RALEIGH — Gov. Pat McCrory used an event for female veterans on Thursday to announce a proposal to allow all North Carolina-based veterans to pay in-state community college tuition the first year they get out of service.
“We are subsidizing your education,” McCrory told the crowd at the NC Women Veterans Summit & Expo, held at the N.C. National Guard Joint Forces Headquarters in Raleigh. “And you deserve it.”
Most of the 400-plus people who registered for the event would no longer qualify for the benefit McCrory proposed, but thousands of others would in coming years as they leave a downsizing military.
Service members from other states are eligible for in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities while they’re based in North Carolina, but when they leave active duty, they are subject to out-of-state rates until they have lived in the state for another year.
State legislators considered various proposals last year to change those rules but did not approve any.
McCrory said he would put the community college provision in his 2014-15 budget. A spokesman said the proposal is expected to cost about $1.8 million the first year.
While the female veterans attending the event applauded McCrory’s announcement, they were at the summit to learn about other benefits to which they may be entitled. The event was organized by the the N.C. Division of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and featured representatives from a range of veterans groups and state and federal agencies offering brochures and answering questions.
‘I served during peacetime’
The VA estimates that about 89,508 female vets live in North Carolina. Nationwide, there are 2.2 million female vets, and their numbers are growing even as the total number of veterans declines.
Though they volunteered for service and may have stayed in for multiple tours, many women don’t consider themselves veterans – or believe they are entitled to VA benefits – if they didn’t serve during wartime or deploy overseas.
Lisa Hedgecock didn’t, though she spent seven years in the Marines as a Russian linguist before getting out in 1988.
“I thought you had to be a war vet,” Hedgecock said. “I served during peacetime. I didn’t know I could go to the VA.”
A few years ago, Hedgecock lost her home. She moved into her car, moving it at night between the parking lots of a Walmart and Guilford Technical Community College near Greensboro, where she was taking classes. She was looking for job listings on a public computer one day when she came across a link to a joint program of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs Supporting Housing,
She followed the link and eventually got connected to the VA. She’s been living in an apartment in Guilford County through the HUD-VASH program since 2011.
“It’s turned my life around,” she said.
Women’s issues differ
Betty Moseley Brown, associate director of the VA’s Center for Women Veterans in Washington, told the group at the summit that reducing veteran homelessness is one of the three major focuses of the VA right now, along with getting veterans access to services and reducing the agency’s backlog of disability claims.
Moseley Brown acknowledged that the VA was slow to realize that its female vets have some issues that are different from men’s. Though women have served as soldiers since the American Revolution, it wasn’t until 1994 that Congress established the Center for Women Veterans to oversee health care, benefits and programs for women at the VA and to advocate on their behalf.
The VA has been slowly working to change its own culture through efforts such as the “Don’t Call Me Mister,” campaign, in which VA medical staff are trained to look at the veteran they’re serving before assuming it’s a man.
Some accommodations are more difficult. While the VA Medical Center in Durham has a separate entrance for women, at the one in Fayetteville, Linda Gibson still has to walk past a phalanx of men every time she comes for medical care.
The 20-year Army vet, who attended Thursday’s event, said she was subjected to sexual trauma while in the military and dreads going to certain areas in her VA hospital because of the way some men still behave.
She gets all her prescriptions online, rather than using the VA’s pharmacy, and sometimes skips filing for travel cost reimbursement to avoid the lines of men that congregate in those places.
The VA is building a new Health Care Center in Fayetteville to handle outpatient services, to be completed in 2015.
More information is available at www.va.gov/womenvet.