Suicide and Student Veterans

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Those returning from military service experience significantly more suicidal thoughts than non-veterans, a new study finds -- and authors say colleges can do better.

A 'Veteran Friendly' Employer

When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, visited the university where I work in human resources, he called us "veteran friendly.” How did West Virginia University get that reputation? And why might other colleges want to get the same reputation not only with regard to students, but employees?

'Telling' Hard Truths About War

With American society divided for and against the war, returning veterans tend to be viewed more as issues than as individuals. Recent news media coverage has focused on stories about soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who have become violent criminals and on the trials of wounded vets who receive substandard medical treatment. Unquestionably, these are important issues. However, with the Iraq War entering its sixth year and the White House indicating that troop levels will remain at 130,000 for an indeterminate time, facilitating the return of the “average Joe” soldier is an increasingly pressing issue that remains largely ignored.

Since the adoption of the GI Bill during the Second World War, colleges and universities, like the one where I teach, have served as primary gateways through which many vets have found a path back into civilian life. Yet campuses today tend to have visible and vocal anti-war segments among their faculty and students. Ironically, in the post-Vietnam era the GI Bill, a tool designed to facilitate reintegration, places student-vets in environments that many find unwelcoming at best, exclusionary at worst.

As a pacifist, I want to see an end to the Iraq War, the sooner the better. As a citizen, I feel guilty that this desire is my sole contribution.As a result, I don’t know how to engage, how to approach the increasing number of returning vets I encounter in my day-to-day life, inside the classroom and out. When a friend, the University of Oregon administrator Jonathan Wei, told me about an innovative play being performed by student-veterans there, I was immediately intrigued.

Eugene, often referred to as the “Berkeley of Oregon,” has been described as “famously anti-war.” Bumper stickers denouncing the war are ubiquitous, and the words “the War” are commonly graffitied onto stop signs. For Oregon student-vets, feelings of estrangement and isolation were common. Many described to Wei feeling “invisible” and being “unable to connect with friends” upon their return from service. One, a Korean-American woman who had been deployed to Guantanamo, summed up her experience this way: “I just had to keep to myself, keep my head down, go to class, come home. Honest to god, it was like me having to pretend I wasn’t Asian.”

To confront the disconnection that so many felt, first the UO student-vets organized, forming the Veterans and Family Student Association (VFSA). Next, they created a play.

The project began after Wei, in his capacity as coordinator of nontraditional student programs, staged several panel discussions with the 20-odd members of the newly formed veteran students’ group during the 2006-7 academic year. From the meetings, Wei began to see the limits inherent in approaching veterans as a demographic or political issue. He encouraged the association to help the university’s Women's Center (another group he worked with) stage a production of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues.” Inspired by the experience, Wei and the veterans’ group began work on their own original play.

From the start, “Telling” was about the communal process of creation as much as it was about the eventual product itself. Wei and Max Rayneard, a South African Fulbright scholar and Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature, interviewed 21 VFSA members during the summer and fall of 2007. Wei and Rayneard used the transcripts to write the text. John Schmor, the head of Oregon’s department of theatre arts and a self-described “Prius-driving Obama sticker guy,” signed on to direct as soon as Wei approached him with the idea. For most of the student-vets, “Telling” would be their first time on stage. To prepare them, Schmor offered a performance class during the fall semester geared especially toward the production.

Two hundred eighty-five people crammed into the Veterans Memorial Building auditorium near the campus on February 7 for opening night of the three-show run. This was 45 more than expected; another 40 had to be turned away. Three hundred attended the second performance, 245 the third. Among them were current military personnel and veterans, young men with close-cropped hair and “old timers,” grizzled and graying; UO students, some even younger; a spattering of university faculty; university, city and state officials, including representatives from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s and Rep. Peter DeFazio’s offices; and townsfolk of all stripes.

“It was a mix of people like I’ve never seen at a production in Eugene,” said Schmor, who has been involved with theater in the city since his time as a graduate student here, in 1988.

I attended the first show. The play’s success stemmed from the connection it created between performer and audience. We, in the audience, sat close to the bare stage and close to one another. “Telling” mixed monologues and blocked scenes that described enlistment and boot camp, deployment, and return to civilian life, giving the student-vets a voice they would not typically otherwise have. The multi-racial cast of 11 included three women and eight men. Nine were former soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, one a recruit, and one a military wife. They played themselves as well as the recruiters, drill sergeants and fellow soldiers that characterized their various experiences in the armed forces.

Watching the student-vets act out their experiences allowed me to reconsider my oftentimes sensational and conflicted impressions of the military. For me, the performance transformed the people on stage from “veterans” to individuals with goals and dreams not so unlike those of nearly every student I teach. They were boyfriends and girlfriends, brothers and sisters, history majors and student-teachers, wanna-be musicians and Peace Corps aspirants. Yet they were also young men and women who have had extraordinary experiences in the name of service, young people whose stories we, as a community, need to hear, no matter how difficult it is to do so.

Watching, I felt energized, edified and also entertained, as the performers were really funny. I, along with those around me, frequently burst into explosive laughter. There were also many audible sighs. When it was done, we all gave the vets a standing ovation.

I wasn’t alone in being moved. Activists from the peace vigil that has held weekly protests outside Eugene’s Federal Building since the Iraq War began attended opening night. Exiting the auditorium, one enthusiastically said to another, “By the end I really came to love them.”

For the VFSA, a significant goal, beyond initiating community dialogue, was outreach -- to make other vets aware of the organization. On that score, the play was also successful, as membership in the organization continues to grow at an unusually high rate, from the original 20 to over 75 since the play’s February run. (The university estimates there to be about 400 veterans on campus, though the actual number is impossible to verify, as only those on the GI Bill have to identify themselves.)

Another goal of the veteran students’ group was to strive for greater exposure, and beyond Eugene, “Telling” has generated immediate buzz. Since the play’s opening, several colleges and universities around the state have contacted the association to have “Telling” performed on their campuses, as have a handful of veterans’ organizations. This has resulted in a scheduled five-venue tour for this coming summer. Likewise, at the Student Veterans of America Conference, hosted by Vetjobs and the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs in Chicago, the VFSA was adopted as a national model for organizations across the country looking into the issue of veterans on campuses.

Wei, who now lives in Austin, Texas, has begun working to make the project formula portable so that student-veteran groups nationwide can adapt “Telling” to their own memberships and communities. The process of interviews/script/performance requires specific local application to be most beneficial. While Eugene’s version might resonate with Austin audiences, for instance, it will only truly do the work of reconnecting vets and communities if a University of Texas version is produced, with UT student-vets speaking to individuals from their own community.

Given the UO success, this is an outcome worth aspiring to.

David Wright
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David Wright, author of Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers (Scribner 2001), teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Valuing Veterans

As American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan continue on unabated, colleges have begun to see greater numbers of veterans flow onto their campuses. And issues of how to accommodate the influx, which is only expected to grow in the years ahead, are climbing the ladder of concerns for college administrators.

As they do so, they should pay special note to the fact that many combat veterans return with mental health needs that can complicate educational achievement. In addition to specific disorders such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, combat veterans experience psychosocial disruption as they rapidly transition from the role from warrior to that of student.

Our work with combat veterans has helped to identify the stresses they experience upon return to college, and to develop a comprehensive yet efficient and quite inexpensive intervention program, called Combat2College, which we’d like to think is replicable on campuses around the country.

The core of C2C, as we call the program, is an ongoing, “seamless” collaboration between a Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center and a community college. C2C provides substantial and comprehensive services to faculty, staff and students, yet remains efficient and simple because it centers on making small adjustments to existing college activities and resources, and works closely with existing VA clinical services.

The goals of Combat2College are many: inclusiveness, removal of stigma, respect and appreciation, coordination with veterans’ resources, building camaraderie, and having a “small footprint” by not disrupting existing college activities nor requiring expensive resources.

C2C is inclusive and serves all veterans, disabled or not. Inclusiveness is crucial because many veterans with post-combat adjustment difficulties will not admit to those problems. This “silent” group poses difficult problems to departments of special services. Standard procedures for such programs begin with the student coming to the departments and identifying themselves as having a problem and needing help. Designing methods to reach and help this large but silent group of veterans has been challenging, and specific methods are described later in this article.

To serve all veterans, we have worked hard to destigmatize the program, in two ways. First, the overwhelming emphasis within Combat2College is on identifying how military experience and training are positive assets that can be channeled toward the formation of attitudes and behaviors to promote success in college. Second, the program does not emphasize post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other disorders experienced by veterans of the ongoing wars. It is realistic and truthful, and notes that these are problems experienced by some veterans, and provides information regarding referral resources and positive coping skills. However, the primary focus is on assisting the veteran to explore and identify the aspects of military training and combat experience that promote personal strength and psychological resilience, and how these can be channeled toward success in college.

It is difficult to quantify the benefit veterans receive from entering a college environment that conveys respect and appreciation, but there can be no question of the immense value of communicating "thank you for your service" and "welcome home." In C2C, these messages are communicated early -- typically before the veteran starts classes -- often, and from multiple sources. Another demonstration of respect derives from the faculty training program described below. Knowing that the college administration has placed high value on the veteran, and that faculty have invested precious training time to learn basic information about the veteran's military and combat experiences, is an indirect but powerful communication that the institution values the veteran.

The removal of stigma must be balanced by the availability of appropriate clinical and psychosocial resources for veterans in need. The stigma associated with these resources can be mitigated by disseminating knowledge of resources to all veterans, not just to those singled out as being in need. In Combat2College, education regarding available resources begins before the veteran starts classes, and, most importantly, does not wait until there is a crisis.

Focus groups with combat veterans who had already enrolled in college revealed a common theme of distress and discomfort until “connecting” with other veterans on campus. Our program, therefore, includes numerous formal and informal ways for veterans to find each other. All are devoid of stigma and integrated within traditional college activities and courses.

The final guiding objective of C2C was to have a "small footprint" on existing college programs and services. In practice, this meant utilizing existing resources, such as courses already within the curriculum, but making small adjustments to enhance their relevance and usefulness to veterans. Faculty training was especially challenging and was addressed by segmenting a day-long training program into short, self-contained modules, such that multiple modules could be combined into a day-long workshop during faculty orientation week, or used singly during a departmental in-service session.

The objectives of Combat2College have been achieved by making small and inexpensive adjustments in many areas of the college, including the Web site, initial admission information packet, faculty training, creation of a Veterans Club within the normal club structure of the college, modest modifications to introductory courses, creation of a multidisciplinary Veterans Committee, and close coordination with the District of Columbia Veterans Administration Medical Center.

A wealth of high quality training material, suitable for both faculty and students, already exists. This material incorporates cutting-edge input from leading scientists, has extremely high production values, and is available at no charge. The training material is freely available on the National Center for PTSD, Brain Injury Association, and Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center Web sites.

The above media can be enriched by discussions such as: 1) the assumptions, belief systems, sensitivities, and political views that can affect student/teacher relationships and the teaching environment for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans; 2) comparisons of present veterans’ return-to-home experiences to prior warrior-to-civilian transitions (e.g. Life magazine photos of ticker-tape parades for returning World War II veterans); 3) the differences between transition from high school to college, versus transition from combat to college; and 4) analysis of factors in the current college environment that might cause difficulty or discomfort to veterans, and exploration of how to mitigate these.

A preponderance of community colleges have courses designed to help students generally make the transition to college, like Montgomery College's DS106 and DS 107. These "how to be successful at college" courses most frequently use one of two texts, Strategies for Creating Success in College and in Life (Downing, 2005) or Your Guide to College Success: Strategies for Achieving Your Goals (Santrock and Halonen, 2007), or a curriculum designed by the professor to cover similar issues and topics.

Careful review of these courses indicated that they could be made "veteran relevant" with only minor adjustments and without interfering with the courses achieving their primary original objectives. These adjustments proved to be nearly identical for both courses and therefore are presented below as general recommendations. The most important adjustments were: 1) adding information about veterans’ resources to the sections describing general college resources for students; 2) in the sections regarding student self-exploration, exploration of how military training and combat experience can contribute positive attitudes and skills to promote success in college; 3) since this curriculum typically includes teaching students about learning disability, adding curriculum regarding post-traumatic stress disorder and combat stress; and 4) in the typical descriptions of the differences between high school and college cultures, adding material regarding the differences between military and college cultures (shouting, curt answers, and scowling may be normative in the military, but alienating and even frightening to civilian college students and faculty).

Using the above and similar procedures to make a college more welcoming and hospitable will produce widespread benefit, but there will remain a portion of veterans who have significant mental health issues. The Returning Veterans Outreach and Education Clinic at Washington's V.A. Medical Center, and similar programs at V.A. polytrauma centers throughout the country, provide services to all returning veterans with any type of mental health issue. Services include outreach, education, assessment, and treatment. A therapist from the D.C. clinic visits Montgomery College regularly and facilitates veterans’ access to the entire range of these benefits and services. Similar close linkages are realistic and feasible between Veterans Affairs programs and colleges.

In summary, C2C demonstrates that it is possible to create a “veteran friendly” college using efficient and inexpensive interventions. The interventions do not disrupt the activities of the college, rely heavily on existing resources, and essentially have a small and non-disruptive footprint. While veterans with mental health problems so severe as to prevent effective college participation without assistance are served, the program addresses and seeks to provide benefit to all veterans, even those who deny or refuse to identify themselves as being in difficulty or needing services.

Lastly, while the program is realistic regarding combat-related psychopathology, it also assists the student to self-explore ways in which military training and combat experience can be a source of strength and can be channeled towards facilitating success.

Rose Sachs and the CTC Team
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Rose Sachs is director of special services at Montgomery College. Other contributors to this essay include Joseph Bleiberg, Gregory Leskin, Stacey Pollack, Mathew Reinhart, Joan Goagh, Larry Miller and Lee Becker.

Going Beyond the GI Bill

On July 1, President Bush signed legislation that will expand the education benefits of the GI Bill for veterans. Reinvigorating the GI Bill to ensure that it will cover the costs of a college education is something we must do -- not only because it is the right thing to do for our veterans, but also because it is the right thing to do for our country.

However, passage of the GI Bill is only part of the solution to the question of how to best serve veterans on our campuses. The higher education community can and must act creatively, comprehensively and responsively to serve those military veterans who come to our campuses. This was the theme of a recent two-day summit, “Serving Those Who Serve: Higher Education and America’s Veterans,” convened by the American Council on Education and hosted by Georgetown University.

For two remarkable days, federal policy makers (including Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii), college and university leaders, members of the military and student veterans engaged in frank discussions about the special needs of veterans attending college.

We learned during these discussions that the challenges are many, but our summit also revealed that a number of colleges and universities are working systemically to meet the comprehensive needs of returning veterans, as also detailed in an article this week on Inside Higher Ed. These initiatives are truly significant, and it is my hope that we can build on them to develop a set of best practices that other institutions can follow.

For example, the University of Arizona has implemented the Veterans’ Education and Transition Services program, a comprehensive array of services that seeks to engage all facets of the community -- on campus and beyond -- in easing the transition from soldier to student. The university has brought together a wide array of campus offices with off-campus partners, including the U.S. Veterans Administration, the American Legion and Vets4Vets, and has formed alliances with other institutions including Pima Community College, Cleveland State University and Cochise College.

Seeking to capitalize on the high rate of success for veteran-owned businesses, the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University has launched the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV). This innovative program provides free training in entrepreneurship to disabled veterans through online and residential coursework and long-term mentoring.

Out of the first class of 20 students, 16 remain actively engaged with the EBV program. Six new businesses have been created, three Small Business Administration loans are pending, one student has been accepted to Syracuse’s law school, and many who do not hold degrees have enrolled in college. Syracuse has moved to replicate the program by forming the EBV Consortium of Schools with UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, and the College of Business at Florida State University.

The University of Idaho combines financial, academic and social support in Operation Education, a scholarship program available to disabled veterans and their spouses. Students benefit from classroom accommodations and tutoring services, housing assistance and family counseling, and up to $8,000 per year in scholarship funds. The university offers its business plan and advice, free of charge, to other institutions that wish to establish Operation Education on their campuses.

Such institutions are in the vanguard of those seeking to provide service to our returning veterans. What we need now is state, regional and national leadership from college and university presidents and policy makers that will exhort campuses and systems to think beyond the Veterans Office to create a holistic approach to serving those who so readily answered the call to serve us. This week’s announcement by Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland of the Ohio GI Promise is precisely the kind of initiative that will make a real difference in the success of returning student veterans and their families.

We need to recognize student veterans as a group that merits special consideration across the board. (See related essay for more on this theme.) This means thoughtful inclusion in enrollment activities and creating veterans support teams that are trained to help student veterans with the challenges they face and that can bring to bear resources from a diverse set of offices, including admission and financial assistance, academic and career counseling, veterans resources, housing and disabled student services. It means active support of campus-based student veteran organizations and deferred payment options for students eligible for VA benefits.

This is the work we must do as members of the higher education community. After World War II, the GI Bill helped our nation harness the talents, abilities, leadership skills and experiences of more than 2 million young men -- men who came home to a struggling economy that couldn’t offer them jobs or financial security. In the decade or so after the end of hostilities, the GI Bill was at least in part responsible for the education of 450,000 engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, as well as for the college education of at least a million other individuals. These veterans returned home to transform the American economy, making it the strongest the world has ever known.

The young men and women leaving our nation’s service today have similar talents, abilities, leadership skills and experiences -- and our nation is facing similar economic challenges. As we welcome an influx of returning soldiers who are eager to take advantage of expanded education benefits for themselves and their families, we must remember that simply getting veterans to campus isn’t enough. We must welcome them, advise them, and assist them in a variety of ways as we undertake the opportunity to educate them. We owe it to our country, and we owe it to the men and women who have endured sacrifices for our sake. The values that form the foundation of American institutions of higher education demand that we step up to this duty, fulfilling our mission and serving our nation.

Molly Corbett Broad
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Molly Corbett Broad is the president of the American Council on Education, the major coordinating body for the nation's higher education institutions. Previously she was president of the University of North Carolina

The Veterans Are Coming! The Veterans Are Coming!

We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,

But single men in barracks, most remarkable like you.

--“Tommy,” Rudyard Kipling, 1892

Picture it: Marine Corps boot camp, Parris Island, summer, circa 1965.

Five weeks into the program, two Marine recruits find themselves on mess duty, assigned to the pot shack, a small detached building out behind the mess hall proper. For the first time since arriving on the island, these two are out from under the watchful eyes of drill instructors and able to talk freely to one another. Up until then, a strict code of silence had been enforced, with recruits allowed to speak only to their drill instructors, and even then, only when spoken to.

As they dutifully scrub a never-ending series of pots large enough to cook missionaries in, they take advantage of their new-found freedom to compare notes about how they are enjoying their stay in this semi-tropical paradise.

“I’m glad I’m going to be out of here next week!” one of the recruits remarks, his voice echoing out from the bottom of the pot he was leaning into.

“Whadaya mean?” the other asks, reminding his comrade in suds that they had three weeks to go until graduation.

“I know, but I’m only 16, and I turned myself in last week. “ [The minimum enlistment age has always been 17, with a parent’s consent; 18-year-olds can enlist with or without a parent’s blessing.]

“They said they’d have me out within a couple weeks,” he adds, “in time to begin my senior year back at my old high school.” “I got in so much trouble and was generally such a pain in the ass,” he explains, “that my mother finally offered to lie about my age and sign the papers if I would go in the service. “So that’s what I did.”

“You know,” he admits, “I used to think school was the worst thing that ever happened to me. But when I get back in that classroom, they’re going to have to beat me out with a stick!”

I was the other recruit, the one who was of age and who had no Get-Out-of-Parris-Island-Free card. I’ve often wished I had made a note of that underage recruit’s name and hometown. He was almost a high school drop-out, and I would bet that he went on to become a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or some other sort of professional.

I too would emerge from the Marine Corps reborn as a serious student, but my road to Damascus lasted about four years and included a side trip to Vietnam. As one who has spent a good bit of his subsequent life in academic circles, I have often wished that we could treat many of today’s high-school juniors to summer camp at Parris Island. If nothing else, these campers would certainly come back with the material for wondrous essays on how they spent their summer vacations. But, like my young friend in the pot shack, many would come back with a new-found appreciation for the opportunity to get an education.

Would that it were possible! But the good news is that today’s colleges and universities are soon to enjoy a great influx of academically born-again, highly motivated students. War, as I can personally attest, has a way of reordering ones priorities and values, and today’s veterans will soon have access to the best education benefits available since the World War II GI Bill. This new GI Bill, in fact, is even more generous than its “Good War” predecessor. Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as any veteran who just manages to get discharged honorably, will not only get tuition, fees, books, and a living allowance. They will also be able to transfer their educational benefits to their spouses or children. Either way, we in academe stand to gain. The question is, are we really ready to welcome today’s veterans into our midst?

We do, in fact, have an unfortunate history to overcome. Not everyone in America’s ivory towers was eager to roll out the red carpet for that first wave of government subsidized veterans. The prevailing fear was that the democratization of higher education would inevitably result in the debasement of higher education. Academic standards have indeed slipped since World War II but for a whole host of cultural and societal reasons and not simply as a result of our efforts to accommodate returning GI's.

By the time I started college in the late ‘60s, the snobbery of the late ‘40s seemed to have been largely forgotten, but some older professors still seemed to feel the need to apologize for their predecessors. My own adviser, for instance, upon learning that I had been in Vietnam, hastened to assure me that he had been very much in favor of welcoming veterans to campus and that he felt we had “a lot to contribute.” His reassurance seemed gratuitous at the time. Vietnam veterans were facing a very different sort of suspicion. We were being repeatedly portrayed in the media as psychologically maimed and socially debilitated and, therefore, potentially dangerous. I cannot say that I directly and knowingly suffered from this stigma, but then again, I stopped volunteering the information that I had been in Vietnam.

Of course, popular support for the military is much stronger now than it was then, and today’s veterans need not fear being viewed as objects of suspicion on campus. Or do they?

I have been concerned recently in finding promotional literature on upcoming symposia that seem to link the need for “Threat Assessment” or “Behavior Intervention” teams with “serving” or “integrating” returning veterans. What next?

Should we expect to hear administrators sounding the alarm? “The veterans are coming, the veterans are coming! Lock up the women and the livestock!” Frankly, I worry that this is how certain right-wing critics of academe are going to interpret the linkage of threat assessment and veterans.

In all fairness, I have no doubt that these symposia are worthwhile, and I will take it on faith that the organizers are not viewing a potential influx of veterans as a threat to campus safety and simply want to be prepared to offer non-academic psychological counseling to any veteran who may need and want it. Most faculty and administrators, I would hope, realize that, of all the horrific campus shootings we have heard about in recent years, not one of the perpetrators was a military veteran.

This is not to dispute the need itself. In light of recent events, any campus that does not have an appropriately qualified team poised to intervene in cases of troubling or threatening behavior is putting itself at great risk. But to connect this need to the anticipated influx of veterans could prove to be a public relations nightmare and could actually provoke some of the very behavior we seek to avoid. One of the paradoxes of military history is that countries that have prepared for war have generally gotten it. Individual human nature can be equally paradoxical. People who are unjustly treated as objects of suspicion, out of anger and resentment, sometimes act out in ways that justify that suspicion. But that is the worst case scenario. Rambo was only a figment of novelist David Morrell’s imagination. The great majority of veteran students who feel mistrusted and misjudged will not act our violently; they will simply drop out.

This is likewise not to deny that many of today’s combat veterans suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or that campuses should not make counseling and other support services available to them. I can personally attest that a little combat goes a long way. But, again, the great majority of PTSD sufferers are not disruptive or violent and should not be viewed as such until or unless they provide reasonable cause. As for offering counseling, the advice of many a wise piano teacher regarding when to start children on lessons would seem to apply here as well: “when they ask for them.”

How then should we view and treat today’s returning veterans? A little sensitivity training may be in order. I am not a psychologist or a counselor myself, but as a veteran, I think I can I can offer five pieces of common sense advice that would go a long way toward striking the right tone as a veteran-friendly school.

First, treat veterans as you would any other student. Do not single them out for special attention. Individualized mailings or special meetings to explain the V.A.’s policies and the school’s certification requirements may be in order, but guard against any suggestion that veterans will need any more special attention than any of today’s students who may or may not be academically or culturally prepared for college. Remember that the average veteran has proven his or her ability to adapt to strange surroundings and to navigate his or her way through a more complicated bureaucracy than the average academic could endure.

Second, do not thank veterans you don’t know for their service. Most people who have served had mixed motives for enlisting in the first place and complicated feelings about the experience of having served, especially in combat. If my own post-Vietnam experience is any indication -- and I think it is -- it takes many veterans a long time to sort out how they feel about what they’ve been through and whether it was worthwhile -- especially if the country remains divided about whether the cause was noble and the war necessary. To thank a veteran you don’t know for his or her service is to put that veteran on the spot. It assumes an ideological and political kinship that may or may not exist. I know it makes me uncomfortable. Keep in mind as well that some will doubt your sincerity, wondering if what you’re really saying is, “I’m glad you went so that I [or my son or daughter] didn’t have to go.” Wait until you know a veteran well -- including how he or she really feels about having served -- before deciding to offer your thanks.

Third, do not shy away from any political or social issues appropriate to your class. While they may have conformed to military discipline long enough and well enough to earn honorable discharges, veterans are not monolithic in their attitudes, ideals, and values. Expect them to be just as open-minded and diverse in their opinions and viewpoints as any other group of today’s students. Conversely, expect them to resent unfounded assumptions about their politics and personal beliefs.

By the same token, if you have never been in the military, do not assume that you really know what it is like and what it is all about. Even more important, reserve judgment about whether academe really is the superior institution. Having been both a military officer and an academic, I have learned two things: First, academics are no more open-minded than anyone else; they are just better at articulating and defending their prejudices. Second, I have known Marine colonels who are more collegial and collaborative than commanding, and I have known college presidents who are more commanding than collegial and collaborative. Do not approach today’s veterans as “people who were lost and now are found.”

Fourth, when it comes to what they did in the war, don’t ask; wait for them to decide if and when they want to tell. The experience of combat is largely ineffable. It cannot be adequately expressed or shared with people who have not experienced it, and most who have are conflicted about it. If they do choose to share, do not judge. Remember that those who have not been there do not share the same frame of reference. Hemingway had a phrase for it: “a way you’ll never be.” Remember as well that a pretentious moral empathy can be just as infuriating as an uninformed disapproval. In general, veterans prefer to let other veterans do the listening. They know they’ll understand.

Finally, expect veterans to do well. Just as the expectation that someone will behave badly can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, greeting someone with the expectation that he or she will excel can achieve the desired result. That same undergraduate adviser who puzzled me with his patronizing comment about supporting the first G.I. Bill more than redeemed himself later by soliciting my comments in class when we were discussing a story set in a World War II training camp, Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith.” I was able to clarify some of the military practices and customs on which the story turns, and my professor stoked my self-confidence by telling the class that “he speaks from an interesting perspective; he was in the military himself.”

Such made-to-order opportunities to bring a particular student in, admittedly, do not come along every day. And, with older students in general, instructors always need to guard against appearing to be patronizing or condescending. But, in general, we should expect veterans to be as highly motivated and appreciative of getting a second chance at an education as was that underage Marine back in the pot shack.

Edward F. Palm
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Edward F. Palm, a Vietnam veteran and a retired Marine officer, is dean of social sciences and humanities at Olympic College, in Bremerton, Washington.

The Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum Est

Cane. Short haircut. Young. Here in a community college, that means “Veteran. Wounded.” I always introduce myself to see what help they need at school. Or perhaps what help I need, because I am so ashamed of what I, the people, have put these veterans through with little result or purpose.

One cane I’ll call Tony I’ve lost altogether. He wasn’t thirty years old. An improvised explosive devise, an IED, in Iraq had caused his wounds, he told me. Brain trauma, which showed in his speech and thinking. The limp was because the IED had broken his neck. In the fog of war, no one had discovered the fracture until he was in a hospital in Germany. Just the effort of walking left him sweating in the lobby. He had his veterans benefits paperwork. A colleague and I made sure he had what he needed and knew the right lines to register. I looked two days later. Tony wasn’t registered. I telephoned. He’d been mugged on the subway. I talked with his father. I offered to drive over and pick Tony up. We couldn’t get Tony back to school. He only wanted to go to community college for job training. Another cane is still in school.

For the sake of these canes, and the coffins, too, how about an assignment for us all this week? Let’s distribute at every meeting and every class we attend this week copies of Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est.” (Click to download, or see below.) Ask two questions. Did Owen write this to train English majors? How can we prevent these scenes from ever happening again?

What is war but the petulant refusal to solve a problem by other means? Who’s accountable for a citizenry able to solve impossible problems? Colleges and universities? My teaching self keeps asking. Any gathering of one or more U.S. academic leaders is quick to proclaim that the U.S. has the finest higher education system in the world. Are we failing in classrooms if our graduates create a world of so many canes and coffins?

Fine to stop here if you’ll agree to read and assign to every student and friend in sight either Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming or Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, both by Jonathan Shay. A MacArthur Prize winner, Shay is a psychiatrist who works with combat veterans. My clumsy paraphrase of Shay’s argument: Combat is exponentially worse than anyone who hasn’t been there can imagine. We’d have to be crazy to think a society can train and send young people to kill and then expect those same young people to return to civilian life and live happily ever after.

With a trivial yet-4F childhood injury in my already charmed life, I absolved myself of any thought of war or military service when my turn came, in Vietnam. Through circumstance in recent years, I’ve met these Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in my classes and my office every day. Three friends have been at war. Two in Iraq. One in Afghanistan. I just never knew if the three would reply to the next e-mail. Those were friends. I cannot imagine what a family endures.

What little I really know of war I’ve learned over the past three years. Each semester, I’ve had at least one Iraq or Afghanistan veteran in a class or looking for help to apply to a four-year college. I wish, I wish Tony’s story were the exception. Twice I’ve been to events where the Kennedy School and Harvard Business School honor students who are veterans or in uniform. Sitting with these students, twice, I could only wonder why we, the people, were sending these thoughtful, intelligent and dedicated human beings to war. Ever. As a group, these were finer people than I’ve ever encountered in any job I’ve ever had. I can’t imagine any of them making the mistakes that are routine on Wall Street.

I’ve tried asking veterans if they feel that we, the people, truly understand our role in sending troops to war. The soldiers are not the ones to ask. They went because, in the U.S. system of government, we sent them through our representatives in Congress. Those against a war are as responsible as those in favor.

I turned instead to two friends in higher education, Jim Wright, a Marine who just retired as president of Dartmouth, and Linda Bilmes, a Kennedy School professor who is co-author of The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict. Wright and James Selbe of the American Council on Education have for years been visiting military hospitals, to help wounded troops go on to college.

“We need to recognize the full costs of war when we agree to take on a war. And caring for the men and women who have served is a part of the cost,” Wright said. He was back from his 19th visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “This is our legacy and our responsibility.”

The Devil's Workshop
Highly Selective
Veterans Day Survey

Institution Current Undergraduate Veteran Enrollment
Yale 0
Princeton 0
Williams 0
Harvard 4
Dartmouth 16
Stanford 30
Bunker Hill
Community College

(c)Inside Higher Ed

Bilmes focused on where colleges and universities may have succeeded in research but failed in education, in teaching future leaders to analyze and to think through a problem. “Before the Iraq war we were told that it could cost $60 billion. The economics adviser, Lawrence Lindsay, was fired for suggesting that the cost could be as high as $200 billion,” Bilmes said. “We now know the war has already cost us $1 trillion and the long-term costs -- once you take veterans health care and disability compensation and economic costs into account -- will exceed $3 trillion. Why wasn't there any discussion of this beforehand?” As reported here in 2007, Bilmes herself suffered for trying to discuss the true costs ahead.

Back to Owen and the “blood shod,” the lame and the blind, “Drunk with fatigue” and the “the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.” The traditional press may agonize over publishing images of the dead and wounded we, the people, sent to war. The Web is ahead of traditional media. In Google Images search “Iraq, wounded” to see the people Wright and Selbe champion. Wilfred Owen would recognize the scenes.

Even with the generous new (It’s about time) G.I. Bill, veterans struggle. I know the enlisted men and women, not the officers from the Kennedy School and HBS, whose readjustment is difficult enough. I wrote here about a former sniper, struggling to stay in school. He is okay for now. Barely. Enrollment in a third-tier state university by a veteran with Ivy League ability is survival, not victory.

IHE has also written about John Around Him, an Oglala Sioux who drove a tank in the Iraq war. John is beginning his second year at Dartmouth. With what I know now about enlisted veterans and the obstacles they face, a miracle is the only explanation I have for John’s success.

Another, wounded in Iraq but no cane, has vanished. He writes better than I do. Juggling school and family and work and slim finances was too much. Something always disrupted our agreement to visit the (heroic) Boston Veterans Center Friday afternoons. Part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Vet Centers, championed by Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury, focus on combat veterans. (See Trudeau’s citations here.) Remember that most enlisted men and women started out in poverty and then return, carrying the trauma of war, to that same struggle. Poverty is difficult enough without PTSD.

Let’s hand out Owen’s poem this week and see what we can discover.


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime ...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wick Sloane
Author's email:

Wick Sloane writes The Devil’s Workshop for Inside Higher Ed. He teaches at Bunker Hill Community College and is the author of “Common Sense,” a pamphlet asking if the bachelor’s degree is obsolete. Download the pamphlet free here.

The Story of an Essay

War is with us in community college. Students from Eritrea. Ethiopia. Lebanon. The Sudan. Somalia. The drug wars in Colombia. The Congo. Afghanistan. Iraq. Bunker Hill Community College this semester had 388 U.S. military veterans. The unofficial counts I’ve seen make that the most of any institution in Massachusetts – including the universities and all their graduate schools. BHCC Veterans of all Nations is the name of the student organization. All who have lived through war may join, and members include students from every African conflict, all sides in the Middle East and the Colombian drug wars.

One afternoon in March, I was visiting a seminar pulled together this semester to address the many needs of these men and women. That afternoon, we were taking an inventory of what was missing so far in the college’s offerings for them, services and courses. Algebra review. More about transferring to four-year colleges. More help with Veterans Affairs’ red tape. Careers beyond law enforcement and corrections.

"Do you think Tim O’Brien would come visit?” one student asked. The class had read a few chapters from The Things They Carried, by the Vietnam veteran/author.

I’d try, I said. This was on a Wednesday. I explained that such authors usually had complex schedules. A visit probably couldn’t happen this semester. Then, at home that evening, my e-mail inbox had an announcement from the Harvard Book Store. Tim O’Brien was coming in three weeks on the 20th anniversary tour of The Things They Carried. I set off smiling, dialing, Googling, e-mailing. By Sunday, O’Brien had agreed, gladly, to visit the BHCC veterans while in town.


The Devil's Workshop
Highly Selective
Veterans' Day Survey

Institution Current Undergraduate Veteran Enrollment
Yale 0
Princeton 0
Williams 0
Mount Holyoke 3
Smith 3
Harvard 4
Dartmouth 16
Stanford 30
Bunker Hill Community College 388

With 388 veterans eager to see an author of so many books revered by faculty and students anyway, the scene at the reading was a mob. I heard that a Vietnamese student had spoken with O'Brien afterward and that she and O'Brien had ended up embracing, both in tears. I tracked down the student. She didn't have enough money to buy one of O'Brien's books, I learned. Tim O'Brien sent a copy, signed to her.

In the meantime, Mount Holyoke College put this student on the waiting list. I suggested that she write up her experience with O'Brien and that we send that to Mount Holyoke, to keep the persistence on. Mount Holyoke did accept the student. Her essay is below (reprinted with her permission). All I'll say as a teaser is that her grandfather, who recently died, was a Viet Cong general.


Reflection by Tam Nguyen May 10, 2010

The author Tim O’Brien came to Bunker Hill on March 25th for an event hosted by the Veterans Club. The event drew so many people that the A Lounge, where it took place, became overcrowded. People were standing wherever they could find a spot -- at tables, near the podium, and they even filled the hallway leading to the lounge. Despite the mass of people, the audience was silent. As I came into the room, I was drawn into an invisible circle that trapped me, and the force drawing the audience and me in was Tim O’Brien. He was casually dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and his favorite baseball cap. He spoke slowly without too much volume. Every word he uttered was clear, concise, factual, and devoid of excess emotion. Each word, however, trapped the audience in an emotion, and besides me, I saw a few others shedding tears from his presentation.

I joined the audience in the middle of the event, after finishing up at work. When I came, O’Brien was discussing “The Man I Killed,” one of the most famous stories in his novel The Things They Carried. “The Man I Killed” describes O’Brien’s reaction when he looked at the dead body of an enemy he just killed. O’Brien looked at the man’s wounds and imagined different stories about him. He was a young boy with a typical life who wished every day that the Americans would leave, so he would not have to join the war. The story, at every moment it was discussed, evoked many personal feelings and memories from me.

It’s commonly said that war distorts all the values of humanity. War only allows action, which is that a man kills another man, so he will not be killed himself. But, to learn this deconstruction of humanity from a soldier who was put in a situation where it was either kill or be killed, brings the cruelty of war to a new dimension. This extreme situation pushes a human into a dead-end; it traps him or her in a corner where the only choice is either to give up on conscience, or to die. How come this type of situation dominates war, when people all across the world are taught not to kill? We understand that when a soldier kills another human, he has a good reason to do so: he is trying to protect himself and survive.

However, war causes combatants to lose sight of the value of humanity. The act of killing another human crosses a line which devalues the life of another human being. Once the line is crossed, what the soldiers see and feel becomes the hidden part of war that only a soldier, not an outsider, can tell. And I think the most of this hidden part has been covered in the darkness of war trauma, which Vietnamese and American soldiers all experienced. At least, that is what I found out from my family members and friends.

My family has many members who were devoted to the war. They fought and killed to survive and contribute to a Vietnamese victory. They were honored and received many medals and rewards which they should be proud of. Yet, besides their accomplishments, I have never heard a specific war story vividly describing a battle.

For example, my uncle often used words like “we fought,” “we won,” and “we lost.” He never told stories about what actually happened: who he met, how he fought, or what he thought about the war. In fact, my uncle and the millions of participants, real people, are hidden behind characters. There is a key emotion that is always missing from history texts, novels, and movies, seemingly because no one really knows the truth or they just never tell. I wanted to get the answer from my uncle, but he usually stayed quiet and immersed himself in deep thought whenever I asked him about the battles he participated in. He would never tell me anything, and I could feel that the war created a secret circle around him which would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Another person that the war will bother for eternity is my friend Arthur. He is an American Vietnam veteran, who is devoted to obtaining an education and helping his fellow veterans. After leaving the war, he suffered for many years. In spite of the trauma plaguing Arthur, he fights the pain with optimism, which has gotten him through all his days.

One day, I asked him about his time in Vietnam. He smiled and joked about the “lousy” food he ate and the deep forests he had been through. But just like my uncle, he would not talk about the enemies he faced and how he fought. Again, the war remains hidden! How amazing it is that two individuals from two opposite cultures, who fought on opposing sides in a horrible war, share the same feelings?

Throughout the event, these experiences and connections were running through my head, and the stories were capturing me in the invisible circle. I wondered why, when Tim O’Brien was speaking about his own experiences, I couldn’t get away from the similarities to my own experiences. The presentation came to an end, and I decided to stay afterward. I joined the line, which was meant for Tim O’Brien to sign his books, even though I didn’t have one of his books and couldn’t buy one, either. I just thought that I had to talk to him.

While I was waiting in line, memories again encircled me, and many thoughts came into my mind. I kept thinking about my grandfather who passed away. He was a General in the American War, and if all the soldiers I know keep the war hidden, my grandfather -- who had more war stories than anyone in my family -- also had more secrets as well. Then my mind wandered to my high school literature teacher who lost her whole family in the war, and was disabled by a bomb in 1972. I also recalled a taxi driver whom I met last year, who was laughing when he told me that the Vietnam War cost him his two brothers. And right before I got to Tim O’Brien, I thought about my friend Arthur, who came back with a hidden part of his life which he barely shares with others. I wanted to tell Tim O’Brien all I knew and to express to him all my emotions. But, once I came up to him all I could say was my name and that with all that I have heard, we, both Vietnamese and Americans, share the same feelings. The moment was unforgettable. We hugged each other, and just like the shared emotions, we both cried.

I was drawn to Tim O’Brien by an invisible circle of war experiences and memories, probably because I somehow felt its existence by my own experiences and memories. He was the first one to open up and share such intensive stories of the war, and gave me the emotions that I have been searching for. I cried and cried as I felt connected to O’Brien and the soldiers on both sides. But above all, it was the greater understanding of my uncle, my grandfather and Arthur that I appreciated the most. We know that nothing can be changed about the war. Time can never be turned back. There are wounds to be healed and others that won’t disappear. However, we move on and find peace of mind by knowing that we at least share the same feelings with someone, somewhere.

Wick Sloane
Author's email:

Reaching Veterans

This fall, colleges and universities will welcome an increasing number of veterans to campus, thanks in part to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Among other provisions, the bill created the Yellow Ribbon Program, which provides dollar-for-dollar matching funds to private institutions offering tuition scholarships to veterans who have served at least 36 months of active duty since September 10, 2001. To date, the benefits have supported more than 300,000 veterans with more than $2 billion in funding, and some 1,100 colleges and universities have elected to participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program.

Why participate? There are many reasons, but here are two that were at the forefront of our thinking at George Washington University when we were in the first wave of institutions to sign up for the Yellow Ribbon Program. First and most obvious, all American institutions have a responsibility to ensure that those who have risked all for the common good have an opportunity to develop their talents and contribute to civilian life at the highest levels they can attain. What may be less fully appreciated is the degree to which veterans carry with them skills and experiences, as well as a level of maturity and a clarity of purpose, that can immeasurably enrich our campuses and the communities around them.

We at George Washington are not alone in counting veterans among our most distinguished alumni. Colleges and universities all stand to benefit from the presence on their campuses of individuals with a proven capacity to lead and inspire others, sometimes in situations of extreme complexity and dire emergency. For that reason, the influx of active-duty veterans made possible by the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides an opportunity unprecedented in recent decades.

But then the question arises: how does a college or university manage that influx – and not just accommodate it, but do so in a way that will bring the greatest benefits to the veterans and the institution alike? At George Washington, we have had to answer those questions in real time. We supported 161 veterans under the Yellow Ribbon Program this past academic year and anticipate supporting more than 230 in 2010-11. In the process, we have discovered that integrating student veterans successfully into college life requires a good deal more than tuition assistance. Here is some of what we have learned, to a large extent by listening carefully to veterans themselves:

First, admissions. A crucial starting point is the recognition that most veterans apply while still on active duty, which means that, among other challenges, they are subject to deployment and other kinds of relocation during the application process and the period between applying and matriculating. The first requirement of a serious approach to recruiting veterans, consequently, is to make sure that a member of the admissions staff, preferably with military experience, is dedicated to this effort and can help these applicants negotiate the challenges as they arise. For example, dedicated admissions staff can translate military jargon, calculate credit hours from military training that can transfer to a student veteran’s degree program, and help complete the application process if a prospective student veteran is stationed abroad.

Nor do the challenges cease with matriculation. Most veterans arrive nowadays with credits from courses they have taken online while still in the services; as a result, many arrive not as freshmen but as sophomores or juniors. But, unlike students who have transferred from other residential colleges or universities, many lack the familiarity with collegiate life that traditional transfer students are expected to have. Even those who enroll as freshmen bring with them a different frame of reference from that of their younger peers, most of whom come straight from high school. Hence the value of a special orientation program that addresses veterans’ particular transitional needs, such as financial guidance and counseling and disability services.

The structure of their benefits under the new GI Bill, generous as those are, further complicates the transition of veterans from military service to college. They frequently have to work through complex eligibility requirements, and, because of a lag between when their bills come due and when they receive their benefits, they may need bridge funding to cover housing and other expenses at the start of their college experience.

Guided, once again, by advice from student veterans themselves, we have developed a number of dedicated resources to meet their needs. Driving our efforts is a campuswide advisory committee, which includes an elected student veteran representative and ensures that administrators across the university are aware of what is happening in the veteran community, that these students’ needs are addressed, and that efforts are not duplicated. We have created the GW Student Veteran Services Office, led by a full-time coordinator who, among other roles, helps student veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder receive the assistance they need to minimize the impact of those conditions on their studies. And we have established a veteran services website that provides benefits checklists, news updates, and lists of relevant resources.

But there is another dimension to the presence of veterans on campus. In addition to their unique skills and life experiences, many veterans bring with them a strong desire to “continue the mission” by engaging in various forms of public service, including outreach to fellow veterans both within and beyond the walls of their college or university. At George Washington, veterans have created their own student organization; GW Vets not only organizes community service activities but engages in advocacy on behalf of veterans both locally and nationally. In fact, it was thanks to the advocacy of GW Vets that we joined the Yellow Ribbon program as strongly and early as we did. This September 11, student veterans will play a key role in our Freshman Day of Service, leading non-veteran students in the renovation of a veterans' retirement home. That is just one example of the many opportunities traditional students will have this academic year to learn from their veteran peers.

One of the best ways, in short, in which an institution can help integrate veterans into campus life is by supporting their aspirations to serve and lead, drawing on them for the best advice on how to do so.

Steven Knapp
Author's email:

Steven Knapp is president of George Washington University.

Mississippi State Wants Them

Smart Title: 
University creates new center to attract veterans as students -- and plans to travel the world to recruit them.


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