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Phyllis Goldberg, Paul Kyle, and Randall Dawson, Johnson County Community College

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Clint Upchurch, with the 101 st Airborne, was asked to be the gunner in the lead Humvee of a convoy escorting a top general through the dangerous dusty roads of southern Iraq. One moment, Clint was looking for combatants through a cloud of sand and sun. In the next, we believe that he was hearing the laughter of Jesus watching Paul Kyle's nephew PaulKyle.jpgClint bouncing from cloud to cloud, with his three-year-old niece who had tragically passed away a year earlier. Clint did not know what hit him, but the loved ones he left behind and the two other soldiers in the vehicle who barely survived will have to find ways to cope with the life-long physical and psychological scars of that fateful day. This is but one of hundreds of stories of roadside bombs and combat-related traumas that have left soldiers physically and emotionally disabled.

RandallDawson.jpgOften, emotional injuries can be more debilitating than the physical ones. Our service members in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF, the war in Afghanistan) are exposed to horrific experiences. As a result, many will have traumatic memories that will last a lifetime. In a Rand Corporation testimony before a House Subcommittee, Terri Tanielian estimated "that as of April 2008 approximately 303,000 OEF/OIF veterans were suffering from PTSD or major depression." She also expressed concern that those rates might be even higher in the "Reserve Components and those who have left the military service."

While the cluster of symptoms now identified as PTSD have been recognized for many years, they have not always been called PTSD, nor have they always been recognized as a real psychiatric disorder. The nineteenth-century term for PTSD was "Railway Spine." This was a term previously used to describe the physical trauma people experienced as a result of train accidents and carried over to describe the unexplainable symptoms veterans of the Civil War experienced. During World War I, World War II, and the Korean conflict, the term changed to "shell shock" and "battle fatigue." It was not until the Vietnam War that PTSD was labeled a personality disorder. No matter what it is called, one thing has been common from the Civil War until now: PTSD has been seen by many as an individual character flaw rather than a diagnosable and treatable disorder. Although this misguided view has subsided within the mental health community the stigma continues to be an issue within both the civilian and military cultures.

Joseph Law (2008), a leading expert on PTSD, outlines the basic screening criteria:

  • Frightening experiences in the past month:
    • Nightmares or recurrent thoughts of experiences
    • Trying not to think about it
    • Constantly on guard, easily startled or distracted
    • Feel numb or detached from others
  • Criteria for referral/positive screen or treatment: 'Yes' on two or more questions

Law suggests that treatment should include a systemic approach to PTSD diagnosis. He has found multiple psychological theoretical approaches to be the most effective and emphasizes the critical need to include the family in any treatment strategies.

While many military leaders of today recognize mental health problems in their ranks, they have a difficult time balancing the warrior ethos with mental health needs of their service members. Although the 'warrior mentality' may be difficult for some to accept, military leaders would argue that it is essential to the job given the military. Few could deny that military members are called upon to perform a very daunting task when they put their lives on the line to defend our country. They must possess certain qualities, skills, and characteristics in order to meet the demands of the job. They must be respectful of the chain of command, disciplined, loyal, focused, and prepared to exert high levels of force and aggression when needed. Military personnel either possess these behaviors, skills, and attitudes when they join, or they learn them through their training and the military culture.

The military strives to create a warrior mentality, but to the modern military's credit, it recognizes the qualities that make a good warrior can be maladaptive in the civilian world. Programs such as www.battlemind.org have been created to address combat pre-deployment and the post-deployment transition to the civilian world and our college campuses.

In 2008, Johnson County Community College created a veterans' advisory committee composed of a cross section of staff and faculty to explore what could be done to expand services and create a veteran friendly campus. This group looked at outreach, financial aid, and counseling resources and created the following short term goals:

  • Create a survey asking veterans what the college can do to help them feel more engaged.
  • Provide a space for veterans to gather and share experiences.
  • Seek funding to serve those who may no longer be eligible for veterans' benefits.
  • Include at least one veteran on student committees.
  • Honor our student veterans during a Veterans Day celebration on our campus.
  • Provide in-service training for staff and faculty on TBI (traumatic brain injury) & PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and develop a handout that can help faculty and staff be more aware of symptoms.
  • Partner with our local Veterans Center and the Veterans Administration to offer the best services at various sites on campus.

An increasing number of veterans will be attending college campuses, taking advantage of current VA benefits or the new post-9/11 benefits that will go into effect in August 2009. It is impossible to estimate how many of these "veterans turned students" have PTSD symptoms, but it will likely be a significant number. It is important that academic advisors and counselors have an understanding of PTSD and the military culture in order to better serve these proud service members. Our goal at JCCC is to engage our veterans and provide the best learning environment and services we can to assist our veterans in meeting their educational goals.

Randall Dawson
Counselor
Johnson County Community College
rdawson@jccc.edu

Phyllis Goldberg
Counselor
Johnson County Community College
phyllisg@jccc.edu

Paul Kyle
Dean of Student Services
Johnson County Community College
pkyle@jccc.edu

References

Law, Joe. (2008). Combat stress and PTSD: Working with veterans and their families. Eau Claire, Wisconsin: PESI,LLC.

Tanielian, Terri. (2009). Assessing Combat Exposure and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Troops and Estimating the cost to Society; Testimony presented before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs on March 24, 2009.

Cite this article using APA style as: Goldberg, P., Kyle, P., & Dawson, R. (2009, June). Veterans turned students: Understanding military culture and PTSD. Academic Advising Today, 32(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2009 June 32:2

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