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The applause was loud and sustained when Salt Lake Community College President Cynthia Bioteau announced, at the school's May 9 commencement, that 169 veterans were among those graduating.

The veterans, she said, enrich the college's campuses.

"You are heroes not just to your families, but to your country."

And at the community college, there is more than fancy talk about honoring the service of veterans: SLCC has an award-winning veterans center seen as a model for colleges in Utah and around the country.

Not only can veterans get their education benefits certified there, they also can meet other vets for coffee or watch a video in the lounge. A bank of computers allows the vets to drop in and check email or assignments and use the printers free of charge.

A Veterans Affairs (V.A.) counselor is on hand to help navigate V.A. and education issues — SLCC was one of eight schools nationally in a VetSuccess on Campus pilot program two years ago — and a V.A. psychologist is there weekly for counseling. A Veterans Upward Bound counselor comes weekly from Weber State University to work with veterans who are first-generation college students or from low-income homes.

Mary Keinz, the veterans accessibility officer, acts as a go-between if a veteran needs certain classroom concessions — more time for tests, for instance. She also advises the veterans club, which skis in the winter, goes fishing in summer and gathers for other social events.

Such services, in a center the size of a four-bedroom townhouse, has earned the community college a place on the prestigious Military Times' Best for Vets list in 2011 and 2012. It is the only Utah school to be so recognized.

"Veteran-friendly is more than just saying the words," says Darlene Head, who awoke in the middle of the night six years ago and wrote the proposal for what would become the SLCC Veterans Center. She has been the manager ever since.

"It's about taking the action."

Expanding services • Services for veterans run the gamut in Utah's higher-education system. Some, such as Utah Valley University, provide certifying officials who help veterans get their education benefits, but refer vets elsewhere on campus for other services.

Weber State University's Veterans Center is an upgrade from that, and a new computer software program will help director Charlie Chandler better track his veterans' education progress.

But, he says, "We don't have a place for vets to hang out. …The university has told us they want to give us the space, but that's at least a year or two away."

The University of Utah opened its Veterans Center two years ago in a room not much bigger than a dorm room.

But thanks to support from the U. and a private foundation, Director Roger Perkins has most of the $207,000 he needs to triple the center's size in the Olpin Union this summer. It will have three offices, a conference room, a community room, a larger lounge and a quiet area for vets to study, Perkins says.

The U. was in the second wave of 32 schools to get counselors through the V.A. VetSuccess on Campus last year. The V.A. psychologist, who goes to SLCC two days a week, goes to the U. one day each week.

A veterans' legal clinic is in the works, and, eventually, Perkins would like to make the center a one-stop shop with certifying officials in-house.

The SLCC center has been his model, Perkins says. "I hold [Darlene Head's center] up as an example of what an appropriate-size center for this state should be."

'We weren't doing enough' • Head did not serve in the armed forces, but she's always had a heart for vets. As the child of a Korean War-era sailor living in Hawaii, she and her family would meet servicemen returning from the Vietnam War and present them with leis.

She still has the silver POW bracelet from her youth in her office in the basement of the SLCC Redwood Road campus student center.

Head was a single mother of three in 1982, when she began attending SLCC, earning two degrees and a career in admissions. In 2005, Assistant Vice President Eric Weber asked Head to help in the tiny office certifying veterans' benefits.

At a national meeting, she heard that most colleges were unprepared for the coming surge of student veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. SLCC was among them, she thought.

"We had a dedicated office, which was more than most schools. But we weren't doing enough."

Head noticed that veterans were often jumpy when they came in to use the computers; they didn't like strangers standing behind them in the cramped space. When she would ask why they dropped out, veterans often answered that they felt out of place.

After her nighttime brainstorm in 2007, she wrote her proposal for a more secluded space where veterans could decompress. It would be a one-stop shop, she said.

She shared it with Weber the next morning, and "he ran with it."

The center's success, Weber says, can be seen in the success of the students it serves.

SLCC graduated 16 veterans in 2005, according to a presentation Weber and Head gave at a national meeting for financial-aid officers last year. The number of graduating veterans reached 186 last year.

"We looked at this as a special population that had needs beyond just processing educational benefits," says Weber.

'I come to get away' • It has been 35 years since Robert Diaz was in a classroom, but the Army veteran has just finished his second semester toward an associate degree in welding.

Most mornings, he comes to the Redwood campus about 7:15 a.m. to share a cup of coffee with other veterans he's met in the vet center.

"I'm not really a people person, but, yeah, I've made friends here," says Diaz, who served in the early 1980s. "Basically, everyone's friendly. The vets help each other."

Students will occasionally nap on the couch in the lounge. "We shut the door and turn the light off," says Head. "We'll wake them up when they want."

Student Jason Jones, who served in the Army from 1994 to 2006, says he feels closer to other veterans than to his own family. "This is where I come to get away from everything else."

Karen Knewtson, one of SLCC's "graduates of excellence," carried the banner for the School of Technical Specialties at graduation.

An Army veteran who was in basic training on 9/11, Knewtson earned a degree in aviation maintenance and her commercial pilot's license at SLCC.

In June, she starts on a finance degree at Westminster College. Eventually, she'd like to own her own aviation repair station.

SLCC's Veterans Center, was a great help, she says. "If I have screwed up paperwork, they fix it."

As for Head, she says, "I just love her."

Twitter: @KristenMoulton