FORT WORTH -- Terry Lee and Bruce Sledge meet three to four days a week in the group study section of the Tarrant County College South Campus library.
Textbooks and manuals with titles like Air Conditioning System and Design and pages showing psychometric charts that illustrate the physical and thermal properties of moist air are scattered between them.
For two older military veterans who haven't been full-time students in about 30 years, it is pretty heavy stuff.
"I graduated high school in 1969, so I've got some cobwebs," Sledge, a 60-year-old Air Force veteran, said with a chuckle. "These days they have PowerPoint and computers and new technology and everything is at a hyper rate of speed. But I'm ready for the challenge."
Sledge and Lee, 50, are among the nearly 50,000 unemployed veterans nationally who have been approved for the Department of Veterans Affairs' new job-training and education program. It is a one-time shot for veterans ages 35 to 60 to get a year of course work in fields offering a high potential for future employment.
The Veterans Retraining Assistance Program was created as part of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in 2011.
A flood of applications from out-of-work veterans suggests the demand for training is strong. Since the program opened for enrollment in May, Veterans Affairs has received 61,186 applications and approved 48,120. The goal is to train 99,000 veterans over the next two years.
The program is not intended to help veterans get four-year degrees, but rather certificates or training in growing industries, Veterans Affairs officials say. Computer support, business operations and substance-abuse counseling are among the jobs veterans are seeking.
"What it is designed for is to make our veterans quickly eligible to get back into the job market in high-demand occupations," said Phyllis Curtis, education officer at the VA Regional Office in Muskogee, Okla., which oversees the North Texas program. "We're very pleased with the level of interest."
The unemployment rate for veterans was 6.6 percent in August, compared to the national rate of 8.1.
Program is a 'big help'
Sledge and Lee were both without jobs when they learned about the program, known as VRAP.
Lee knew nothing of it when he showed up at the Tarrant County College registrar's office this spring to get information about the school's heating, ventilation and air conditioning program. He served for about six years in the Air Force until he was honorably discharged in 1986.
Economic reasons forced him to give up his roofing and construction business in April 2011, and he had been out of work since, he said.
"They asked me if I was a veteran and I said, 'Why, yes, I am,'" said Lee, a Fort Worth resident. "I was overjoyed when they told me I was eligible. Didn't even know the program existed and now it's really turning into a big help."
The VRAP program pays participants $1,473 a month for schooling costs, Curtis said.
Counselors who work with veterans say the program is not for all their clients. It requires legwork by the applicant: find a school within program parameters, get the field of study approved, show that you are unemployed, etc., said James Frost, a lead veteran employment representative with the Texas Veterans Commission.
Because the stipend is a reimbursement, the participant may have to pay some costs upfront, he said.
"You have to really get your ducks in a row," Frost said. "It would help a lot for people to have some kind of support network to help get through the training."
It is too early in the program to know how many people are completing it, said Jessica Jacobsen, a spokeswoman at the Dallas Veterans Affairs office.
'We're going to do it'
Lee, who last attended school in the early 1980s, said he is still making the transition from business owner to student with a 15-hour course load. Algebra skills that he hasn't used in decades have faded, he said.
"Math skills are like a muscle: If you don't use them every day, you're going to lose them," he said. "This program is very intense and very demanding."
Lee and Sledge said there are several other veterans enrolled in the TCC program who are VRAP participants. Usually, it is only the two men in the library after class, but Sledge said he hoped others in the class would soon join them.
On this morning, the men flipped pages in their textbooks and reviewed their charts.
Being a student isn't easy, but Sledge said the men will finish the program.
"We're going to do it," he said. "Too good of an opportunity to let it pass by."