On the day his high school classmates in Pensacola, Florida, donned caps and gowns to pick up their diplomas back in 2000, Gerald Sanders was already a week into Air Force basic training—learning the rules of the military justice code and marching to drills barked out by a tough sergeant. He went on to serve in the Iraq war and ran electronic warfare jamming systems to protect pilots, but he was forced to end his military career in 2006 when he developed iritis, a painful inflammation of the iris that can cause blindness. After he was discharged from Hill Air Force Base, he worked for a few years before enrolling at the University of Utah. Now 30, he is a business management major on track to graduate this summer. But his first years on campus were a blur of heavy course loads and limited interaction with other students, he says. Like many veterans, he learned quickly that talking about one’s military service can have a downside, even in conservative and patriotic Utah.
“People automatically think you’re a pillager, or a baby killer, or that every single war veteran has post-traumatic stress disorder,” he says, shaking his head. “We have veterans who don’t want to claim themselves as veterans because they don’t want to get asked the stigmatic question: How many people did you kill?”
Experiences like his are becoming more common on college campuses nationwide. With wars in Iraq and Afghanistan coming to an end, many of the United States’ 2 million service men and women are enrolling in college. Over the past three years, more than 870,000 student veterans have tapped their Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits for school, according to the federal Veterans Administration. It’s said to be the largest influx of student veterans into higher education since World War II.
As of fall 2012, the University of Utah had identified 889 student veterans on campus, including 213 women. The group makes up about 3 percent of the University’s overall population and has been steadily growing. The U’s student veteran population has nearly doubled since 2007, when 459 vets were enrolled.
The University also has more student veterans than any other school statewide. Salt Lake Community College is a close second with 850, followed by Brigham Young University with 700, Weber State University with 650, Utah Valley University with 520, and Utah State University with 430.
Campus life has gotten a little easier for student veterans at the University of Utah since May 2011, when the U opened its Veterans Support Center. The center offers vets and active duty service men and women a place to connect with each other and a resource for navigating through the college experience.
Tucked away in a corner on the first floor of the Olpin Student Union Building, the center buzzes with students going in and out throughout the day to use computers, pick up information about coming events, or just grab a free cup of coffee and talk with staff or other vets. “The goal is to help veterans transition from a military environment to an academic environment—get in, graduate, get out, and go on to successful lives,” center director Roger Perkins says. “That means tutoring, accessing the GI Bill, counseling. One woman needed a babysitter. It means doing whatever it takes, because each veteran has a different set of circumstances.”
“We’ve got a guy, 62, who served in Vietnam, a 49-year-old with a 20-year Marine career, a 17-year-old, and everything in between,” says Perkins, a Vietnam-era vet who served 21 years in the Army and retired following Desert Storm. “They’ve got some college, no college, some were in school 20 years ago, some three or four years ago, and it’s difficult to get back into the swing of things sometimes. We give them a place to come and talk about that.”
Hitting the books after the battlefield presents a number of challenges, Perkins says. Veterans tend to be older than traditional students. Their life experience is more varied. They may have added responsibilities such as families to support, or ongoing military duties if they are now serving in the reserves. Many student veterans are also facing an education gap. Some may have gone from high school straight into the military, and it may have been five or more years since they sat in a classroom. And for those who have been to battle, there may also be some residual emotional issues to manage, including PTSD.
At the same time, veterans returning to school have already trained for and worked in skilled jobs, Perkins says. Most have developed strong work ethics. They know how to establish priorities, make decisions, and complete tasks. Those qualities can be assets, but sometimes also bring frustrations in the college setting, he says.
“I don’t know of any other job [like those in the military] where a guy 26, 27, 28 years old with a high school diploma and maybe a little college is going to be responsible for $4.6 million in capital equipment and seven people,” says Perkins. “Then you get out of the military and you come to college, and they treat you like a freshman. That’s a source of frustration.”
David Rudd, a former dean of the U’s College of Social and Behavioral Science and a psychologist whose research includes veterans issues, says societal systems, whether on a college campus or in professional employment communities, don’t give veterans credit for their work experience and training. A combat medic in Afghanistan or Iraq comes home from war having treated the wounded in a combat zone, for example, but can’t automatically qualify as an emergency medical technician in civilian life.
“You start back at the end of the line in terms of working your way back up,” says Rudd, who founded the National Center for Veterans Studies at the U and now is provost at the University of Memphis. “They have to repeat all of that education experience and then get supervisory experience. Those are the kinds of things that not a lot of people think about.”
Another problem is that the most common public narratives focus on veterans who are in crisis. It’s a story line that’s only true for a quarter or less of the veteran population, Rudd says. The majority, 75 to 80 percent, return from war with no mental health problems. And while combat veterans statistically will show a higher rate of PTSD than other military vets, studies have shown that among student veterans the percentages are not disproportionate to the rate of emotional struggles in the wider student population. On average, Rudd says, 20 to 25 percent of vets struggle with emotional issues secondary to combat. The same percentages of students have issues that are developmentally based on the transitioning to independence and being adults. “It’s just a different kind of struggle,” and not one that is widely known, he says.
Rudd believes that because the United States has an all-volunteer military, some veterans may suffer under the preconceived notions the public may have about what type of person even joins the military. Young college students who have not been in the military may have some stereotypical ideas about what it means to be a veteran and about what it means to be in combat, what it means to be deployed and to be in wartime and to have military experience. “So there’s really a chasm between how most people think about military service and what military service is really like,” he says.
Veteran Mary Huggins, 26, knows firsthand about those stigmas and says some of the issues differ for women. Huggins says when people find out she has been in the Air Force, they assume she has PTSD. She doesn’t. “I think that there’s a perception that everyone in the military is damaged goods,” says Huggins, who was a radio communications specialist and is working on a degree in communications. “We’re not. One thing I’ve heard in the classroom is that everybody expects that one day some vet is going to go postal and shoot everybody up.”
Both she and Sanders say most civilian students also think everyone who serves is in the Army and that the folks with the boots on the ground are also responsible for U.S. policies that involved the country in war. “They don’t realize that soldiers and sailors and airmen don’t make those policies,” says Huggins, who works at the Veterans Support Center.
Sometimes, it’s hard to hold your tongue, says Michael Cumming. The 31-year-old served 10 years on active duty, including three as a Marine and seven in the Army, achieving the rank of staff sergeant in an infantry unit on the front lines in Iraq. Now in the Army Reserves, the Seattle native is working on a degree in adventure and outdoor programs and frequently uses center services, including counseling for PTSD.
In one classroom, when the discussion turned to an incident involving Marines accused of urinating on the dead bodies of their enemies, Cumming says he blew his stack.
“I just had to stand up, and went off about what you have to do in war in order to be able to do the job. You have to dehumanize the enemy,” says Cumming, who served three tours and lost 17 of his friends. “I think people were pretty mortified, but I said what I had to say.”
Despite (and perhaps because of) moments like that one, Rudd says student veterans are an educational asset in the classroom. Vets bring a different set of experiences and perspective that can deepen the experience for both students and faculty. That includes providing a different way of thinking about the Middle East, America’s role in the world, and what an American presence in a foreign country means.
Part of Perkins’ mission is also to help faculty understand and appreciate the challenges veterans face. He wants professors to see the military as a culture with a set of standards, habits, and values that has shaped its young men and women, just as other forms of culture do.
Vice President of Student Affairs Barbara Snyder says the U, which funds the support center with about $120,000 annually, is committed to helping student veterans succeed and meet their unique challenges with grace, and not judgment. “We feel a tremendous sense of responsibility toward our veteran population,” Snyder says. “We provide an awful lot of support for traditional students, and parents, and all kinds of subsets in our student population. How could we not do this?”
“Writing on War” Offers Many Lessons
One of the first things you notice about Jeff Key, besides his towering 6-foot-4-inch frame, is his tattoos. “Warrior” stretches along the inside of his left forearm, all in lowercase script. “Poet” scrawls along the right. Both are apt descriptions.
Key is a 47-year-old U.S. Marine veteran who served in Iraq and is completing a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Utah. The Alabama native, who enlisted in 2000, is also an accomplished playwright whose one-man show, The Eyes of Babylon, toured eight U.S. cities and Ireland. The play is based on journals and videos that document Key’s months in Iraq. Through storytelling, Key says, “we have a chance to redefine the veteran.”
Key was a natural fit for the U’s “Writing on War” course taught by Maximilian Werner, an instructor and lecturer with the College of Humanities. An author with three published books, Werner BA’93 (along with an MFA from Arizona State University) introduced the class in the spring of 2012 and taught it again in 2013. The course, which is open to both civilian and veteran students, draws on some of the best writing and films on war and pushes students to think beyond the stereotypical ways in which military service people are mostly portrayed: warrior as hero or monster.
“When you look at the narratives that we use to explain or to make sense of these different experiences, we’re just not given a lot of options,” Werner says. “There are broad ranges of experiences when we talk about the experience or phenomenon of war. It’s a complex story that has a lot of facets.”
Werner’s students contribute their own work, both fiction and nonfiction, to the conversation and are asked to look critically at the rhetorical devices used in crafting narratives. The class also has provided lessons in changing perspectives. Civilians, including Werner, who has no military background, have been given a window into the sharp edges of war. They have learned about the practical matters of unit organization and what military acronyms mean, as well as the political nuances that drive the way conflicts play out on foreign soil. And they have gained deeper perspectives about why someone like Key, who joined the Marines at age 34, one year before the attacks on 9/11, volunteers to serve.
Veterans have also been able to hear from civilian students about their views on 12 years of war as seen from U.S. soil, and gained deeper insight from telling their own sometimes difficult stories. “We learned from our collective experience,” says Key.
The goal of the class has never been to offer a therapeutic release, but Werner says students have told him that they were changed by the undertaking. A newcomer to writing, veteran Michael Cumming says the class took him on a journey he didn’t expect.
Cumming, 31, served three tours in Iraq. He was prodded to take the class by another teacher who saw promise in his prose. “It seemed like a good way to write about some of the experiences I’d had and to get some of that off my chest,” says Cumming.
Writing about war seemed easier to him than talking about it, and he says he was surprised by what ended up on paper. “I thought I would write about the battles. I ended up writing about taking a well-aimed shot on a kid that was digging a hole for an IED and about some of the guys I knew and the relationships I made,” says Cumming. “It was the first time I had real emotions about it.”
Werner considers the class perhaps the most important thing he’s done in his 20 years of teaching and hopes the class will continue to be offered during the next academic year. “It’s our responsibility as citizens to hear the stories of war, so that we understand what’s at stake,” he says.
Read samples of students’ writing from the class:
One particular area of study critical to successful transitions for veterans is college outcomes and graduation rates, Mitcham notes. Over the past year, some media reports have suggested that as many as 88 percent of student vets drop out of college before graduating. The figure comes from a study by the Colorado Workforce Development Council and the Colorado State Office of the Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service. But that study’s findings have been questioned by the national Student Veterans of America, which contends insufficient research has been done on student-veteran outcomes.
The conversation about developing a student support center came “at the right time and with the right people around the table,” she says. University officials were already talking about ways to address the issue when the campus Student Veterans of America group, which was an informal club, sought official status from the Associated Students of the University of the Utah (ASUU). “What I hope we are learning is that after someone has paid the debt to us and to our country, we have an opportunity to pay our debt to them,” Snyder says.
Other campuses across the nation are taking similar steps to accommodate veterans, according to the American Council on Education. Data collected from ACE surveys in 2009 and in 2012 show the number of dedicated veterans support offices on campuses nationwide grew 18 percent between those years. The findings of the 2012 report, based on responses from 690 institutions, show that 62 percent of colleges now provide military-specific programs and services. Nearly 90 percent of those had increased their campus services since 2009. The survey also found that the services, programs, and policies dedicated to meeting student-veteran needs are as varied as the veterans themselves, says Meg Mitcham, ACE’s director of veterans programs.
That’s about to change. In January, U.S. Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Sinseki announced the agency would partner with Student Veterans of America and the National Student Clearinghouse to gather graduation data to create an education database. Separately, in fall 2012, the U’s veterans studies center launched its own nationwide study of the factors contributing to the academic success of veterans. Those can include school-related factors, family military history, support from family and friends, life experiences, health, and stress, says Craig Bryan, an associate director of the U’s National Center for Veterans Studies and a former Air Force psychologist. As of this spring, more than 200 student veterans from across the country had taken the short online survey. Bryan is hoping for a total of 750 responses before closing the study.
A portion of the study focuses on suicide risk, which past studies suggest may be significantly higher in student veterans when compared to traditional students. “What we seem to be seeing so far is that the majority of student veterans who report ever having suicidal thoughts or making a suicide attempt did so before they joined the military,” he says. “Interestingly, we have found similar patterns in other military samples—which has caused us to reconsider how suicide risk emerges over time in military personnel and veterans, whether or not they are enrolled in college classes.” Rudd, who has testified before Congress about the needs of veterans, says he hopes such data will help the U and other institutions make thoughtful decisions about programming.
Perkins has high aspirations for the future of the Veterans Support Center, which now hosts monthly events, including a free pizza lunch and employment seminars. He wants to expand outreach to efforts and programs such as peer-to-peer counseling. He’d also like more space, and a bigger coffee pot. In time, he wants the center to grow into a gathering place for veterans, much like the day rooms that military units have in their barracks. “So that if [the world] out there doesn’t feel like a fit, you can come in here. It’s a touchstone to something that’s familiar. The culture exists in here,” he says.
Perkins has deep respect for the current generation of vets and says the battle against terrorism in which the United States is engaged is a conflict far different than those fought by past generations of soldiers, sailors, and airmen. “These kids for 10 years have known that this was a dirty war, and not one that anybody had trained for,” he says. “There’s not a homeland to take, there’s not ground to take. It’s more like a gang fight, but they still go in. I’m absolutely in awe of this generation.”
—Jennifer Dobner, a former longtime Associated Press reporter and editor, is a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.
Ed. note: In the print version, Barbara Snyder’s title was misstated, and Craig Bryan was noted as affiliated with an incorrect program. We apologize for both errors.
View a related video on “The Psyche of a Soldier” featuring former University of Utah Dean David Rudd here.