ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Bryan Box, a 28-year-old student veteran, carries a large thermos with "SAB9491T" scribbled on its side. The inscription is Box's battle roster, which he described as a digital "dog tag" used by the U.S. Army to identify soldiers.
He added the "T'' at the end simply because it holds his tea. He has another thermos with an "S." That one is for soup.
As fall semester sets in, Box navigates the University of Alaska Anchorage campus still carrying the ID code that labeled him for the six years he was enlisted in the Army. In school, he's learning both biology and how to adapt.
"It's like being on an alien planet," Box said of campus. Not long ago, he was sitting atop mountains in Afghanistan with an ashtray and binoculars, waiting to stop anyone with weapons from moving across the border with Pakistan.
Box is far from alone in the transition from soldier to student. The veteran population at Alaska's two largest universities is increasing at rates that outpace the growth of total enrollment.
At UAA, the number of student veterans and their dependents jumped 38 percent between 2009 and 2014, compared to 4 percent in campus-wide enrollment. In the same period at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the total student population shrank by 8 percent while the number of veterans swelled 61 percent, according to university records.
The trend is national. Some 1 million student veterans were enrolled in colleges in 2013, double the number in 2009, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. As the military continues to downsize, the VA expects the numbers to keep growing.
To accommodate student vets, UAA and UAF have made changes. Staff has been hired and student veteran resource centers have been created as campus hubs to help with VA paperwork, health care, housing and enrollment. The centers also act as meeting spots for veterans who rely on one another to regain the camaraderie lost when they left active duty.
First comes the paperwork.
Brian Fausett said he spent more than a year hassling the VA to process paperwork so he could enroll in UAA through the department's Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program, a service for veterans with service-related disabilities.
"I was actually going to go to welding school because it didn't look like UAA was going to happen," said the 33-year-old veteran who served eight years with the Army.
Fausett said it wasn't until he went through a liaison in Sen. Mark Begich's office that a VA employee called him and set up a meeting. Now he's a part-time student studying natural sciences. By the time he was accepted, he said, key classes were closed and enrolling as a full-time student was no longer an option.
Through the VA, Fausett should receive tuition payment and a stipend for books and housing, but that's all still being worked out, he said.
Nichole Grunwald, military and veteran community services assistant at UAA, said navigating the benefits process can be among the most difficult and frustrating steps for student-veterans. Grunwald staffs the resource center that opened in 2011 with one other full-time employee.
"We fought like junkyard dogs to get the veteran center here," said Box, who is also president of the UAA chapter of Student Veterans of America, a national organization that provides student veterans with resources and support.
According to a 2012 survey by the American Council on Education, 71 percent of nearly 700 schools had specific programs and services for military members and veterans.
Beyond initial paperwork, student veterans must also have their benefits certified each semester by a university official, said Eric Pedersen, associate vice chancellor for Enrollment Services at UAA.
In the past five years, the university has gone from one to three certifying officials to handle the growing pile of forms, he said.
Doug Bowers, 51, is a senior at UAA majoring in social work. He served in the Army for 22 years and was deployed twice to Afghanistan. He has three grown daughters and, he says, little in common with his nonveteran peers.
"If it wasn't for the vet center, it would be a lot rougher," Bowers said. "I mean, the vet center gives you the camaraderie, the connection. You can speak freely about these types of shared experiences, where in the general population you just sit there quiet as a church mouse nine times out of 10."
In general, student veterans are older than their peers. Many have families. Many have seen war, and some still suffer its lasting effects.
Bowers underwent multiple knee surgeries, has lower-back pain and is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Box said he has to sit at the back of the classroom. After years on quiet mountains waiting for sounds of attack, he can't tolerate the noise of other humans breathing too loudly around him. As for Fausett, his eyes are constantly shifting. He watches rooftops, reflections and people.
"I watch the mood and the behavior of the people around me because if people start running I'd like to know which way they're going so I can join them," Fausett said. "That's not PTSD in the sense that it's a mental crippling, that's a learning response."
Grunwald said counseling and health care services are offered through the university's health system and at the VA.
Once a student veteran herself, Grunwald started classes at UAA in 2008. Something she had to get used to, she said, was the number of young students in her entry-level classes.
"It was a shock for me. I didn't like it at first," she said. "I didn't like all the chaos and the noise."
Fausett compared campus to "a battalion that has no officers and no sergeants and it's just a bunch of privates."
An on-campus housing community for student veterans was launched at UAA this fall. Grunwald said she spearheaded the grouped housing after several veterans came looking for accommodations that didn't involve living with an 18-year-old. Grunwald had 12 spots reserved, but in a last-minute scramble to fill rooms she could find only four interested veterans.
Box said the university's firearms and alcohol bans might deter student veterans from living on campus. Also, the dorms are not family-friendly, he said.
Next academic year, Grunwald said, she hopes to reserve apartment-style dorms and get the word out to veterans earlier.
She said she expects the numbers of student veterans on campus to keep climbing. Recently, she said, she's seen an uptick in the number of service members using GI Bill educational benefits after having their enlistments cut short as the military grows smaller.
"The Air Force has been cutting people. The Army has been cutting people," she said. "Some have had their minds set to be career soldiers or service members and are now having to quickly find a job, so the GI (Bill) is what they're turning to."
Information from: Alaska Dispatch News, http://www.adn.com