CU vets see growing support on campus

0
Sue France/Boulder Weekly
Veteran and CU student Candace Newcomb

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.

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Times may have changed

Talking to veterans on campus today, their stories have a different ring to them. Candace Newcomb, who served two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps before enrolling at CU in fall 2005, says she was a bit worried about coming to a campus that had a reputation for being chock full of left-leaning war protestors, so at first she didn’t broadcast her veteran status. But she says everyone she has encountered has been supportive, and she has gradually become more willing to tell people that she’s a veteran, in part because the environment feels different now than it did in 2005.

Newcomb knows that one can support the troops and still oppose the war.

“I’m against the war,” she says. “I had to fight in it; it sucks. Nobody likes war.”

She
said most people she has encountered at CU seem to be “anti-war, but
not anti-service members. … We don’t make the policies, we just do the
best we can. … I hate the war more than anyone else. I lost friends
there.”

Newcomb
attributes this ability to differentiate between supporting the troops
and opposing the war to the fact that Boulder is an intellectual
college town where most people are smart enough to know not to blame
the soldiers for war.

Other
veterans agree the reception they have gotten at CU today is a far cry
from some of the war protestors who lashed out at soldiers returning
from Vietnam and called them “baby killers.”

Paul
Harris, who served in the U.S. Army from 2005 to 2008 before enrolling
at CU this fall, said one of his commanding officers told soldiers
about the hostile reception he and others received upon their return
from Vietnam.

“This
is nothing compared to what Vietnam vets went through,” he says. “Most
people have been supportive, but I have to bite my tongue sometimes
when I hear 18-year-olds complaining about this, that or the other.”

Sean
Moleski, who served with the Marines in Iraq and Japan from 2003 to
2007, acknowledged that he was slightly nervous about his peers’
reactions to his veteran status. “Boulder has a bit of a stigma for
being a bit of a liberal town,” says the Iowa native. “But people have
been friendly; it’s been a nice surprise.”

Moleski
agrees that people seem to be more tolerant and supportive of returning
troops than they did after Vietnam, possibly because many know someone
who has served in the military.

As
for CU officials, Provost Stein Sture acknowledges that some in the
state may think CU “would likely not be welcoming of veterans. We
clearly are of the opposite opinion.” Associate Vice Chancellor for
Undergraduate Education Michael Grant, who helped spearhead the
creation of the veterans affairs office on campus, agrees that such
perception is misplaced.

“That is not true,” he says of the assumption. “We have about 600 ROTC students on campus … so we would like to dispel that.”

That was one reason for creating the veterans affairs office on campus two years ago.

“It’s definitely been ramped up,” Newcomb said of the office and its services.

Veterans’ contributions

Another component of changing that perception is to trumpet the contributions that veterans make on campus.

Several
veterans and campus officials say that veterans tend to take college
academics more seriously than other students because they are older,
more mature and more disciplined — and they have an appreciation for
what it costs, for the sacrifice they made to receive college funding
through the GI Bill.

They also contribute to the education of their peers.

Moleski,
an international affairs major, said being able to share his
experiences abroad allows him to “shed a different light on the subject
that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise get to see.”

Newcomb
— a corporal whose primary job was to maintain weapons systems such as
guns, missiles and rockets on helicopters — says she tries to help
educate her classmates and others that not all soldiers return from
action with mental issues. “Some need a bit of extra help, but a lot of
us don’t.”

“[Veterans]
are a special element on campus. They bring a lot in terms of diversity
to the campus,” says Akers. “They’re bringing their life experiences
into the classroom. That’s very helpful in the learning process.”

Harris
credits the CU administration with providing him something quite
significant in return: an advance. Harris says the university has not
yet received money from the federal government for his tuition under
the new GI Bill, but has been covering those costs since the beginning
of the semester anyway. “I think CU has bent over backwards,” he says.
“They could have said, ‘No, we haven’t received the money yet from the
government.’”

Harris traveled with
soldiers as a public affairs photographer and writer, documenting the
stories of medics, infantry, tankers and cooks for internal newsletters
as well as international wire services like the Associated Press. “I
knew when to put the camera down and pick up the rifle, let’s just put
it that way,” he says, when asked about his combat situations. He
suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and was treated at Fort
Carson and the Veterans’ Medical Center in Denver.

{::PAGEBREAK::}%uFFFD

Support network

There
also seems to be an improving network of support at CU and in Boulder
for veterans seeking help with psychological issues. Akers coordinates
with the Wardenburg Health Center, CU Counseling and Psychological
Services (CAPS) and the Boulder Vet Center, referring veterans to
experts when they need support beyond what he can offer.

Joe
Courtney, manager of psychological health and psychiatry at Wardenburg,
told Boulder Weekly that his department has begun seeing greater
numbers of veterans, and that number is only expected to increase. He
says many have some degree of trauma if they were in combat situations.

Courtney
says common problems among veterans include depression, anxiety,
relationship issues and a tendency to constantly look for danger in
their daily lives. He says Wardenburg offers an after-hours emergency
phone line, staffed by therapists, that is available 24 hours a day,
seven days a week. The center also has some therapists who are trained
in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a technique
used to help people resolve trauma.

Wardenburg,
as opposed to Counseling and Psychological Services, is authorized to
prescribe medications and can grant a medical withdrawal to veterans
who need a “time-out” to complete a treatment plan and return to the
place in their academic career where they left off. Treatment for
veterans at Wardenburg is free if they have the Student Gold Health
Insurance Plan; those with Wardenburg Campus Care insurance have to pay
for treatment.

On the other hand, CAPS offers students, faculty and staff six free sessions, but that office cannot prescribe medications.

Felicia
Greher, a staff psychologist at CAPS, serves as the veterans’ liaison
to Akers’ office and the Boulder Vet Center. She says her office is
currently seeing several veterans, and has just started to track that
number.

According
to Greher, veterans often experience problems with sleep,
concentration, motivation, impatience and feeling out of place.
Exacerbating these issues is that they are often older students who
have jobs, families and financial stress. At the same time, she says,
they tend to be very self-reliant, motivated, goal-oriented and driven,
and usually do well in class so that they can get their degree.

Greher
says it is important for campus community members to be “showing
compassion and openness to student veterans, and saying thanks for
serving our country.”

Counting veterans

One
of Akers’ primary tasks when appointed as director of the veterans’
affairs office was to gain a more accurate idea of how many veterans
there were on campus. Initial estimates two years ago ranged from 350
to 1,000. Today, after adding a question about veteran status to
student applications a couple of years ago, Akers has a more reliable
estimate of 400 veterans on campus, although it will be a few more
years before the campus has an accurate figure.

Before
the Office of Veterans Affairs’ opened, CU relied on its Veterans’
Services Office, which deals with veterans’ education benefits,
primarily financial aid through the GI Bill. Akers’ office offers
expanded resources.

“[The
Office of Veterans’ Affairs] was sorely needed,” says Akers. “Not just
at CU, but at all institutions out there, to help individuals make the
transition from the military to the academic world [and] to set the
conditions for success for them.

“Sometimes
I’ll just sit out and talk to them and see how they’re doing, if they
are well treated, well respected on campus, just to get to know them
better,” says Akers. “And in the process, [they] know that I am here to
help them solve any problems.”

He
maintains an e-mail list of veterans on campus, which he uses to notify
them of resources, news and special events. Harris, whose monthly
housing stipend was delayed due to a backlog at the federal level,
learned through an Akers e-mail that the feds were releasing emergency
payments of $3,000 to those like him who had been waiting for months.

Moleski
says he approached Akers before he applied to CU, to get help with the
paperwork and the application process. Newcomb has received a couple of
veteran scholarships, another area where Akers has shepherded
significant growth. Two years ago, there was no campus money for such
scholarships and grants; last year it rose to $8,000. This year, that
total has reached $73,000, he says.

Akers
says financial aid was one of three needs he identified among veterans
on campus after the office was formed. The other two were more
job/internship/academic counseling and more recognition.

“They
wanted someone to say thank you,” Akers says. On Veterans Day, Nov.
11, Colorado Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, will be the
featured speaker at an 11 a.m. ceremony in the Glenn Miller Ballroom at
the University Memorial Center. A reception will follow in the UMC
Veterans Lounge.

And
on Nov. 7, veterans will be recognized at the CU football game against
Texas A&M at Folsom Field. Veterans have been offered $5 tickets to
the game, they are invited to a special pre-game tailgating party, and
their service will be honored at a halftime ceremony, complete with
photos of CU alumni serving in the military shown on the scoreboard
video screen.

Harris and Newcomb both say they will be taking their dads to that game.

They
both beam with pride as they say this — Harris because his dad served
in the British Army in the 1950s, Newcomb because her dad is a Buffs
fan but has never been to a game.

NOV. 7
WHAT: Halftime ceremony honoring service members at CU-Texas A&M football game
WHEN: Game starts at 11:30 a.m.
WHERE: Folsom Field
WHO: Veterans and their families

NOV. 11
WHAT: CU’s annual Veteran’s Day ceremony
WHEN: 11 a.m.
WHERE: Glenn Miller Ballroom at the University Memorial Center WHO:
Colorado Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, will be the
featured speaker. A reception will follow in the UMC Veterans Lounge.