The pen over the sword: veterans in education

Sunny Therattil, a certifying official of NAU Veteran Military Services plays table tennis inside the Veterans Success Center Dec. 4, 2018.

For over a decade the United States has been actively at war in the Middle East. Its campaign in Afghanistan alone has lasted nearly 17 years with no visible end in sight.

Some service members who return home to the U.S. after months or years abroad seek immediate employment, while others turn to higher education as a means of personal improvement.

Stephen Peterson, a freshman and five-year Marine veteran, said he’s proud of his decision to attend college.

“[Attending] NAU is awesome,” Peterson said. “It’s a lot less stressful. I had the summer to relax and started school here in the fall. I’ve been enjoying it ever since.”

With aspirations to obtain a degree, Peterson chose to join the military as a crew chief and mechanic in order to pay his tuition. He flew in CH-53 helicopters and was responsible for delivering cargo and ferrying troops.

Peterson chose to attend NAU because of its park ranger program and hopes to join the National Forest Service after earning his degree in forestry. He said he’s had a lot of help from the university and has been offered many services that have helped him succeed.

“I originally came to school for the park ranger program and everything else fell into place,” Peterson said. “I didn’t even realize how good the veteran community is out here. I didn’t know anything about Flagstaff before I came up, but it’s awesome.”

The university created the Veteran Success Center with the intent of assisting service members, not only in earning degrees, but in ensuring success in all aspects of their lives. The center serves as a place where student veterans can study, relax and find academic and financial guidance and resources.

Veteran and Military Services provides many services to veterans on campus and ensures they receive educational benefits, find scholarships and fill out all necessary applications. These services are available for retired military personnel, reservists and even active duty service members already seeking a degree. The department also celebrates Veterans Week each November, which usually consists of activities, panel talks and special ceremonies that commemorate past and present servicemen.

Further assistance is also offered by fellow student veterans themselves. Vet Jacks is a program where student veterans reach out to one another and help with the transition into student life. There is also the Student Veterans of America Club which advocates academic success for its members and provides opportunities for them to participate in social and recreational activities.

The university has won a number of awards throughout the years for their dedication to the care and assistance of student veterans. In a survey conducted by the Military Times of vet-friendly schools across the state, NAU ranked No. 1 for veterans affairs.

According to Laurie Jordon, the assistant director of Veteran and Military Services, approximately 300 veterans are currently enrolled at NAU’s Flagstaff campus. She said she actively strives to create a better college experience for service members.

“A lot of colleges do that,” Jordon said about giving military benefits. “The thing I believe sets NAU apart is that not only are we administrating the benefits, but we want our students to be successful. We work with students as they transition from military life or from another college to university life.”

Jordon said veteran support isn’t just about healing wartime wounds; it’s about combating the stereotypes that surround veteran life.

“They may have injuries from serving. Whether it’s post-traumatic stress disorder or other situations that cause some difficulties for them. It’s a life that’s not for everyone,” Jordon said. “Not all students who have served have PTSD, though. That is a complete myth.”

Many veterans miss the close bond formed between military members. Additionally, a loss of structure inherent to leaving the military can be difficult for many to acclimate to. It can also be challenging for veterans who haven’t attended for quite some time to get back into the rhythm of school. Peterson said he had trouble relating to the majority of students who were younger than him.

“I really don’t have any challenges other than communication with most of the people in class who are a lot younger,” Peterson said. “I had my friend group outside of school, so I really don’t care too much about the lack of communication with the kids in class.”

While veterans may have difficulties adjusting to college life, the Veterans and Military Services department seeks to meet them halfway. Even if veterans don’t utilize all resources available to them, the department remains available for veterans at any time should they need it.

Another contributing party is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs [VA]. The VA’s goal is to help American veterans with GI Bill benefits and health care. They currently have over 9 million veterans enrolled in their programs.

Brian Plummer is a registered nurse who is now employed at the VA as an interim care and support coordinator. Plummer said the VA provides physical and psychological care for veterans. They occasionally send counselors to campus who provide services in mental health and assist in navigating the VA system of benefits. Even if the VA can’t provide a service that a veteran might need, they try to put them in contact with an institution that can.

However, providing help for over 9 million veterans isn’t an easy task. Some NAU veterans, including Peterson, claim it is difficult for some veterans to receive medical treatment at the local VA clinic in Flagstaff. This means many have to travel to Phoenix to be treated.

“They [Flagstaff VA clinic] are not a hospital per se’, and scheduling issues are generally related to a lack of staff, but nothing more insidious than that,” Plummer said. “There seems to be a fair amount of turnover in the VA system as a whole, whether it’s a hospital or a clinic. Doctors, nurses and social workers retire or move. There are a number of reasons why people leave the VA, and the VA is often slow to replace them because the hiring process is cumbersome.”

Regardless of all the services provided by NAU and the federal government, Jordon said he believes it’s vital for a younger generation to aid in assisting veterans. He believes that, through conversation, a bridge can be built between people.

“People will often say ‘thank you’ for your service, and that’s kind. That’s great,” Jordon said. “I think the main thing that will help our traditional students is to have a conversation.”

Many veterans have similar hopes and dreams to civilian students on campus. They feel there is no reason for them to be singled out. Students can honor and further assist veterans simply by getting to know them; by talking to and showing concern for what they have to say.