Veterans Struggle To Fit Into College Campuses

The transition from combat to college is not always seamless. Some war veterans simply can't relate to typical freshmen behavior and others have trauma-related symptoms. With more than 100,000 U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan expected to enter college this year under the new G.I. Bill, veteran advocates are wondering whether enough services are in place to help them adjust. Karen Brown of member station WFCR reports.

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The number of veterans on U.S. campuses is expected to jump by 30 percent this year, thanks to the federal G.I. Bill. That could mean 100,000 veterans across the country, according to some estimates. But even with financial help, the transition from combat to campus can be difficult.

Karen Brown of member station WFCR reports.

KAREN BROWN: When John Schnaber(ph) finished his combat duty in Afghanistan, he was eager to get a college degree and enrolled at the University of Massachusetts. He got mostly A's but just couldn't relate to his fellow students. He'd survived shelling, shooting and worse, while most of his classmates were fresh high school graduates just out of their parents' homes.

Mr. JOHN SCHNABER: People were running up and down the halls at night, screaming yelling at night, just general freshman college kind of behavior. It brings up issues.

BROWN: Schnaber is now a veteran's advocate at the UMass Amherst campus. And those issues he mentioned start with memories of combat.

Sociology major John Goldman still cowers from rocket-propelled grenades whenever he hears a high-pitched whistle. He says others have it worse.

Mr. JOHN GOLDMAN: There are some guys who need to sit in the back corner of the room during class, so no one is going to surprise them, no one is going to come up behind. They're just sizing things up. Every situation they're saying, Where's my exit? Who looks shady? Who, you know, just - they're still in the combat mindset.

BROWN: Even if the problems aren't that disruptive, veterans may feel isolated, like they don't fit in. History major and veteran Eric Fioli(ph) remembers scoffing at fraternity pledge week, thinking the Greek experience had nothing on the close bonds of military life.

Mr. ERIC FIOLI: That's camaraderie. That's brotherhood. What's their idea of brotherhood? Coming back in 15 years and reliving the fraternity college experience, undergrad experience? Come on.

BROWN: Granted, veterans often have a tough re-entry into civilian life, but the surge in veterans entering college has renewed debate on how a university should or can do to help.

Jack Mordente of Southeastern Connecticut University says the typical 18-year-old freshman gets much more hand-holding.

Mr. JACK MORDENTE (Director, Veterans Affairs, Southeastern Connecticut University): The University reaches out to the true freshmen and brings them in for orientation. You know, the veterans don't get that. As an older adult student, you know, they're coming here pretty much on their own.

BROWN: Mordente, himself a counselor and Vietnam vet, is with the National Organization of Veteran Program Administrators, which advocates for campus services. He says almost every major campus is seeing an influx of veterans and most administrators are anxious about it.

Mr. MORDENTE: The universities, you know, you get two, three hundred vets going to school and, you know, that's a significant amount. And you are taking on the responsibility, I think, or burden of a population that some of them can have some real issues.

BROWN: Including cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, depression, alcohol abuse, and other adjustment problems. While student vets can get therapy at a Veterans Affairs medical center, Mordente says few make use of that resource. And that leaves university staff to fill in the gaps.

Federal funding for veteran support on campus dried up in the 1980s. Mordente's group is lobbying to bring it back. But until then, it's up to each school to decide what it needs and can afford.

Ms. JUDY GAGNON (Director, Military Community Resource Center): It does feel overwhelming. We have been preparing for, you know, an onslaught.

BROWN: Judy Gagnon runs a military resource center at UMass, which serves an estimated 400 veterans, about twice as many as last year. Her job is to guide vets through the university bureaucracy and to help them feel welcome on a traditionally liberal campus that tends not to embrace military culture.

Ms. GAGNON: (unintelligible) surprise to see you this afternoon.

Unidentified Man: Oh, you'll be seeing more of me up there.

Ms. GAGNON: Okay.

BROWN: This drop-in center is considered a model for other schools. But Gagnon says she still worries about veterans falling through the cracks, especially when it comes to mental health care. Like most colleges, UMass hasn't hired additional counselors to handle veteran issues. But it has held staff trainings on military culture and PTSD.

And veterans who've been on campus longer try to look out for the newer ones. They say just having a designated veterans' hangout, a place to talk with people who know your story, goes a long way.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown.

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