July 21, 2008, Champaign, IL – Nothing Derek Blumke saw during three Air Force tours in Afghanistan prepared him for college life.
That was obvious to him during one of his first calls to the University of Michigan, when employees told him they couldn’t answer his questions because he wasn’t yet a student. Later, he found himself wandering the Ann Arbor campus trying to figure out how to use his military benefits to pay tuition.
“I was frustrated and angry and disappointed,” said Blumke, 26, a former gunship maintenance supervisor who’s now a senior studying political science and psychology at Michigan. “That frustration and anger turned into motivation. You don’t want me here? OK, fine. I WILL come here.”
As veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq return to campus, many are finding that colleges and universities are only beginning to figure out how to help soldiers, sailors and others transition back to civilian, social and academic life.
Many need help with paperwork. Others seek emotional and psychological support. And others struggle to fit into the social fabric of a campus where their classmates often are much younger.
“Obviously, nobody goes to combat and comes back the same person,” said Bob Wallace, director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a Marine veteran of Vietnam. “With multiple problems that we’re seeing, there is a stress on people.”
There are no firm statistics on the number of veterans attending colleges and universities, because some attend without benefit of the GI bill. According to the Veterans Administration, about 250,000 veterans are using the benefit.
But with more people returning from conflict than at any time since the Vietnam War — along with a new, more generous GI bill — the number of college-bound vets is expected to swell.
And universities are beginning to respond to their needs.
The University of Colorado at Boulder has an Office of Veterans Affairs to recruit vets and serve as their point of contact. The university tells vets it can help answer questions on anything from tuition to housing — and refer them for counseling help or to off-campus vets groups.
“United States colleges and universities are going to be looking at students coming in with mental problems,” said R. L. Whidmann, an English professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and immediate past chairman of the school’s faculty council. “We have to serve this population and serve this population well.”
At Michigan, Blumke — president of a national students vets group, the Student Veterans of America — said the university recently began offering a single point person on campus to answer questions, such as how to take advantage of education benefits provided by the military and transfer credits from courses taken before their service. It also can tell them where to get psychological help.
He also recommends that, like Michigan, schools set up veterans councils — groups of student vets who can help schools identify problems that should be addressed.
Absent such services, many returning veterans have begun banding together to help each other.
Megan Upperman dropped most of her classes during one of her first semesters at Southern Illinois University after she found it difficult to make the transition back to civilian life.
Upperman, who served in Iraq in 2004 in Army National Guard supply convoys, said she was uncharacteristically edgy for six or eight months after her return, still in what she called the state of “hyper overdrive” she’d lived in while riding up and down the roads of a country at war.
“At the drop of a dime, I’d just get upset over something that was ridiculous,” said Upperman, 23, a senior earning a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology.
At the urging of a boyfriend, she enrolled in counseling through the Veterans Affairs Department.
She also helped start an on-campus veterans group, Cougar Vets, to help other veterans find answers to simple questions — how to use military benefits like the GI Bill, for example — and to link them with other people who’ve had similar experiences.
At Eastern Illinois University, Army veteran Eric Hiltner and other veterans resurrected a defunct informal fraternity for Army vets called the Black Knights, building their own social and support network.
Hiltner, a 24-year-old journalism student who served in Iraq, found it more comfortable to socialize with other veterans than many of the other students on campus.
“They’re sitting there (saying), “I haven’t seen my dog in two weeks,”‘ Hiltner said with a weary laugh. “I’m going, ‘I’ve gone two and a half years without seeing my family.”‘
Andy King, the director of counseling services at the Edwardsville campus of Southern Illinois, said such groups are a good way for veterans to help themselves.
King helped Upperman and others start Cougar Vets about a year ago after hearing a warning at a conference from a Vietnam veteran about the influx of combat vets campuses could expect.
Not all want to be part of a vets group, King says, but many take comfort in knowing their experience isn’t unique.
“It should provide some normalization and validation for what it’s like to be sometimes a 23-year-old college freshman who’s seen some pretty horrible stuff, but yet you’re sitting in a freshman English course with a bunch of 18-year-olds who haven’t seen anything,” King said.
At Michigan, Blumke says he’s begun working with the university’s Depression Center on outreach programs for vets on and off campuses.
Dr. John Greden, director of the center, said he hopes to set up pilot sites at other campuses to test ideas ranging from mobile units that travel and offer counseling for vets to training veterans to conduct their own peer counseling.
The ideas, though, work best when campuses make them their own, he said — something vets like Blumke are often good at prodding schools to do.
“I think as a society we’ve got to really bend over backwards to make their local community responsible for helping (veterans),” Greden said. “And for those who are students, the university is part of their local community.