After six years in the Navy, Charles Viajar was astonished when he returned to the Bay Area earlier this year and discovered how much prices had shot up.
Monthly rent: $2,800.
Almost $14 for lunch, and all he got was a little salad and a drink.
His PG&E bill? Nearly $350.
But it was the price of college textbooks -- even at Foothill Community College -- that really surprised him.
Talk about sticker shock: He had to fork over $400 for books. And that was just for one quarter.
"My jaw dropped," the 25-year-old former sailor said.
Student veterans like Viajar can benefit from the textbook voucher program at Foothill and De Anza community colleges. Wish Book readers can help the Foothill-De Anza Foundation raise $10,000 for the program, providing a $100 voucher to as many as 100 students.
Too often, veterans' advocates say, the cost of required textbooks keeps former members of the service from pursuing or continuing a college education. It is not unusual for students to pay $1,200 a year for books, especially science texts, which are often out of date by the time the students can resell them.
Adjusted for inflation, the price of textbooks has nearly doubled since 1998, according to the American Enterprise Institute.
In contrast, tuition costs for a full-time student are relatively reasonable at about $700 per quarter.
That makes community colleges across the state a mecca for veterans. About 75 percent, or 16,000, of the 21,000 veterans and their dependents using the GI bill in California attend community college.
This year, 800 veterans are enrolled at De Anza in Cupertino and Foothill in Los Altos Hills. Both colleges strive to help veterans, who are considered at risk for dropping out for several reasons, including rebuilding their lives now that they're home. Services include counseling, peer mentors and help navigating often complex GI bill regulations. They even loan them Smart Pens, so they can record lectures.
They also provide vouchers for books, paid for by donations from the public.
"They give up a part of their life, maybe a part of their body because sometimes they are missing limbs," said Carmela Xuereb, director of the Veterans Resource Center at Foothill. "So by us helping them, it can make a big difference."
Half a dozen bones in Viajar's right foot were shattered when a cannon shell dropped on it while the sailors were training South Korean soldiers. It still aches, but Viajar is too busy to dwell on it.
On top of studying to become a respiratory therapist, he also works 25 hours a week at the Veterans Resource Center at Foothill. Even though he could use the money, he can't work more because he is taking care of his mother, who has cancer and has undergone three surgeries plus chemotherapy.
"My mom didn't want me to quit school," he said. "That is why I'm here. The Veterans Resource Center has helped me cope."
Benefits from the GI bill improved after 9/11, including a stipend for books. But often it is not enough to cover the full cost.
Chad Robert Smith, 29, also emerged from the Navy recently after completing three tours of duty in Iraq as an in-flight technician. Nearly two years later, the Campbell resident is progressing steadily toward achieving his dream of becoming an engineer. But he nearly didn't enroll at first because money was so tight, and he was so overwhelmed by trying to adjust to civilian life.
"While it might not seem like much," he said, "without that voucher in the beginning, I may not have been able to start my college education."
Readers can help the Foothill-De Anza Foundation raise $10,000 to provide student veterans with textbook vouchers. Each $100 donation will provide a voucher for one student. Donate to Wish Book at www.mercurynews.info/wishbook or clip the coupon.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about the Foothill-De Anza Foundation, go to http://foundation.fhda.edu.