Storming the Battlefield to Hitting The Books: Back to School for Student Veterans

5.12.2016

By Maddie Farber

veterans

For student veteran Ian Appling, it’s not the sound of gunshots and loud noises that affects his PTSD, but rather the murmur, the low talking voice, that one often hears when in big groups of people. When he was a part of the Navy, he says that a large part of his security training was to be always listening for danger. He says that when he hears a lot of people talking it makes him immediately paranoid, suspicious and hypersensitive.

Appling, 27, from Kerville, Texas, joined the Navy in 2009 after his freshman year at KU. He was deployed in July 2010, and spent the majority of his time serving as a sonar technician on a ship called the U.S.S. Winston S. Churchill. After 6 months he returned, but was deployed again in June 2012 for nine months. During that time he worked out of the Persian Gulf doing mainly counter Iranian operations. He began his transition back into college in the fall of 2013 at 24 years old.

When he first returned, Appling says he would be on his way to class, walk halfway up the hill, and get overwhelmed by the amount of people. “I would turn around a go back home,” he says. He would close the door to his room and lock himself inside. It was the only way he knew how to deal with the staggering feelings he was having being back on a college campus and around so many people.

Though they account for just 4 percent of the national student body, more than one million military veterans have been taking advantage of the Post 9/11 GI Bill passed in 2008, making it easier for student veterans to seek higher education than ever before. Between 2009 and 2013, nearly 720,000 more veterans are taking advantage of education benefits, according to data from United States Department of Veterans Affairs. 83 percent of those student veterans attend a public university, so colleges around the country have been grappling to meet the needs of the growing student-veteran population. At KU alone, the number of student veterans has gone from 350 to 1,000 in the past four years, according to the KU’s Office of Graduate Military programs.

The increase in numbers is a challenge for universities, but for student veterans, the challenges transitioning back into a college lifestyle seem to be endless. From a lack of shared experiences among students and faculty, difficulty obtaining credit for military training experiences and state residency requirements, to the age gap among their peers, these are the problems that lead to increased stress, anxiety, isolation and an overall disconnection from campus life for student veterans.

On top of this, a study from the American Psychological Association found that almost half of all college students who are U.S. military veterans have reported having suicidal thoughts, and 20 percent said they had planned to kill themselves. Another report from the Rand Corporation found that 300,000 veterans overall suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is about 20 percent of all veterans. The study also found that college campuses cause PTSD sufferers to experience more severe symptoms.

April Blackmon Strange, KU Student Veteran Center Director, is a self-described “military brat.” Her father, who is now retired from the military 100 percent disabled, and her husband, who is also retired from the military, both served in the army. She graduated from high school in Bamberg, Germany, where her father was stationed at the time. Post-graduation she returned to the U.S. and attended K-State.

The Student Veteran Center is the University’s single point of contact to coordinate integrated support to military-connected students. Blackmon Strange, along with others who work in the Student Veteran’s Center at KU, connects students with veteran-centered academic support, career services, healthcare and wellness resources, and more.

veteransDespite the statistics showing the amount of student veterans who suffer from PTSD, Blackmon Strange says that the Student Veteran Center doesn’t know the exact number of student-veterans that have PTSD at KU. Student veterans are not required to disclose their medical condition to the University. For the student veterans who do choose to disclose their medical issues, Blackmon Strange says her office works closely with the Academic Achievement and Access Center (AAAC) to get accommodations for those students.

It’s stereotypical to think that if someone is a veteran they must have PTSD, she says, because that’s not always the case. According to her, the Student Veteran Center is more focused on helping student veterans deal with the cultural shifts from military to college life. The drastic cultural shift student veterans face when transitioning from military to college life, and the emotional toll that can take on student veterans, is the biggest issue the Student Veteran Center sees on a consistent basis, she says. The transition from a structured military world to a less structured college environment is one of the most overwhelming aspects of returning to or attending college for the first time.

“You’re 25 and coming to college for the first time and you don’t have your parents,” Blackmon Strange says. “It becomes more of a challenge when you feel like you’re by yourself and don’t have a support system or structure around to help you. How do you navigate a system that seems foreign to you?”

For many military-connected students, the military was more than a job; it’s a part of their identity. Leaving the military isn’t like leaving a 9-5 job. “You’re leaving a core support network of brothers and sisters who ‘get it’ through shared experiences and, sometimes, hardships,” she says.

Camaraderie is a huge part of the military family, and some students can feel alone and isolated when that military family network is no longer right there on a daily basis. Connecting with other veterans on campus can be a huge relief for some, but with tens of thousands of people at KU, it can be a challenge to find them. “That’s where groups like the Student Veterans of America, and facilities like the Student Veteran Center can really assist,” she says.

For Appling, what may be the most difficult aspect of being a student is being labeled as a veteran first, and Ian second. In his opinion, labeling veterans as the most “ostracized group on campus” is an understatement.

 

“Veterans as a whole just want to be treated as students. I know every single one of my cohorts at school feels this way too,” he says. “We don’t want anything special. We just want to be normal, and accepted as normal people.”

Appling’s desire to feel “normal,” and the lack of understanding he has experienced is not unusual, according to Blackmon Strange. Student-veterans deal with stereotypes, most of the time regarding their mental health and political beliefs. Many may not realize there are a lot of positive attributes in being a student veteran including resilience, maturity and leadership, she says.

veterans ryan lu

Ryan Lu, 24, and originally from Kearney MO., first joined the Kansas Air National Guard in 2009, during his first year at KU. In the spring of 2010 he was shipped off to basic training, before deploying in September 2011. In Bastion, Afghanistan, Lu says he worked in air transportation loading planes and inspecting cargo. He did this for six months before he returned to KU.

Lu had three semesters down when he came back from deployment, but the transition was still hard. Lu says he had to take a lot of general requirements for his degree in biochemistry, and did OK during his first few semesters. But taking a one and a half year gap presented its problems, especially after coming back from deployment. Getting back into the swing of studying, tests and homework wasn’t exactly easy for him. But what was even harder was catching up, academically, to his younger peers.  Lu had to backtrack on some of the material and re-establish basic studying habits.

But perhaps what bothered him the most when returning was being two years older than everyone in his classes. As an older student he felt as though he “should’ve had more knowledge, more wisdom, more whatever,” as he says. But he was still an older person in a freshman level class. For Lu, this was intimidating, because the people in his classes were younger, but more knowledgeable than him in the major at the time.

“It sets you back,” he says.

veterans lu

Feeling isolated because of the age difference between student veterans and their peers is another major obstacle that student veterans face, Blackmon Strange says.

Some veterans find challenges relating to or connecting with traditional college students, who tend to be younger and have different life experiences. Age differences can also mean different priorities and stressors for some student-veterans, including balancing school, work and family for those with children, for example. “There are different perspectives on issues that we stress over when we’re 18, 19, 20 vs. 25, 30, 40 years old,” she says.

With all the issues that student veterans face when transitioning, it begs the question: is transitioning back into college harder for some student veterans compared to others? Blackmon Strange says a student veteran’s ability to assimilate better or worse than their peers is based on a combination of experiences, knowledge and just individual circumstances. As she reflects on her experiences of being a military family member throughout her entire life, she admits coming out into the civilian world was scary for her, too.

“When you get to college, you’re on a campus where everyone already has friends, there’s not a huge welcoming,” she says. “If that’s what I went through as a military family member, there could be some similar circumstances like that [for student veterans]. Again, it’s dependent on individual experiences and circumstances, but it’s hard no matter what.”

Appling’s experience echoes a similar sentiment. He explains that there wasn’t a lot of guidance about what transition back would be like.

“I wasn’t warned that the transition was going to be terrible,” he says.

Appling says when he first left the Navy he didn’t personally know any vets that had transitioned to students. As he puts it, he didn’t have anyone telling him, “this is what you need to do.” His closest family was a few hours away. The lack of family near by, combined with a lack of friends, created a huge stressor.

Appling had one friend left at KU who was finishing his doctorate when he returned. Other than that, he didn’t have anyone he knew when he came back to school. He had to start all over again. When he first returned, he was going through some of the lower level courses for his major in International Studies. “I was as old as some of my TAs. That’s kind of hard,” he says.

“A lot of people think that ‘you guys are just a bunch of messed up fools’. But we [student veterans] think a lot of students that are younger and going to school have no clue what’s going to happen, they have no clue what the real world is like outside the confines of the United States,” he says.

Even if a student-veteran doesn’t suffer from any mental or physical issues, or was never deployed, Appling thinks that student veterans, no matter what, are classified as having a problem. It’s those assumptions, in Appling’s opinion, that make it the most difficult to re-assimilate.

Although some actions have been taken to ease the transition for student veterans, such as the University’s proposal for a new Student Veteran Center, meeting the needs of student veterans is more imperative now than ever before. According to Blackmon Strange, a “place-based” strategy, such as the Student Veteran Center, creates a “one-stop shop” for outreach, G.I. Bill or financial information and assistance, class information, and more.

Despite the University’s growing efforts to create a better transition for student veterans, for Appling, “coming into a place and knowing that I was different,” was the hardest part of his transition. Changing the environment on college campus for student veterans is no small feat, but according to Appling, should be the University’s top priority with regards to student veterans.

Photography by Maddie Farber
Modeled by Ian Appling and Ryan Lu

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