Archived Story

‘Dirty Bird’ benefits veterans

Published 5:40pm Thursday, March 15, 2012

When Andrew Churchill returned from 18 months in Iraq to start classes at Southwestern Michigan College, he felt “like an alien,” surrounded by long hair and saggy blue jeans.

Andrew Churchill

Churchill was joined at Dowagiac Rotary Club Thursday as the guests of attorney John Magyar by Eileen Toney, SMC development director, and Scott Topping, dean of academic studies and a veteran.

Churchill, SMC student veterans coordinator, was born in Elkhart, Ind., attended Kincheloe Elementary School, but graduated from Marcellus High School in 2004.

“Military veterans fall into the category of non-traditional students because they’re not kids. They have families,” said Churchill, who is married. “I did a year at Cornerstone University, then decided I wanted to wait to do college.  I joined the Army for the war on terror,” but after infantry training at Fort Benning, Ga., was sent to Hawaii, where he could dive and surf. He rose from private to sergeant and was deployed in Iraq from 2007 until Sept. 10, 2009, “at the tail end of the surge.”

“That first semester was tough,” he said. “I had to learn how to interact with civilians from my own generation I had grown apart from. You immensely look forward to coming back to the ‘real world,’ then it’s a shock when it isn’t as easy as you hoped.”

During Churchill’s second semester, for an English 103 class with author Michael Collins, he developed an outline for a paper that SMC should do more for veterans because it was in everybody’s best interest. It became a 25-page proposal considered by the veterans support advisory committee.

“SMC is a place that rewards initiative and is open-minded to new ideas,” Churchill said, “with an emphasis on student success, the cultural creed. I was hired as a student employee and conduit to the veterans community to connect them to resources they might need on-campus or off.”

Churchill said, “Everyone struggles at one point or another, eating bologna sandwiches and waiting for their funding to come through from VA (Veterans Administration). There are two groups which fall through the cracks — veterans who got out more than 10 years ago and got a job without going to college because the economy was good and now the economy isn’t great, so they’re back as displaced workers. The old Montgomery GI Bill expires after 10 years. My post-9/11 generation is a little bit more complicated. The new GI Bill system, if you serve three years active duty, you are eligible for 100 percent benefits — all tuition, a yearly book stipend and a monthly housing stipend. No matter what rank you were, the rate you receive is that of a sergeant with dependents, which varies by zip code.” For Dowagiac it amounts to $999 a month for fulltime students.

“You don’t have time to work fulltime if you’re going to school fulltime,” Churchill said. “That made a scholarship a good idea.”

Two years ago, 60 SMC students received veterans benefits.

Dirty Bird

8K (five-mile), eight military-style obstacle mud run in three tiers (Eagle, Hawk and Falcon) and nine divisions. The Dirty Bird is a fundraiser for Southwestern Michigan College’s veterans scholarship. $25 per person for teams of three people. Takes place Saturday, March 31, at SMC’s Dowagiac campus, starting from soccer field. To contribute without competing, there will be a spaghetti dinner Friday, March 30, at 6 p.m. for $15 in Mathews Conference Center. Or, purchase an honor flag or T-shirt for $10. Go to and click on the Dirty Bird link or email or call (800) 456-8675 ext. 1474.

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