, poverty is higher for non-veterans across the board.
“Even though the poverty is increasing, veterans in the poverty income level are well-below non-veterans,” said Spradlin, a 26-year veteran of the reserves who was deployed twice during the Iraq War.
Nearly twice as many non-disabled non-veterans ages 18 to 34 as similarly aged veterans received income at or below the poverty level in 2014, according to the ACS.
But while the poverty level of millennial veterans pales in comparison to that of non-veterans, young veterans have the added social and psychological challenges of transitioning to civilian life and often enrolling in education years after their peers.
Cedarville University was ranked sixth for “Best Colleges for Veterans” in U.S. News & World Report’s 2016 Best College Rankings for Midwest regional colleges.
If pursuing higher education post-military, D’Alfonso said veterans have the challenge of relating to their younger peers, a challenge which most individuals in his shoes choose to avoid.
D’Alfonso said he’s closer in age to his professor than his fellow student, who, as a traditional college freshman, may be 18 years old – seven years younger than D’Alfonso, also a college freshman.
Most people coming out of the military will have a hard time adjusting to this younger environment,” said D’Alfonso, citing a lack of maturity and understanding of the world. “I found that challenging, and I think that’s why a lot of people don’t pursue school.
D’Alfonso said he is pursuing school because he knew before leaving the military that he wanted to be a journalist, and that career requires a degree.
The youngest generation of veterans has the greatest percentage of individuals enrolled in education, according to data from the 2014 American Community Survey. Nearly a quarter of all veterans serving in the military after September 2001 attended school in the three months preceding the Survey, according to the ACS Public Use Microdata Sample. Today’s oldest millennials would have been 20 years old in 2001.
“You can get frustrated if you can’t find someone who you can relate to, which is hard to do when you have this age difference,” D’Alfonso said.
Seth Gordon, director of Wright State University’s Veterans and Military Center in Dayton, Ohio, said the center is focused on creating a place for veterans to find common ground while completing their education.
“So much of military service is enlisted leading enlisted and officers leading officers,” said Gordon, referencing the peer mentorship program WSU has implemented for veterans at the university. “The thing that all of the veterans miss the most is the feeling of camaraderie.”
As of the fall of 2015, WSU has about 1,000 veteran- and military-connected students who have either identified themselves as veterans or as dependents of veterans, Gordon said. He said this is about five-anda-half percent of the student population.
Gordon said the Military Center provides veterans with their own lounges, study rooms, coffee, computers, and more with hopes that veterans will develop friendships with their peers.
WSU also recently designed a V.B.S.N. program, a nursing degree that honors the experience of former medics in the military, Gordon said. The program accelerates a nursing degree by recognizing the work military medics have already done and makes the educational transition easier.
“You have someone who just got out of high school and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a nurse.’ And then you have somebody who’s a two-time-deployed-to-Afghanistan medic,” Gordon said of the previous nursing program. “It’s a very different situation to have them in class together. This (V.B.S.N.) provides those (veteran) students people that understand them but also credit for all the work they’ve done.”
In addition to the low- or no-cost healthcare available through Veterans Affairs medical centers across the nation, veterans may also be eligible to receive education benefits and a housing allowance, which limit the personal cost of a college degree. These benefits depend on the date and length of military service.
D’Alfonso, who worked as an intelligence specialist with various units in Japan, the Philippines and Middle Eastern countries, said his tuition is fully paid between the financial support he receives from the GI Bills and the Yellow Ribbon Program.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill pays no more than the cost of in-state tuition at the most expensive public university in the state in which a veteran attends school. The VA has set the national maximum allowance for the 2015-2016 academic year at $21,084.89 per year, which doesn’t fully cover tuition at a private university, like Cedarville, where annual tuition is more than $27,000.
Of the estimated $6,000 tuition gap that remains, Cedarville pays half as a participating institution of the Yellow Ribbon Program. The VA then matches the school’s funds and pays the university directly.
Unlike many other participating institutions, Cedarville has placed no limit on the number of undergraduate students it will support through the Yellow Ribbon Program and no limit on the maximum amount of support the school will provide for each student each year.
D’Alfonso also receives an annual book stipend of up to $1,000, he said, and a monthly housing allowance of $1,150, both of which are benefits from the Post-9/11 GI Bill. He said the housing allowance varies by location and enrollment status, but he cannot collect GI Bill benefits when he is not actively attending classes. The GI Bills can only provide financial assistance for education, so the only time his expenses are not covered is between semesters, he said.
D’Alfonso said he moved to Cedarville in the summer of 2015 and took a job at a nearby Speedway to make enough money to pay for his expenses between semesters – winter break and the summer months. He works once a month during the semesters so that he can stay on the payroll and work regularly during breaks from school.
“While I’m actually going to school, I’m getting the GI Bill to pay for my living, so that’s convenient, because I don’t have to deal with a gap,” D’Alfonso said. “I was actually looking for one of those jobs that was entry level where they were more flexible with me.”
Entry level jobs
D’Alfonso said recently discharged veterans, many of whom fall into the 18-34 age group, often land low-paying jobs, likely yielding that poverty level income.
I don’t think it’s anything specifically as a hit on veterans of like, ‘Oh, they’re not able to make the same amount of money.’ It’s just that when you change fields – because that’s what you’re doing, you’re leaving the military and going into a different field – unless there’s like an exact match of what you did in the military, you’re doing a different job,” D’Alfonso said. “And when you change fields, you generally start at the bottom and you work your way up. I think that’s just a natural fact of life.
He said finding work after the military is like finding that first job but doing so a few years behind everybody else.
“You’re taking some of those entry level jobs that if you were a college kid taking it, by the time you’re the veteran’s age, you’ve worked yourself up (in the company), whereas the veteran is starting from scratch again at the entry level job, because it’s an income,” D’Alfonso said.
He said unemployment shouldn’t skew the statistics much because it’s often shortlived for veterans. He said his first priority after getting out of the military was to find a job, but he briefly collected unemployment while he searched for his first job post-military and again briefly as he searched for a second job after being laid off.
“I didn’t like it when I was collecting unemployment between jobs, but I felt the money I was making from unemployment was substantially enough to support a comfortable lifestyle,” D’Alfonso said.
Veterans don’t depend on unemployment often, because they want to work, he said.
“I never saw unemployment as, ‘Oh, I can just milk it.’ I wanted to work. Nothing drove me more insane than sitting at home trying to get a job,” D’Alfonso said. “I wanted to work, and I think a lot of veterans are like that. They don’t want to sit around.”
Unemployment data released March 4 by the U.S. Department of Labor said that 4.1 percent of veterans in the labor force, or 435,000 veterans, were unemployed in February 2016, down just more than one percentage point from February 2015. In comparison, 5.1 percent of the non-veteran labor force ages 18 and older, or about 7.4 million individuals, were unemployed in February 2016.
“I think we face the same issues that everyone else faces in today’s work environment that you have more people who want jobs than jobs available,” D’Alfonso said. “But there are jobs there. I didn’t find a job in the immediate field that I wanted, but I did find work. Sometimes it just means that I’m going to take a lower paying job with less hours than I’d like to be working because that’s what’s available, and I will have to make due with that until I can find something better. But I’m not going to hold out for that dream job that I might not get.”
D’Alfonso said there are many options for post-military employment and education, such as vocational school, truck driving, factory work and traditional higher education, but jumping into civilian life is a challenge regardless.
“We do have the benefit of having the GI Bill and other VA programs that will pay for that education and will give us job counseling and stuff and support that we need for adjusting to the environment,” he said. “It’s just that that adjustment is hard, and if you’re not prepared to work on that adjustment, you’re going to have a hard time getting a job.”
Difficulty in transitioning
That adjustment to civilian life, D’Alfonso said, includes learning how to budget money, work in a less structured environment and find common ground between non-military classmates and coworkers.
“As a younger veteran, I face the same challenges that the older veterans of Vietnam, Korea (and) World War II have faced when they got out at first and were my age, in that you come out of a very structured environment where you know exactly what your job is, what’s expected of you and you know where you fall in the hierarchy,” D’Alfonso said. “It seems like when you leave (that highly structured environment), you’re not really prepared for how some of the stuff is in the civilian side.”
D’Alfonso said the military offers classes on how to adjust to civilian life, so the individual veteran has a responsibility to work through that transition, regardless of how uncomfortable civilian life seems. However, oftentimes a veteran’s skills learned in the military neither translate into a civilian job nor yield a degree, which many employers require.
D’Alfonso said in addition to often initially landing low-paying jobs, it’s tough for recently discharged veterans to budget their money, because the military pays housing, food and a regular stipend during an individual’s service period.
“Basically, the only bills that you’re concerned with (are your) Internet and phone bill,” he said. “You go from Internet and phone bill to suddenly, ‘I have to pay my rent. I have to pay electric. I have to pay gas. I have to buy all my food and prepare it. I have to furnish an apartment.’ You have all these extra expenses you didn’t think about when you were in (the military).”
Greene County Veterans Services and the Dayton VA, in addition to WSU’s veteran support initiatives, offer educational, employment and benefit support for veterans, Commissioner Tim Spradlin said.
Of the estimated 22 million veterans in the U.S., Ohio is home to more than 866,000 of them, according to 2014 data from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
According to the 2014 ACS, 12.4 percent of Greene County’s civilian population is veterans. Spradlin said Greene County has a high number of veterans, because it includes Wright-Patterson Air Force base and is close to the Dayton VA facility. However, Spradlin said Greene County spends less on financial assistance for veterans than other counties with comparable demographics.
“As far as poverty in our county,” he said, “I’m not seeing a lot of it.”
Spradlin said Greene County Veterans Services offers temporary financial assistance to veterans and their families for things like illness, death, a layoff, or a broken down car or failed heater. Though the county has few, if any, homeless veterans, the Dayton VA does welcome veterans in need of long-term shelter to its domiciliary.
On a national scale, nearly 11 percent of homeless adults are veterans, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report said. The report estimates that more than 1,100 veterans in Ohio were homeless on a single night in January 2015.
“Veterans from their experience are tougher and more resilient than non-veterans in that younger age group. They’re going to get by,” Spradlin said. “They struggle, and they sometimes stumble and fall, but they get back up.”
Anna Dembowski is a senior journalism major and editor-in-chief for Cedars. She loves coffee and craves adventure. Follow her at @annabbowskers.