Justin Morelli sat back in his chair, set his Bloody Mary on his desk, opened up a can of chewing tobacco and put the dip under his bottom lip, where it bulged. The American flag hung behind him on his bedroom wall.
This was two years ago. At a glance, Morelli may have looked like your average college student, but he was not. Instead of carrying textbooks and binders to class each day, he carried the burdens of his service in Iraq.
“[Soldiers have] a switch that we learn to flick on and off,” said Morelli. “And if you don’t learn how to flick it on and off, then you don’t really integrate into society again very well. You remain in your nutty veteran stage. I want to move on and move away from all of that.”
Two years ago, Morelli, like the other hundreds of veterans on the University of Colorado at Boulder campus, was putting his experience in Iraq behind him to move forward with his education and life. But back then, the environment was somewhat different for veterans at CU. A new version of the GI Bill had not yet been approved, so it was only paying a portion of his tuition and providing nothing for housing or books.
And a CU veterans’ affairs office had just opened and was still getting ramped up to provide more support to veterans who are CU students.
Today, the new post-9/11 GI Bill covers a student’s entire tuition, provides up to $1,000 a year for books and gives participants in Boulder about $1,500 a year for housing, according to veterans at CU. Under the old Montgomery GI Bill, veterans say, they received about $1,300 a month, which was almost enough to cover in-state tuition, but no books or housing costs. That change, along with recent state legislation that grants resident tuition to all veterans, is expected to generate a wave of veterans enrolling at CU in the next few years. In addition, the two-year-old Office of Veterans’ Affairs has made headway, not just in getting a more accurate count of how many veterans attend the university, but in connecting them to the resources they need.
Some questioned the reception veterans received on campus a couple of years ago. Today, many veterans acknowledge that they felt some trepidation about coming to a such a liberal, anti-war campus environment, but to a person they say they have received nothing but encouragement and gratitude.
Where we started
Still, some of the issues have not changed, in terms of obstacles facing veterans returning to college — and the contributions veterans provide in the classroom.
“One of the challenges is for [veterans] to make the transition from the military to the academic world, which can be fairly difficult,” Greg Akers, director of the Office of Veterans’ Affairs, said in an interview shortly after the office opened two years ago. “They are used to a very structured, very hierarchical environment. [College] is a whole new environment.
“They are used to being in a very tight organization where they know everyone around them; they know everything about them; they all [have a] common goal,” said Akers. “Here, they’re a student. So they don’t necessarily have the same association with the students around them [because of ] the environment they’ve come from. Also, they’re used to interaction with a supervisor in terms of accomplishments. It takes them a while to shift gears and mentally figure out what their objectives are. They’re not generally used to the amount of freedom they have on campus.”
“Discipline has definitely helped me with the way I live, and especially with my studies,” said Morelli at the time.
Morelli said his biggest problem was trying to move on and put the past behind him, which he said he had trouble doing when talking with other veterans.
“A lot of times, I distance myself from [other veterans] in a sense, because as much as I have in common with them… integrating back into this way of life is difficult enough, and I don’t need constant reminders,” said Morelli. “One thing vets do when they get together is tell war stories, and that never really results in anything other than bad memories… and a lot of good memories, as well. The few bad memories stick out. They were traumatic. Some of the [veterans] that I’ve met just randomly, I tend to stay away from, depending on how our conversation went in the first place.”
CU professors generally did a good job of recognizing soldiers and their unique perspectives, according to Morelli.
“It’s up to the professor if they want to help you or be understanding or bring out your experiences and utilize them in the classroom,” said Morelli. “The professionals that work here at the school definitely have quite a bit to offer to veterans. As far as the administration, they haven’t offered me anything.”
Morelli said he was vaguely familiar with CU’s new Office of Veterans’ Affairs two years ago. He used the office to look for a work-study program, but the job positions were limited, and he decided against using the office as a resource.
One former official at the Boulder Vet Center said in an interview two years ago that some veterans have been frustrated by the liberal and antiwar attitude that many students have on CU’s campus.
“There are a lot of points of view, [and] it’s hard to come back and find such a hugely different and almost hostile point of view expressed in the classroom towards someone who just put their life on the line,” he said. “There seem to be prevailing points of view on campuses that the military is brutalizing civilians. The whole thing gets slanted, and it hurts for someone who tried to do the right thing and was over there helping civilians. It hurts to come home and feel slapped in the face.”
Morelli said he had a few political spats in class with fellow students about the war, as well. His political geography professor encouraged him to talk about his military experience in class and asked him to make a presentation about the day in the life of a soldier. Morelli spoke in front of his class of 75 people, purposely leaving out his opinions on the war.