YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California (KSEE/KGPE) — Our nation’s military veterans deal with difficult situations abroad, but for some it can be just as hard to come back home.
It’s why a new pilot program out of UC Merced — called the Yosemite Veterans Education and Leadership Seminar — aimed to make that transition a smooth one. Particularly teaching them how to best utilize their G.I. Bill benefits and showing them education and career pathways.
Che Lee got out of the Army in 2012 and, like everyone else picked to be a part of the seminar, she had a hard time fully understanding how to utilize her benefits as a veteran.
But also, adjusting to life back home.
“When I first got out, you didn’t know what to do. There wasn’t any guidance,” Lee said. “[Hardest thing for me was] definitely holding down a job.”
She’d get a handle on things in time, but not until her four days in Yosemite National Park with the seminar would she fully grasp them.
“[The seminar put it all] on a silver platter,” Lee said.
The seminar brought more than a dozen California veterans to Yosemite, going over every facet of G.I. Bill benefits for things like home loans and how to pursue higher education. It also taught the veterans job searching skills, including resume do’s and don’ts.
It wasn’t all classwork, though, the seminar also showed them first-hand what careers they could pursue in the National Park Service. The park even had veterans who are now park rangers speak with them.
In a 60-mile radius of UC Merced, more than 11,000 veterans were notified about this program, according to the university.
“When people who defend our freedoms come back from their military service, I think we all agree we have an obligation to exercise care and respect for their service,” said Steve Shackelton, a UC Merced academic coordinator who helped put the seminar together. “Take care, as we can, of the future that they’re looking at.”
The biggest thing for everyone in the seminar was learning there’s no expiration date for their benefits. That means even if you retired or were discharged decades ago, like Navy veteran Gary Watkins, you can still take advantage.
“Every veteran, every veteran’s family, deserves to have these benefits offered to them. Some may not want to take them for various reasons and that’s their decision — but they need to know about them. That’s crucial,” Watkins said.
Shackelton said UC Merced hopes to continue putting on the seminar for years to come, but will need to figure out funding to do so. This year, funding from the Yosemite Conservancy and Yosemite Sunrise Rotary Club helped make it tuition-free.