The new lounge will be a place for veterans to connect with each other.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — When soldiers return from war and go to college, they can be somewhat alienated by integrating with hundreds who have never seen or done the things they have.
At Berkshire Community College, those veterans now have a place to call their own, where they can de-stress, talk with fellow veterans and connect with a specialist in filing forms to receive benefits.
The college held a grand opening of the new Veterans Lounge on Thursday.
"We are asking so much of our young veterans, many who have served multiple deployments in very, very difficult places. For them to be able to come back here and have a special place where they can discuss issues particular to them, to share those kinds of experiences is really important," Mayor Daniel Bianchi said at the unveiling.
According to President Ellen Kennedy, the school is utilizing some of the $750,000 it will receive over three years through a U.S. Department of Labor grant to open the lounge. The school is partnering with Berkshire Works to provide a part-time staff member there who can help veterans both navigate benefits like the GI Bill but also connect them with jobs. Those who go to Berkshire Works can also be directed to the lounge to get help with college paperwork.
Berkshire Works Director John Barrett III said connecting veterans with jobs is particularly important for him because he "came out of an era, the Vietnam era, when vets came home they were not treated very nicely. And it bothered me because of the friends and classmates I lost." When BCC approached the state employment agency, he was glad to be "the guy that said yes."
"What we have done in collaboration with Berkshire Community College is establish something in Berkshire County that will be a model for other career centers and colleges," Barrett said, adding "we want to make sure we do for the veterans what they didn't do 40 years ago."
David Nash, of the disabled veterans outreach program for Berkshire Works, said the most important aspect is having an accessible room for veterans to be able to close the door and talk about issues. Staffed by John Herrera, the lounge is ready to go.
But, all were quick to credit the college's Student-Veterans Alliance, which headed the effort. The group of students identified it as a need to help bring other students who are veteran together. Lisa Catullo, a member of that alliance, said Thursday's ceremony is a "symbol of all of the hard work" the alliance put into bringing veterans together.
Berkshire Community College is ahead of the curve with the new lounge; a statewide student group released a report in April on the needs of veterans with the development of spaces for them and help accessing being benefits as priorities, according to Coleman Nee, state secretary of veterans affairs.
State Secretary of Veterans Affairs Coleman Nee said BCC's outreach is aligned with the state's goals of bringing services to veterans.
Nee said the report was an 18-monthlong process that identified other items such as transferring credits or having military classes translate to college credits, which his organization is currently trying to make uniform.
"Our student vet population has exploded in the commonwealth," Nee said. "A number of the colleges and universities weren't equipped to deal with the numbers of veterans coming back. Not just with the GI Bill but with the other issues."
Outside of the schooling aspect, all veterans are having a difficult time navigating benefits systems and are looking to find those services locally.
"We don't do a good job in making that system easy to navigate," Nee said.
His office launched an initiative to go further into the communities to find veterans and connect them, which is different from previous wars.
One example of benefits veterans can access is the Home Base Program, which outreach coordinator Travis Weiner explained to those gathered. That program aimed to help veterans deal with the "invisible wounds of war," such as posttraumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.
Also speaking at the ceremony were state Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and William "Smitty" Pignatelli, who both stressed the importance of connecting veterans with services. Representatives from U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and state Sen. Benjamin Downing's office were also in attendance.