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Stray anti-military vibes reverberate as thousands of veterans head to college

The insult expressed in the Rutgers University class was aimed at the nearly 1 million veterans enrolled at U.S. schools under the GI Bill. And Scott Hakim, barely a year removed from combat, took the slam personally.

“Why should we pay for these guys to go to college?” Hakim said he recalls a female student asking during a discussion on the nation’s responsibility to service members returning from war.  “Everybody who goes into the military is stupid – that’s why they joined the military instead of going to college.”

John Agnello Photography

Scott Hakim, a Marine infantryman in combat, now attends Rutgers University. The school has a military-friendly reputation. But even there, Hakim says he heard another student bash enrolled veterans. Hakim at a recent wedding with girlfriend Emma Valenti.

Hakim – a Marine infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan – immediately vowed to out-study every classmate on the midterm exam and said he ultimately posted the highest mark: 98 out of 100. Later, he said, he overheard that same female student reveal her grade: F. 

“I guess I proved her wrong,” Hakim said. “It wasn't a me-versus-her thing, more like: Maybe now she realizes how idiotic her statement was.”

Anti-veteran sentiments – though sporadic and scattered – are nonetheless emerging at some American colleges just as thousands of veterans enroll with their tuition fees fully covered by the post-9/11 GI Bill. In student gatherings or via anonymous posts in online forums, some university students are expressing open disdain for former service members now massing in academia.

Student Veterans of America, a support network with more than 500 campus chapters, acknowledges the presence of some unwelcoming vibes. “It exists,” said Michael Dakduk, executive director of SVA. “But, by and large, college students respect the sacrifices made by those who have served in the military.”

At Columbia University in New York City, a wounded Iraq War veteran was heckled and booed in February by fellow students as he argued for the return to that school of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, during a campus meeting. That reaction angered the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who openly questioned the school’s leadership.

At the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, student veteran Jason Thigpen said he has “personally experienced what seems to be ‘anti-veteran’ sentiment on more than a few occasions.”

Courtesy of Scott Hakim

Scott Hakim served with the U.S. Marines in Iraq and again in Afghanistan, where he was wounded by an IED in 2010.

“I had a History 101 professor in 2011 actually refer to how much better he was than military service members,” said Thigpen, an Army National Guard member who served in Iraq through January 2010. The UNC “system seems to disregard us in such a widespread manner, most student veterans no longer bother to even admit their time in-service, which is just sad.”

UNC, Wilmington spokeswoman Janine Iamunno responded: "UNC Wilmington proudly offers veterans, active-duty members of the military, and their families several programs and resources to support their unique educational needs. This is an extension of our commitment to  the journey of learning, and to the premium we place on an open dialogue between faculty and students about the opportunities and challenges we face individually and as a community."

At Rutgers, meanwhile, there is irony attached to the unfriendly dig uttered in one of Hakim’s classes. That sort of behavior is well out of the norm, he said: “Other than that one time, Rutgers has been absolutely amazing.” In Afghanistan, Hakim’s vehicles ran over and detonated five IEDs. On a sixth occasion, he stepped on an IED, sustaining a traumatic brain injury. “If I have to miss a class (due to the injury), my professors are accommodating. The whole school itself is great with veterans.”

"Rutgers, like the rest of the country, has successfully been able to separate the warrior from the war," said Steve Abel, a retired Army colonel and director of the office of veteran military programs and services at Rutgers.

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"I was on a college campus around the time of (the) Kent State (shootings). I'm a product of the Vietnam era. So when I was driving here (a couple of years ago to start the job), I wondered: What is Rutgers going to be like from a staff and student body perspective, being a big and liberal university?" Abel said. "Any apprehension I had about that relationship absolutely dissolved when I got here. They could not have been more welcoming to me, my team and to the student veterans here."

In fact, Rutgers was rated a “military friendly” school in the 2013 “G.I. Jobs” list of colleges where veterans feel appreciated and have an array of academic and social help available.

Last month, when NBC News reported on the latest list of “military friendly” schools, several readers offered comments via newsvine.com that derided the nation's newest veterans.

“This post-9/11 love affair with the military is disgusting. Paying people to illegally invade other countries and kill innocent men, women and children is immoral. Screw the military,” wrote a reader who calls herself OVUgirl.

“I have to agree with OVUgirl. Seeing the immoral military glorified on campus is disgusting,” wrote another reader who uses the newsvine handle Gandhi Fan.

Through newsvine, NBC News asked both of those readers to elaborate on their comments for this story. Neither responded.

“I don’t think you’ll see (those types of feelings expressed) as overtly on the ground at college campuses,” said SVA leader Dakduk. “But ... you can say things anonymously online – you can say pretty much everything – so that’s where you’ll see it most.”

Another leading veterans group suspects that some student veterans who blatantly grab GI Bill money with no plans to actually sit in a college classroom are further fueling that ill will.

Under the post-9/11 GI Bill, the federal government directly reimburses colleges for a veteran’s tuition fees. In addition, each student veteran receives a housing allowance that, depending on the university’s zip code, can run as high as $2,040 per month if the veteran has dependents. They also each get $1,000 annually for books and supplies.

“What happens is that too many of the people get the GI Bill and don’t go to class. They spend the money elsewhere and the college has to cut them loose,” said John E. Pickens III, executive director of VeteransPlus, a nonprofit that has offered financial counseling to more than 150,000 current and former service members. 

“That’s one of the issues that kind of took us by surprise,” he added. “When we go to these colleges and ask: How can we help? That’s one of the things we hear from the student advisers: ‘Look, I’ve got kids who come here and enroll to get their GI Bill and they end up not going to school.' 

“Unfortunately," Pickens said, "you have some folks who game the system." 

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