Valuing Veterans

As campuses begin to experience an influx of former military service members, an innovative program offers a blueprint for helping them make the transition and succeed in college, writes Rose Sachs.
June 12, 2008

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 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.


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