VCU Vows to Make Returning Soldiers Comfortable Students

Feb 21, 2017

When it comes to military veterans, Virginia is number one with more vets per capita than any other state.  Because most qualify for educational benefits under the GI bill, many end up in college, but the transition isn’t always easy. 

Sandy Hausman reports on a program designed to ease former and reserve soldiers into life on campus.

VCU students Jacob Davis and Eric Dueweke teach faculty and staff members how best to work with military veterans returning to school.

When Eric Dueweke left the marines after 22 years, he wanted to study biology, so he enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University.  Adapting to a new culture has been difficult.

“The last time I was in a classroom there was no Internet," he recalls. "There were no computers.  We didn’t have cell phones.  I mean we were in an analog environment, and now I’m in classrooms where all my instructors require me to log in, check blackboards, do access codes.  It’s completely different than what I thought school would be like.”

He finds it hard to relate to his fellow students, many more than 20 years younger.  The questions they ask annoy him:  What was it like being in combat?  How many people did you kill?

“That’s what teenagers want to know, because what’s their experience?  Video games?  TV?  They don’t know any better,” Dueweke concludes.

He  suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which puts him at risk for certain symptoms.  Steve Ross, who heads VCU’s military student center, wants faculty members and staff to be on the lookout for and report behaviors associated with PTSD.

“Why are they sitting in the back of the class and scanning constantly?  What’s going on?  What’s driving these sort of things: possible flashbacks, feeling numb to situations.  Sometimes they just don’t care.  They’re indifferent – anxiety, very negative moods at times,” Ross explains.

Maya Saunders is active in the National Guard. She finds the Green Zone's military student center at VCU a comfortable place to relax between classes.

And, he adds, they may be suffering from traumatic brain injuries caused by explosions in battle or by accidents back home.

“People that go in the military tend to burn the candle a little hotter on both ends.  They tend to want to go fast. They live hard, love hard, and work hard, so as a result a lot of times they might be in motorcycle accidents, car accidents, climbing accidents – you know high risk ventures.”

So he’s promoting a program called The Green Zone – 90 minutes of lecture, videos and interactive presentations from student veterans like Brook Tracy who served ten years in the Navy.  It was a structured life with lots of institutional assistance.  Not so for life on campus.

“You’re just used to having the support network there on a daily basis, let alone being the older student that has kids, bills, insurance things that maybe the 18-year-old doesn’t necessarily have,” Tracy explains.

And Jacob Davis, who spent a decade in the military – serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, finds VCU a cultural minefield.

“My experience overseas has really opened my eyes to the world, but coming to a university that prides itself on diversity as it does here is completely surreal to me.  I’ve never experienced it before.  It’s a whole new world.”

So far, Steve Ross says, the Green Zone program – named for a safe area in and around Baghdad during the Iraq War – has been popular with faculty and staff.  Administrative assistant Jamie Smalley thinks  she’ll be more comfortable now interacting with student veterans.

“I thought it was just awesome," Smalley says . I mean I don’t think we should walk around on eggshells, but to be aware that people come from different experiences and I think that will only make things better for everyone.”

The Green Zone could benefit about 300 veterans who enroll at VCU each semester, and the program has now spread to about 200 other schools.