Charii Higgins, coordinator of Veterans Affairs at WSU, stands with recent student veterans from the war in Iraq: Nicholas DeSelle, U.S. Navy, left, and Ashley Monfort, U.S. Army National Guard.
Scores of students, torn from their regular academic lives and dropped into the volatile world war on terrorism, will begin returning to Washington State University campuses this fall. In short, they will be attempting to pick up the pieces of their lives and education.
The challenge for them is trying to integrate their military experience, put it into perspective and regain a sense of normalcy. The challenge for WSU faculty and staff is to help these young veterans make the transition.
Over the past two years, approximately 5,265 Reserve and National Guard members have been called into active duty through units in Washington state, according to a release from the Department of Defense, http://www.defenselink.mil. Nationwide, 150,571 have been called up.
At WSU, 92 National Guard and Reserve students have been activated, with about nine more pending, said Charii Higgins, the university’s veterans affairs coordinator. This fall between 5 and 30 veterans are expected to return to class. That number may grow to 60 or 70 by the end of the school year, depending upon when they are released from duty.
“We welcome home those who have served in the armed services during these difficult times,” said President V. Lane Rawlins. “We are very proud of your service and your willingness to take these risks to protect others. We are glad you have returned safely, and we will do everything we can to make you feel at home and help you successfully resume your academic work.”
Faculty, staff training
In order to help, however, faculty, staff and students may need some additional insights.
During the past two weeks, Linda Parkes, with the Veterans Outreach Center in Spokane, has been providing training for both WSU’s Veteran’s Affairs Office and counselors in WSU’s Counseling & Testing Services.
“Each returning veteran is going to have a different set of symptoms, depending upon his or her experience, background, personality and education,” said Parkes. “To think they are going to come back home and quickly assume a normal lifestyle is usually not realistic. They may experience such symptoms as insomnia, anxiety and difficulty concentrating, sitting in a classroom or being in a crowd. Some may prefer to sit at the back of the classroom, near the door, with their back to the wall.
“These soldiers, particularly those stationed in Iraq, were facing dangers and threats every day,” said Parkes. “As a result, they grew up very, very fast, so they are looking at the world through different eyes.”
Vietnam vets offer insights
Faculty and staff war veterans know the reality and challenge of this transition.
“Immersing back into society is a very individualized process,” said John Thielbahr, director of Conferences and Professional Programs Services. “We all handle things we see in wartime differently.”
During nine months of the Vietnam war, Thielbahr was a U.S. Navy supply officer on the USS Larson, a destroyer which patrolled areas from Nha Trang north to Da Nang, supporting search and destroy missions on the ground, guarding ships and aircraft, and providing harbor patrol.
“Once home in Long Beach (Calif.), my response was I wanted to be alone and I pulled into a shell. I spent a couple months in an apartment and walking along the ocean. I already had a master’s degree, so eventually I began looking for a job, which forced me to begin interacting again with people.
“It’s hard to tell how much these veterans will want to talk and how soon …. The idea of welcoming them home and acknowledging their service is a great idea, but they may not want to talk right away, and people should honor that.”
John Tarnai, director of the Social and Economic Science Research Center, served as translator for a commanding general in Berlin from 1965-70, during the Cold War.
“Whether you think the Iraq war is right or not, you need to remember these people were serving their country the best way they could. It’s important that they be respected for that. And we shouldn’t blame them for things that they had no responsibility for or had no control over. Some people had no choice about what they were assigned to do.”
David Lemak, professor of management at WSU Tri-Cities agrees.
“These people have served their country and served it honorably… Just telling them ‘Thank you for your service, and for protecting our country,’ is the healthiest thing you can do. You’d be surprised how seldom veterans hear that.”
Lemak should know. He was based out of Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines from 1973-76, serving as a navigator on a C-130 cargo planes that flew missions from a secondary base in the Gulf of Siam in Thailand into Vietnam and Cambodia. All totaled, he logged more than 3,000 hours in the C-130 and served in the Air Force 20 years. Today, he is a faculty member at WSU Tri-Cities, and the post commander of the Veterans of Foreign War Post 5785 in Kennewick.
Coming home from Vietnam in 1976, after the peace accords had been signed, Lemak said no one even acknowledged the service of veterans. It was as if you didn’t exist.
“There will be a huge disconnect between what we see here in the media and what these veterans have experienced, and they may want to talk about that. They may welcome the chance to talk about friendships they established, kids and families they helped, roads they built, how thankful the people were. That lets them engage in their most pleasant memories. I still talk about that from my Vietnam days,” said Lemak.
Doria Monter-Rogers, an administrative assistant at WSU Tri-Cities, said she found it difficult adapting to civilian life after serving just three-and-a-half months during Desert Storm. “It was hard having to think for myself again. When I was there, I had someone telling me when to get up, where to go, what to do, when to go to bed. It took me about six months to feel comfortable being in charge of myself again.”
Symptoms and what to say
Talking to or assisting a recent veteran from the war on terrorism requires some insights and forethought.
If someone is having problems adapting, symptoms might Include: nervousness, pacing, questioning personal values, questioning what courses they are taking and where they are headed, trouble sleeping, nightmares, abnormal eating patterns, avoiding socializing with friends, preferring isolation, avoiding crowds, startled by loud noises or sudden movements.
Here are a few suggestions from past veterans and counselors in talking to veterans.
* Let them know they are respected and valued for their service
* Don’t push with questions; when they are ready, they will talk to someone
* Ask very general, broad-brush questions, like, “How is it being back?”
* Don’t ask what it was like in combat, or if they killed anybody or saw someone killed
* If you know an individual and they show some warning signs, you might simply ask: “You seem a little down or anxious. Is there anything I can do to help?” Then listen.
* If appropriate, you might inform a veteran about what services are available or where they might talk to other veterans or a counselor. Possible contacts might include:
— Nearby Veterans of Foreign War posts. A list of VFW posts and phone numbers can be found for Washington at http://cvcwashington.org/counties/default.asp and for Idaho at http://www.idvs.state.id.us/vetdir.html
— Veterans Counseling Center in Spokane at 509-444-8387 (a counselor will call them back, so they don’t have to pay the long-distance phone charge).
— WSU’s Veterans Affairs Office, 346 French Ad Building, 335-1234
* Don’t single them out in a class
* Put up signs to welcome them home