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  • JILL CONNELLY / Special to The Bee

    David Old has seven years as an Army medic, but he isn't getting credit for it as he takes classes at Pasadena City College toward seeking a nursing degree. "I try not to let it get to me," he says. "I'm not a negative thinker."

  • Courtesy of David Old

    David Old poses for a fellow soldier during his 15-month deployment as a medic in a remote outpost above the Korengal Valley, known as Afghanistan's "valley of death." More than 40 U.S. troops were killed there in the five years before they pulled out in 2010.

  • JILL CONNELLY / Special to The Bee

    David Old studies in the Veterans Resource Center at Pasadena City College. Its coordinator wrote a letter to legislators saying that the military training of veterans like Old is being wasted because it isn't being considered toward course credits or admission into nursing programs.

The Conversation: Soldiers want service to count

Published: Sunday, May. 27, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013 - 9:01 pm

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David Old learned his medicine in a hot, dusty outpost perched above Afghanistan's "valley of death."

He treated everything from back strains and twisted ankles to broken legs and gunshot wounds. He was taught the hard lesson that you can't save everyone; a couple of Afghan soldiers he aided were so badly wounded that they died before reaching a combat hospital. He went out on patrols alongside his patients; in 15 months, he figures he was in more than 50 firefights in the Korengal Valley, one of the bloodiest places in the entire war.

"After I proved myself, they took me in as one of their own," Old said.

He had to win their trust because he's the one who replaced Pvt. Juan Restrepo, who was only 20 when he was killed in action. The platoon honored Restrepo by putting his name on their isolated encampment – which then became the title of an award-winning 2010 documentary. Old appears a few times in the film, an unsparing, close-up view of the 11-year-old war.

But none of Old's training or experience from seven years as an Army medic is counting toward requirements as he takes classes at Pasadena City College so he can apply to its nursing program.

"It's frustrating," he told me. "I see younger kids planning to apply as well. They have no idea what they're getting themselves into. They just see dollar signs."

He's just the kind of veteran that a bill wending its way through the Legislature is designed to help.

Assembly Bill 1976, the Veterans Health Care Workforce Act of 2012, would require colleges and state health licensing boards to accept relevant military training and experience toward course credits and licensing qualifications.

Over the next few years, tens of thousands of soldiers will be coming home to California as the wars end and the military downsizes – and they need jobs in a tough labor market. A sizable number of those veterans have medical training – an estimated 900 returned in 2010-11, and that number is projected to double in 2011-12.

So the bill makes all sorts of sense. It would help veterans returning home to California find jobs that put their military training to good use. It could ease the critical shortage of nurses and other health care workers in rural areas. And it might help vets avoid those for-profit colleges and vocational schools that are preying on them for their GI Bill benefits.

In a Legislature too often stuck in partisan gridlock or distracted by trivial matters, a bill like this ought to get a serious look.

Instead, it's in big trouble.

The measure passed unanimously last month out of two Assembly committees – Veterans Affairs and Business, Professions and Consumer Protection. But on Friday, a big deadline day, it hit a roadblock in the Appropriations Committee due to concerns over potential cost. It will take some fancy legislative footwork, but supporters hope to revive the bill's main provisions, or get the Brown administration to take action without a new law.

AB 1976 was introduced by Assemblyman Dan Logue of Marysville and then included in a package of bills to aid veterans that Assembly Republicans put forward in March. Because they have refused to make deals on taxes and spending, their bills often go nowhere.

This legislation, however, has broad backing.

Assemblyman Richard Pan, a Sacramento Democrat who has signed on as principal co-author, says helping veterans is a bipartisan priority. Vets should not have to repeat classes, relearn skills or "go through hoops they have already gone through in the military," said Pan, a pediatrician and vice chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.

The California Association of Physician Groups, which represents doctors serving more than 18 million residents, says the bill "is good for veterans, taxpayers and patients."

Besides veterans groups, supporters include advocates for California's 44 rural counties. They say a chronic shortage of health care workers is about to get worse as older physicians and nurses retire, and as nearly 2 million more rural residents become insured under health reform. Fast-tracking veterans would expand the pool of nurses, physician assistants and other primary care workers, the rural groups say, because many come from small towns and are willing to work in areas where it's often difficult to recruit professionals.

"That's why we're so interested in this," said Steve Barrow, executive director of the California State Rural Health Association.

While there's no organized opposition to the bill, the big hurdle is its potential cost – especially with the state's $15.7 billion deficit and everyone wary of budget cuts.

An analysis of the bill by the Appropriations Committee staff warns that it could cost the state community college system several million dollars and the California State University at least $300,000 to set up systems for deciding how much each veteran's military training should count for course credits. It could cost the public health department another $600,000 and licensing boards $100,000.

The bill's backers dispute whether the start- up costs would be that high, pointing out that campuses already have staff who evaluate prior education. Still, they say they have tweaked the bill to lower any cost.

Veterans advocates like Jim Cahill says the price is well worth it.

The 62-year-old retired teacher and Air Force veteran from Placerville has been busy trying to build support for the bill and recruiting vets to testify at the Capitol. He has made the issue his mission since his son Jay returned from Iraq in 2008, tried to get into Sacramento State's nursing program but couldn't get his combat medic training credited.

"We invested in my son's military training. But now we tell him to go back to the end of the line. We say what my son did has no value," Cahill told me.

Old is disenchanted, too.

When he went into the Army, he wasn't planning to become a medic. But then came four months of initial training and his experience in the field. While posted in Korea, he found a mentor – a doctor who taught him how to evaluate patients, hook up IVs and suture wounds.

"It turned out to be my calling," Old said.

He rose from corporal to sergeant and was awarded the Bronze Star for his Afghanistan service. Now 31 and serving in the National Guard, he left active duty in June 2010 and moved to Southern California to be with his fiancée. Last spring, he enrolled at Pasadena City College, where he's working on his prerequisites so he can apply to the college's two-year registered nursing program next year. With credit for his Army experience, he could apply sooner, and get a leg up getting accepted.

His predicament was described in a letter to Assemblyman Logue from Patricia D'Orange-Martin, coordinator of the college's Veterans Resource Center. She said well-trained veterans like Old are not given priority admission into nursing programs and could lose out to students just out of high school with far less experience, or to international students who plan to return home with their degrees.

"This is a travesty!" she wrote. "I can't begin to tell you how much this upsets and saddens me."

Old hopes his story persuades lawmakers to support the bill "not for my sake, but for other vets' sake who are just coming out."

"They're stuck," he said. "It's like starting over again from scratch."

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