The Long Road from Combat to Classroom

We’ve featured a few stories about student Veterans on our blog, and I couldn’t help but notice a theme running through all of them; some of them I’ve experienced myself through three years of school. It’s not so much the curriculum or the workload that challenges Veterans, but the social dynamics of older, military-trained students in the same classroom as kids who may not understand their experiences. As more Veterans take advantage of the GI Bill, schools have been caught in various states of preparedness when it comes to services and support.

A recent article in the Washington Post highlighted many of these issues, and as an undergrad at a private university, I was struck by passage on the first page:

Some student veterans say they have little in common with their younger, more sheltered classmates whose concerns typically revolve around their social lives and separating from their parents. They describe feeling both conspicuous and isolated, put on the spot when they are singled out in class by well-meaning faculty members who solicit their views on foreign policy; turned off by the unstructured, sometimes frivolous, college atmosphere; and loath to admit they are having difficulty. Many mourn the absence of the close friendships and intense sense of mission that are often the glue of military life, particularly in a war zone.

For many, it’s the first instance of societal reintegration. For reasons in the passage above, it’s a sharply unique and challenging environment in which to relearn civilian norms.

If you’re not part of a Vets group on campus, or interact with other Veterans, it may seem like you’re the only one who has felt this way. But from what I can gather, it might be the most common experience of student Veterans, not just from this generation, but earlier generations as well. I’ve heard some Vietnam Vets remark about the strange feeling of being in a classroom after a tour overseas.

History does seem to repeat itself, so if you’re heading to school for the first time soon, or struggling with being back in class, get prepared. Check out our guide to maximize your GI Bill benefits to make the process as smooth as possible, and talk to your campus Veterans coordinator to find out if they offer Veteran-specific resources like counseling and study areas. You won’t be the only student Vet in a challenging environment, and you surely won’t be the last.

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6 Comments to “The Long Road from Combat to Classroom”

  1. Sara Weber says:

    I can agree whole-heartedly to this article. I too, as an undergraduate that has gotten her A.S. as a full-time student in night school and then transferred to a college taking courses full-time but now with more 18-22 year olds. I find it very challenging at times not to judge the other younger students for their immaturity, lack of effort, or become jealous of how easy the curriculum comes to them.

    The only people I do talk with on campus are professors, adult students, ROTC students, and other veterans.

    Being more of a country-girl, I guess I have always thought of putting it into a comedy such as Jeff Foxworthy, “if you find yourself writing other notes in class, such as your grocery list or another to-do list when you get out of class, you might be an adult student.” It becomes very difficult when you see the 20yr olds take advantage of what’s been given them, but not all of the students are like that.

    In my own experiences, if veteran students have time to give to the college they will find that the more involved they are with the college, the more they have a sense of belonging. It takes discipline (which we have) and perseverance to finish your degree, which we are equipped with having bunches of. It also takes having a more than just “good” support group, as with anything in life.

    Good luck fellow veteran students, and I hope there are more veterans that flood college universities, because it would be nice to talk with you!

  2. Ben King says:

    Day one of my experience with higher education after my deployment to Iraq was interesting. It was Sept, 2008 and I was with all the other new students in a small room in The Anthropology department of American University. We had been receiving the ins and outs of what to expect as first year grad students. Well, we had been sitting for about an hour when Dr. S., a Prof that would later become my thesis advisory, stood up to speak. Before she began her presentation she asked everyone to stand up raise their hands over their heads and stretch.

    It was around 10 in the morning so I stood up and immediately raised my arms over my head…….mistake…..you know that light headed feeling you get when you stand up too fast? Well, I got that feeling only this time it felt like a dream and when I snapped out of it I noticed everyone was staring at me and asking if I was ok.

    I had fainted. Right in the middle of everything. So No Shit..There I was, a tough ass war vet laid out on the floor on the first day of class. The professors called public safety just to be safe.

    When public safety arrived, they immediately began questioning me the same way a Seargent major once questioned me inside the green zone for walking to the showers in improper footwear. You know, with a bunch of seemingly innocuous questions designed to make me say something stupid so that the SM could chew my ass.

    It was funny, all the civilians were freaking out about the severity of the way I was being treated and I was standing in parade rest, calmly and emotionlessly responding to all their questions in as few words as possible.

    Afterwards my advisor was angry at how I was treated, but was amazed at how fast I turned off my emotions and handled a tense situation with ease.

    I was a little surprised myself, I hadn’t thought that Mil training could be so effective in a Civ lifestyle but as I have repeatedly found since returning from Iraq in 2007……it is and continues to be.

    ……………
    I have charted my transition from Mil to Civil in journals and online since returning home. My blog, Armor Down, which will go live on Monday is my attempt to share what I have found effective during the transition.

  3. Thank you so much for highlighting this issue. I experienced this years ago when I went to college. Not only was I a non traditional student who was married and had children, but I was also a veteran. I attended a very liberal university, and you can imagine what that was like.

    At that time, they had the veterans’ fraternity, so it made it a little easier. I guess that died out. The best thing to do is to seek out other veterans. Although it can sometimes be hard, there’s usually a VA rep on campus, as well as the local Va rep for the county. Those are simple solutions though to a complex problem.

  4. John says:

    For me so far the challenge has been the workload and having to constantly read pages after pages of books; just academically challenging and mentally draining at times.

    I do want to point out one thing, however, that when I heard Bin Laden was caught, I was pretty excited considering after long 10 years of hiding he was finally done. But when I shared the news with my classmates or friends outside, they were really minding their own business as if it like just another article on the news. Maybe it was just me but I had expected more interest or feedback from the general public. It was just an odd feeling of isolation.

  5. William Anthony McPharlin says:

    I would like you to know that you have a very good employee serving us vets at the VAMC at 4646 John R in Detroit, MI. His name is Gerald L Rogers and he served over 25 vets at the “registration” window including me and he was always courteous and respectful to me and us and always addressed us as MR. At 4:00 P.M. the window closes for any more registrants and as one of 9 vets till there we were told to go in and sit at the cubicle to be served. When my turn came out of 5 cubicles Mr. Rogers waited on me again and got all of the info and I was well treated and I wnted you to know you have a great employee in Mr. Rogers and hopefully you can have many more like him. He is not your usual “government employee”, the stereotype. Amen.

  6. Lawrence Vowinckel says:

    I like all the stories about how people are taking classes and the trials they have to reach their goal of getting a college degree. The stories are great to inspire, but you should also talk about the other people, such as myself, who have nothing but problems with the system when they are trying to complete schooling. Because I had attended another school they decided to hold my GIBill Benefits ramsom so the only college around for 150 mile will not let me attend their college until I pay the other college to release my transcripts. I have done everything within my power to try and resolve this but the college will not budge and I have almost all have given up on getting my college degree. This is the real heart aches of trying to attend college. Oh by the way I was a 3.45 GPA before they told me they would not renew my GiBill. I am happy to accept emails to tell people about my experiences and problems I have faced.