When Troops Come Home: Helping Them Shift From Combat to College

Sunday, 04 Sep 2011 01:14 PM

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U.S. military drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan are expected to increase the number of returning veterans headed to college to study for new careers — and many need help making the transition from the life of hitting the trenches to hitting the books.

Unlike returning veterans of some conflicts — notably those returning from the Vietnam war, who faced antiwar sentiment on campuses — today’s veterans are finding efforts to help them adjust to campus life.

It’s not easy morphing from the strict regimentation of military life to the self-guided lifestyle of college, says Dylan Thomas, a veteran who is a student at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

The difference is like structure versus chaos, Thomas told the La Crosse Tribune in a report on his orientation program to help returning service members adapt to college life. It’s not easy going from a life in which somebody’s orders rule every second of every day to one in which a person determines his own schedule.

“You know when you’ll have classes,” the Navy veteran said. “But you don’t know anything else.”

His program, “From Combat to College,” drew 18 participants on the UW-La Crosse campus Friday, compared with just three last year.
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“With everyone coming back in the next two years, I’m pretty sure there’s going to be more people coming,” said Thomas, who served in Japan, Hawaii, and Guam.

The United States will withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year and another 23,000 by this time next year.

UW-La Crosse has more than 200 veteran students this year, including 35 new ones this semester, according to the Tribune.

It’s just one transition veterans face when they leave the battlefield to pursue higher education. Thomas’s orientation offers a variety of back-to-college information, aiming to connect veterans with campus services on benefits, career planning, counseling, and disability services, according to the Tribune.

“A lot of it is just getting back to that learning mentality that you have in high school,” Nick Buroker told the Tribune. The 25-year-old Buroker did a tour with the Air Force in Iraq before returning and enrolling in the UW-LaCrosse computer science program in 2009.

James Overesch, who transferred to UW-La Crosse this year from another university after two Marine Corps tours in Iraq, told the Tribune: “The hardest thing for me is not having a set schedule. Being able to balance all that out.”

Similar stories echo across the country, including California, where the state Veterans Affairs Department estimates that 30,000 veterans will return to the Golden State each year as the wards wind down.

If they opt for college, Judith Broder is there to help ensure that they can adjust to that life or any other endeavor they might choose.

Broder is a psychiatrist and the founder and executive director of The Soldiers Project, a national nonprofit based in Los Angeles that provides free, unlimited counseling to veterans and their families.

“Picture, for a minute, that you’re a 20-year-old soldier who has just completed an 11-month tour in Afghanistan. You experienced heavy combat, were constantly alert to danger, and witnessed unspeakable violence,” Broder writes for the California Progress Report.

“Your return home, ironically, is also fraught with fear and anxiety. You try to adjust to ‘normal life,’ but everything seems different — is different — now that you have flashbacks and the tell-tale signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“This scenario is reality for many combat veterans, and the number of veterans struggling to get their lives back will dramatically increase in the months to come,” Broder writes.

The upside is that unprecedented education opportunities await combat veterans today, she says.

“Since August 2009, an expanded G.I. Bill has allowed military veterans to recoup the full cost of any public college in their state and to receive a housing allowance and a $1,000 annual stipend for books,” Broder writes.

She cites California Veterans Affairs figures as saying that 60,000 veterans were enrolled in colleges because of the new G.I. Bill as of March — double the number in 2008.

“But what good is a free education if you cannot sit through a class or walk on a campus because of crippling flashbacks, panic attacks or other mental trauma? How can you complete assignments or study for tests when your personal life has been destabilized by the effects of war?”

The Soldiers Project is expanding its Adopt A College program to ease the troops’ transition, says Broder, who received the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award this year.

“Project volunteers work closely with a college’s administration and faculty to help veterans succeed. This includes creating ‘vet-friendly’ campuses where volunteer mental health workers educate staff and faculty on the psychological issues that face returning troops and provide referrals for The Soldiers Project's confidential, pro bono psychological services to veterans and their families.”

The program operates in several California colleges, but Broder says it must be expanded.

“What’s needed is a battle plan involving multiple fronts. State and federal budgets must take into account the mental health needs of returning soldiers, in school or out,” she writes.

“War is not over when it fades from news coverage or when troops return home,” Broder insists. “In many homes and in many soldiers’ minds, it rages on. The least we can do is fight for them – for their mental well-being, their education, and for the opportunity to not just return home but to normalcy and a better life.”


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