Veterans struggles are less than appreciated by student majority

By Oscar Stephens-Willis

Originally published in the December 2014 issue. 

Not everyone has served in the military, nor does everyone have a veteran friend or family member; as such not everyone can relate to the issues and struggles veterans face upon returning back from overseas.

Seemingly, however, veteran voices fall on deaf ears.

The Student Veterans Association at SCC is an organization on campus that both celebrates and provides services for those who have served in the military, as well as holds events to bring said veterans together.

Issues veterans face when returning home are both multiple and substantial. From severe health issues to feelings of intense uncertainty in life, it’s our duty to recognize that these problems are very real to our student colleagues and can be helped.

The problems are not always un-relatable.

Many of us, for example, have had the feeling of going somewhere new (coming to a new city for college, say) and felt that unpleasant experience of culture shock. Imagine then, if that experience was not a one-way exclusive.

Rachel Hayes, the current Vet Corps Navigator at Bellevue College, and the past President of SCC Veterans Association, considers coming home from service as a similar challenging experience.

“Coming home is as much of a culture shock as heading off to basic training,” Hayes said. “When I got home (many years ago now) I tried to jump straight back into school and ‘get on’ with my life…I spent most of my first year back drinking too much and engaging in other self-destructive behaviors,” Hayes continued.

To think that people around us struggle isn’t pleasant. To think they’re suffering without attention or care is worse. Veteran’s needs face an awareness problem at Seattle Central, which potentially leaves student veterans to suffer.

The SVA requires help in several forms, especially regarding attention and respect.

“A lot can be done,” said Matthew Perry, Veteran Association Event Chairperson. “From finding a better place for the Veterans Lounge and the Vet Corps Navigators office, to having more events held by the school (not by the veterans group), to supporting the veterans that are at this school already.”

Statewide out of 34 Community Colleges, Seattle Central is one of 4 that allots veterans their own room on campus. The room in question is located at the very back of the North Building.

Glen Mulkey, a 10-year Navy veteran and current Vet Corps navigator at SCC appreciates the space, but feels that it’s not the complete answer.

“It’s amazing that we have our own space, and we’re very grateful for that,” Mulkey said. “But beyond that, we’re kind of the bastard children of student organizations.”

With many other organizations being centered around hobbies or cultural or racial demographics, the SVA is the biggest organization to be built around a life choice. Something Mulkey feels results in a disinterest or lack of equal respect.

“We get the feeling from other clubs that we don’t count. That’s not true.  Being a veteran to us is as important as being proud of what country we’re from, our belief systems, our religions.“

“It’s a sense of not belonging.”

Even if we are cynical about the military and have contrasting opinions on their deployment in other countries, most can relate to the concept that home is where we ‘belong’, and where we should feel most welcome and cared for.

“Even if you disagree with the wars and the involvement,” Mulkey said. “Realize that for those of us that wore our uniforms with pride, all we wanted to do was come home.”

Having an association for veterans doesn’t mean other students have the responsibility to care removed from their shoulders. In fact, if nothing else, students should see the SVA as proof that the issue of veterans is something that should be cared about more.

“Beyond a couple of key faculty and staff, no one understand or cares about veteran’s issues,” Mulkey said. “Minority, women, religion and any other issue, sure.  There’s a lack of education and awareness about veterans in this school. Other groups are given time and attention, special recognition, support. We’re not.”

Veterans face problems that many of us in the campus community will never comprehend, simple change in habits or a moment of care can make the difference for a suffering vet.

“School students can help by being more in tune with the needs of veterans,” Perry said. “Small things such as a cell phone going off in class may be a BIG problem for a veteran that has returned from combat in Iraq or Afghanistan (cell phones are used to detonate roadside bombs).”

One of the biggest and more common problems veterans face is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s an issue for many vets returning from combat. There are over 2.3 million American veterans (at least 20%) of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and a further 2.6 million who fought in Vietnam who suffer with PTSD.

50% of those with PTSD do not seek treatment.

Tony Muething, SVA president worries that some student veterans suffer because they are simply unaware of the facilities that are available to them.

“The biggest hurdle I see is the lack of knowledge as to the resources available,” said Muething, SVA President. “Getting a list of student vets to organizations like the SVA would help to communicate the resources we have available to them.”

“Even our VA vet, Tony Diaz, is in a small office behind the financial aid office, not extremely accessible. So getting the word out as to what is available for vets is the biggest hurdle.”

“In addition to this making faculty aware of problems vets have in adapting to college life would go a long way,” Muething continued. “This is particularly true to the veterans who suffer from PTSD and experience a certain degree of social anxiety in a classroom setting.”

Various professors at Seattle Central have learnt over the years just how deep some PTSD issues can go, and how certain triggers should be noted and respected.

Jeb Wyman, a professor at Seattle Central for around 20 years, spoke about some of the troubling effects PTSD has on veterans that he had witnessed first hand in class.

Wyman remembers a student veteran who requested that the orange cover of their course packet be changed to another color.

“For 15 months in Iraq he’d interrogated prisoners wearing bright orange jumpsuits, and the color now gives him deep anxiety,” Wyman said. “He was in Texas early after he got out, and a line of church kids in bright orange tee shirts pushed him over the edge.”

Mulkey himself has felt first-hand the lack of sensitivity by classmates and staff.

“I distinctly recall being asked by a running start senior during class last year how many people I’d seen killed,” said Mulkey. “The teacher and my classmates could not see the problem with this question. That’s a big deal.”

This lack of sensitivity can be quickly and easily rectified with more understanding. Giving the veteran the understanding that you’re willing to listen and that you care can provide them with a much-needed outlet.

Regarding another veteran in class, Wyman was patient and allowed the student the opportunity to be open.

“I could tell he was a vet from clues,” Wyman said. “But I didn’t ask him about it, just gave him space. At the end of class, he opened up.  Big time. Stood in front of the class and told the story of the humvee hit by an IED, five guys dead, him alone alive.”

The least students can do is take a moment to consider this problem, and show respect those who are in need by being understanding and thoughtful. For those who feel inclined to do more, you can make the difference by personally make an appearance and showing up to events and helping out.

I met with President Paul Killpatrick, and he agreed that as far as educating the campus students and faculty, saying that “We could a better job of educating campus, we as a college could do more.”

One thing President Killpatrick has done in regards to veterans is setting up a Stand Down event in Seattle. Stand Down events are where veterans, specifically those who are homeless, can come and receive free services.

“Stand Down was started 3 years ago,” said President Killpatrick. “We started Stand Down and it really got a lot of support. We learn something new every year.”

“We have a 2 day event in December,” said President Killpatrick. “People can come and get haircuts, blankets and we have student nurses who can check out veterans.”

The Seattle Stand Down brings veterans together and supplies them with that sense of camaraderie that they potentially miss from active service. This year, the Seattle Stand Down is being held on the 11th and 12th of December. All student, staff and faculty can volunteer to help or donate funds at www.theseattlestanddown.org

At the end of the day, however, helping a veteran might just be less complicated than you think.

“Find organizations that strike a chord with you, and support them,” Mulkey said. “There are now vet’s groups for every walk of life, disaster relief, athletics, storytelling, music… But even better, find a vet. Ask how you can help them.  Talk to them. Hear their stories, heed their wisdom.”

“That might be all they need.”

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