Medford resident Willy Terrall doesn't expect to battle the first-day-of-school jitters when he strolls across the green University of Oregon campus in Eugene Monday morning at the start of fall classes.
After all, Terrall, 24, a sophomore majoring in biology who intends to become a medical doctor, has studied in far more challenging settings.
"A year ago, I was reading books on microbiology and organic chemistry in a cave in Afghanistan — studying under these conditions will not be a problem," said the former Marine Corps corporal who completed a four-year hitch on Sept. 11.
"In the sniper platoon, you sometimes had a little time on your hands," he explained. "My mom (Laurie Terrall) sent me the books at my request. She's a member of the Friends of the Medford Library. Great books. But every Marine was doing something. One of my buddies was working on architectural design."
Terrall, a 2003 graduate of St. Mary's School, is among hundreds of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars trading in their rifles and ammo for laptops and books at Oregon's colleges and universities this coming week.
Although the exact number of student veterans isn't yet known because the state's institutions of higher learning were scrambling to complete registration, it is expected to exceed last spring's more than 4,560, according to the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs. That included 2,808 at community colleges, 1,245 at public universities and 510 at private universities and colleges in the state.
About 115 veterans are expected to be enrolled at Southern Oregon University in Ashland this fall, a slight increase over the spring term, according to university officials.
Many of the veterans will be going to school under the new federal Post 9/11 GI Bill, which gives veterans a full ride providing they served three years or more of active duty since Sept. 11, 2001.
Although the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports there will be a delay of benefits because of an avalanche of applications nationally, the new bill covers the full cost of tuition and fees — up to the most expensive public undergraduate rate in the state — plus a monthly housing allowance and a $1,000 annual stipend for books and supplies.
In comparison, the GI Bill before the expansion paid veterans a flat rate of less than $1,500 a month.
"With the money being provided by the VA, that will take the concern off tuition and housing," said Terrall, who also is an Iraq war veteran. "I should be relatively comfortable and be able to concentrate on school."
Over at SOU, fellow Iraq veteran Paul Hough, 25, of Central Point, who has been going to school for the past two years on the old GI Bill, applauds the change.
"It'll definitely be much better," observed the U.S. Air Force veteran majoring in computer science/network security. Under the old bill, he received a monthly stipend of some $1,470.
"With this bill, I'll be getting about $1,200 a month for housing allowance, full tuition paid directly to the school and $1,000 a year for books," said the senior, who will be taking 16 hours this semester followed by 20 hours next semester to complete his degree.
Despite the expected increase in funding from the new GI Bill, Hough plans to keep his part-time pizza delivery job while going to SOU. His wife, Billie, works in management at a local supermarket.
Discharged as a senior airman in 2007, Hough served in Iraq from spring 2006 until early 2007. He worked with computers and networking at the Ali Air Base near An-Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. Aside from periodic mortar attacks, his facility wasn't in harm's way, he stressed.
"Being a communications guy, I was in an air-conditioned facility my entire stint," he said, noting many of his fellow veterans had it much worse.
"But I definitely matured in the military," he said. "It taught me a lot about myself, that's for sure."
Like Terrall, Hough, who is the only one among his veteran buddies returning to school now, looks forward to the beginning of classes.
"School has always been kind of easy for me," he said. "And the way the computer department at SOU is set up, a lot of it is do-it-yourself stuff. For me, that's the easiest way to learn. I enjoy it."
Navy Seabee veteran Mike Rubin, 28, of Grants Pass, who served in Iraq in 2004, also returns to SOU on Monday, as a student in the master of education program.
"The homework is a drag," said the former petty officer second class who worked as a heavy-equipment operator in Iraq. "But after you've spent a summer in Iraq, it's almost a pleasure to be doing homework."
Rubin, who is married with no children, has a bachelor's degree in history from SOU. In addition to his studies, he is a student teacher at Grants Pass High School, where he graduated in 2000.
"I'll be teaching at the high school until 11 (a.m.) or so, then go over to SOU, where I'll be until around 8 on some nights," he said.
"But you get a work ethic instilled in you in the military," he added. "And in the military you are going to school all the time. You are always taking a class for something."
Although Rubin hasn't received any funding from the new GI Bill yet, he says it will be a financial boost.
"Our housing allowance is based on what you would pay in Ashland, which is more expensive than Grants Pass," he said. "That's good for us."
Back in Eugene, Terrall observed that university officials have told him not to worry about Uncle Sam's funding arriving a bit late.
"The VA is going to be late getting money to the school but they (university officials) are working with us," he said.
Before joining the Corps in 2005, Terrall attended Puget Sound University in Washington on a scholarship. He served in Iraq in 2007, and returned from his tour in Afghanistan last December.
In Iraq, he served in hot spots such as Fallujah. In Afghanistan, he was in the equally volatile Helmand Province.
"Before, I took college for granted," he said, noting that he plans to become an oncologist. "This time, I will be way more focused and disciplined. That's definitely one of the things the Marine Corps has done for me. I'm older and have more experience under my belt.
"I have a friend on my sniper team who has already started back to school," he added. "He says going back to school is pretty much a walk in the park."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.