By Sandra G. Boodman, Published: November 28
“I felt like I was on another planet,” he said of his first semester in 2008. Hawthorne recalled feeling whipsawed by the abrupt transition of “going from an environment where people around you are dying every day and trying to kill you” to a campus where he was surrounded by people who didn’t know anyone in the military.
Hawthorne’s experience is emblematic of the challenges — social, academic, psychological and medical — facing the rapidly growing population of veterans who are flocking to colleges around the country, and the health demands placed on the schools they are attending.
Propelled by the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which took effect in 2009, 2 million veterans, many of whom served in Iraq and Afghanistan, are eligible for generous benefits that can amount to a full scholarship. At George Mason University, Virginia’s largest public school with more than 32,000 students, for example, the number of veterans has almost doubled, from 840 in 2009 to 1,575 last spring.
As a result, colleges are contending with adjustment problems and serious disorders far different from those for which their staffs have been trained: traumatic brain injury; post-traumatic stress related to combat and often accompanied by depression and substance abuse; and military sexual trauma, as sexual abuse in the service is known.
Many counseling offices don’t have a veteran on staff, nor have their workers been trained in these issues, said Ted C. Bonar, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Deployment Psychology, part of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda. “It can be tough for a civilian provider to understand what vets have gone through,” he said.
A tough transition
For some, the move from combat to campus is relatively seamless. Unlike the hostility that greeted Vietnam veterans on campuses in the 1960s and ’70s, the current generation of student veterans, a quarter of whom are women, has largely been met with polite acceptance. But many describe an arduous transition for which they — and the campuses absorbing them — are ill-prepared.
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.