April 27, 2008 – Raleigh, NC — Spc. Natasha McKinnon survived losing part of her left leg to an improvised bomb in Iraq. Now that she’s back, she’s trying to find her balance in college life. Sometimes she can’t recall a professor’s name. She loses track of test dates. Occasionally, she forgets she has pulled off her prosthetic leg to rest her stump during a long lecture, only to tilt off balance when she tries to stand.
As tens of thousands of veterans of the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq try to collect on their promised college benefits, McKinnon and others are finding that their combat experience complicates the transition from soldier to student.
Some have trouble collecting the government money that is supposed to pay for college, or they discover that the benefits aren’t nearly enough to cover tuition and other bills. While their classmates complain about homework and hangovers, many vets struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, the effects of traumatic brain injury, lost limbs and a range of chronic medical problems.
“Not only am I a full-time student,” McKinnon said during a break between classes, “I’m a full-time patient. It takes a toll, mentally and physically. Sometimes I’m there in class, but only in body. Not in mind.”
With 1.5 million service members coming out of military duty in Afghanistan and Iraq since October 2001, universities across the state and the nation have been anticipating a postwar influx and looking for ways to welcome veterans to campus.
NCSU has a historical connection to veterans; immediately after World War II, the campus was inundated with returning soldiers attending school on the generous GI Bill of 1944. By the fall of ’46, they made up more than three-fourths of NCSU’s enrollment, part of the national “GI Bulge” that sent 8 million vets to college or vocational training.
Compared to that flood, today’s student veterans are a trickle, coming quietly onto campus a few at a time, often without mentioning their military service. No one tracks how many enrolled at NCSU, Duke or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are veterans. If they don’t ask for help, the schools may never know they’re there.
That may be why many departments at NCSU have been slow to recognize that veterans might need special accommodations, says Cheryl Branker, NCSU’s director of disability compliance.
Provisions can include priority seating near a door so a student vet can leave quickly if the crowded room makes him anxious; a quiet room for taking tests, where other students’ sudden movements won’t send the vet into high alert; or relocating a class to a space that’s wheelchair-accessible.
“These are people who have put themselves in harm’s way, in a very dangerous place,” Branker said. “I just don’t see that a person could come back from that experience and the effects be mild. If there is a way to help them, we want to do it.”
Generally, Branker says, student vets fall into two groups. Reservists and National Guardsmen are usually in their 30s or older, back from combat duty they never really bargained for and now finally able to pursue the college education they always wanted. Then there are the soldiers in their 20s, who went into active duty shortly after high school, deployed overseas and came back aged beyond their years.
Either one walking into a classroom full of typical freshman might have trouble fitting in.
Vets slow to seek help
Soldiers coming out of the structure of the military may get frustrated by the inefficiency of a college bureaucracy, Branker says. There is no single place they can go, present their military records and get a package of information telling them what help they’re entitled to. Although she sets up kiosks and hands out brochures at every orientation session, every open house, every meeting she can squeeze into, Branker knows many veterans on campus still don’t know that her office exists and that they may be eligible for services there.
Privacy restrictions keep her from making the first call. Students must come to her.
Veterans often don’t want to admit they have a disability and won’t seek help, Branker says, even though they would qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law says any student with an impairment that affects a major life function is eligible for assistance, no matter the cause of the impairment.
Branker has seen student veterans who have hearing loss, vision loss, decreased physical stamina, mobility issues. She says most of the veterans she sees have been diagnosed with PTSD, thought to afflict as many as 20 percent of Iraq war veterans, or they have traumatic brain injury from being too close to too many explosions.
“Most of them have both,” she said.
Veterans often take medications such as antidepressants and sleep aids to help with the psychological effects of the war and painkillers to deal with the physical reminders. Such drugs can interfere with a student’s ability to focus.
Student values seem trivial
“You just feel like you’re on a different playing field,” said Jason Lindsay, 25, an Army reservist who spent five months in Iraq in 2003 before being called home to tend to his dying mother. A senior at NCSU, Lindsay is taking this semester off to work on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“You think, ‘Why are these people complaining they have to do homework? Don’t they know they could be in a mud hut and it be 130 degrees and they could be killed just for supporting the opposition? Or be in military uniform, getting shot at?’ “
After being in Iraq, Lindsay says, “You take everything a lot more seriously because you know how fortunate you are.”
Though he has PTSD, a herniated disc in his back that doctors attribute to his service, and trouble concentrating on one thing for more than a few minutes, Lindsay says his main problem has been red tape involving his educational benefits. Last year, he says, the Department of Veterans Affairs, which administers the GI Bill, erroneously decided that Lindsay was no longer in the Reserves. It cut his monthly payments of $430 a month and said he would have to repay about $7,000. Dozens of calls and letters to the Army and the VA have not corrected the record.
It doesn’t help, Lindsay says, that a school with 31,000 students, of whom at least 400 are vets, still has only one person designated to certify those students for VA benefits — or that the current GI Bill, which spells out how much money vets are allowed for school, pays out a maximum of $9,900 per year. It allows considerably less for those in the National Guard and Reserves.
“It shouldn’t be a part-time job submitting applications and resubmitting applications and bugging people and having to go to your congressman to get it straightened out,” Lindsay said. “You just want to give up and say, ‘Why … am I giving up a weekend a month? Why did I just put my life on the line?’ “
Jim Benson, a spokesman for the VA in Washington, said the department is working hard to help veterans get the benefits they’re entitled to, but it can be complicated. Programs compete and overlap, and it takes time to determine which ones each vet is qualified for and which best suit his needs.
“Generally, we’re doing pretty well,” Benson said. “There are lots of challenges, lots of choices. It can be confusing.”
The challenge of mobility
For McKinnon, just getting from one class to the next can be an exhausting ordeal.
McKinnon launched her college career at Kent State University in her native Ohio but knew her scholarships and grants would run out before she could finish. Athletic, patriotic and, above all, pragmatic, she was lured by the military’s most effective recruitment tool: the offer to help pay for school when her service obligation was done.