Supporting Veterans in the Classroom

Veterans bring unique challenges that require a focused faculty response.
By Alisa Roost and Noah Roost

In 2007–08, approximately 4 percent of all US college and university students were veterans or activeduty soldiers; since the drawdown began in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of student veterans has risen. Yet few statistics exist to show how veterans are doing in college. Larry Abramson reported on National Public Radio on December 5, 2012, that “there are no national statistics on veterans’ graduation rates.” While the United States is doing a better job in its treatment of veterans today than it did following the Vietnam War, severe problems persist. Veterans face long waits for disability payments and endure higher-than-average homelessness and suicide rates. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics study, recent efforts have reduced the overall unemployment rate among veterans to 7 percent, but veterans of post–September 11 conflicts have a 10.8 percent rate. Historically, the unemployment rate for combat veterans has been about three percentage points higher than the rate for all veterans.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group, noted that “one of the greatest challenges veterans report in finding a job is explaining how their military skills translate to the civilian workforce.” Veterans often attempt to bridge that gap by attending college; the US Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 64.8 percent of all veterans take higher education classes. However, veterans often experience difficulties in college, too. Despite the competence they may have developed and demonstrated in the military, some veterans don’t know how to transfer their skills to new environments. 

Veterans, of course, are a diverse group. A member of the Coast Guard who never deployed will have a different set of experiences from those of a combat veteran, and two veterans of Afghanistan probably had different experiences if one regularly patrolled “outside the wire” and the other handled logistics in a forward operating base. Although some mistakenly assume otherwise, many female veterans have been deployed to battle zones, and many members of the Reserves and National Guard have been deployed and experienced combat. Even veterans who were not deployed in war zones can face trauma. The Pentagon estimates that 34 percent of military women and 3 percent of military men have experienced sexual assault. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) are signature injuries of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 28 percent of all veterans who have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD, TBI, or both. This figure is likely an underestimate of the true incidence rate, because the military culture in many units—particularly combat units, where PTSD and TBI are most common— encourages self-reliance. Other veterans suffer from trauma-related symptoms, although they don’t qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD. These veterans are typically diagnosed with “Anxiety Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified,” a label that can still indicate severe difficulties but brings with it less medical support. 

PTSD, associated with slowed mental processing speed, can have broad effects on cognitive functioning. In studies, chronic PTSD predicted deficits in short-term memory and attention processes among Vietnam veterans. These problems are associated with difficulty in directing attention to appropriate stimuli and in retaining and manipulating information. 

The Congressional Budget Office found that 7 percent of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were diagnosed with TBI between 2004 and 2009. Attention deficit is the most common cognitive impairment for veterans with mild TBI, manifesting itself as poorly sustained concentration, increased distractibility, difficulty multitasking, and, in the long term, problems with verbal retrieval. A person experiencing TBI may display slow recall of names and terms, paraphasias, and misnaming. Faculty members should not make assumptions about specific veterans or active service members but should instead listen to their experiences and support them as individuals. 

Military Culture 

The training and culture of the military deeply influence military personnel. The clearly defined structure, constant participation and supervision, and danger of combat situations have a lasting impact on members of the military. 

All branches of the military encourage identification with the group rather than the individual. Additionally, some military personnel are entrusted with more responsibility than their peers. They tend to work in teams that become very close. The military inculcates a strong sense of mission and clearly identified core values. Each branch has its own focus: the army, for example, emphasizes loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. Some veterans find it easier to work in groups on a mission with defined outcomes using specific values. An already difficult transition to academic life can be exacerbated because some veterans miss the immediate responsibility they experienced while ensuring the safety of fellow soldiers on a mission. Many veterans returning from combat find civilian life lacking in intensity and in meaning. College can thus be a foreign culture—perhaps even more foreign than their former places of combat. 

A twenty-four-year-old veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan can feel isolated from an environment dominated by eighteen-year-olds who just graduated from high school. Veterans tend to respect authority, including professors, and may feel that their peers do not. 

Some former soldiers perceive a bias against veterans on campus. Professors should consider tempering criticism of the wars, specifying when their concerns are centered on the political process rather than the military itself. Virginia Commonwealth University, in training faculty and staff members who volunteer to provide additional support to veterans, emphasizes the importance of listening: “If a service member or veteran openly discusses his or her experience: do not interrupt, do not minimize, do not inject your political beliefs about the war. Just listen.” 

Learning Styles 

An enlisted soldier will have different experiences from a commissioned officer, who will usually have at least a bachelor’s degree before entering military service; suggestions here focus primarily on enlisted soldiers, who are more likely to enroll in undergraduate institutions. The military constantly teaches its personnel new skills, so most veterans are excellent at learning. Military training emphasizes “standard operating procedure” (SOP), which systematizes approaches to nearly everything. Service members usually know what is expected of them. An army member is taught that the correct way to write is always to research, plan, draft, revise, and proofread. Military teaching focuses on learning the correct procedures in a specific way, with continual assessment and explicit real-world applications. However, the military doesn’t usually encourage members to question orders. Some veterans have little experience challenging authority, completing broadly defined assignments, or feeling confident when expectations are unclear. 

Creativity, self-expression, and critical thinking are, with some exceptions, emphasized less in military training than in college. Once a soldier learns SOP, he or she can apply it broadly in many situations. In college, on the other hand, different disciplines have different expectations, writing styles, and citation rules. Even professors in the same discipline may have varying assumptions. 

Military communication guidelines differ greatly from academic writing. Communication training in the military, especially in the army, focuses on concise, clear writing. Army guidelines can seem more designed for the telegraph than an expository essay, with single words sometimes replacing sentences. As Singleton Dalton reports in her Georgetown University master’s thesis, “From Combat to Composition,” the army style manual values brevity and efficiency to the point of recommending that confusing, longer words, like “anxiety,” be replaced by clearer, shorter words, like “fear,” regardless of nuances in meaning. Guidelines can specify that the same kind of information be situated at the same place in every report. The army defines ideal writing as averaging fifteen words per sentence, with only 15 percent of the words having more than two syllables. Not surprisingly, some veterans find academic writing daunting. 

Many veterans have excellent “soft skills” in certain areas but struggle with others, thriving when professionalism and teamwork are called for but sometimes having difficulty in critical thinking and related areas. Virginia Commonwealth University identified veterans’ probable strengths as “leadership, motivation, time management, work ethic, [and] stress management,” with possible weaknesses including “difficulty translating their military skills,” feeling alienated, “insensitivity of classmates, faculty, and others on campus in regards to discussion of war and military,” “difficulty relating to classmates,” and “excessive absences.” It makes sense to consider pedagogical modifications for any veteran who asks for help. 

Accommodations 

Classroom accommodations may be beneficial for all veterans in the transition from military to civilian life but are especially important for those with TBI, PTSD, or other anxiety disorders. The best place to begin is with an attentive response. While it is inappropriate to ask an individual student about disabilities, professors can ask students who approach them to share their thoughts and ideas. 

Many college students arrive from high school steeped in academic culture; they have unacknowledged skills that will serve them in the academy. Veterans, by contrast, aren’t necessarily going to remember details like how to put headers on a term paper. But familiarity with a specific academic environment is not the same as the ability to succeed in academic life. Highlighting the differences in military and academic expectations helps demystify the academy. Emphasizing that no one intuitively knows these expectations makes learning specific skills more manageable. The gap in veterans’ education between high school and college may necessitate specific attention. Veterans in college haven’t practiced developing their own standard operating procedures for the new environment, and they are now in a situation that will require constant adaptation. One way colleges and universities can support them is by developing learning communities in which veterans take some core courses together and work as a team. 

Some simple classroom strategies will benefit not only veterans but also many other students. If possible, professors should invite students, either orally in class or with a note on the syllabus, to talk with them individually. Veterans, in particular, may have specific requests that go beyond the need for extended time and quiet testing conditions. 

Veterans sometimes request unusual accommodations. A darkened classroom, sudden loud sounds, or flashes of light can trigger traumatic memories, and some veterans may avoid class out of fear of experiencing panic and feeling trapped. Strategies that may reduce absenteeism include individual conversations to help identify coping strategies for classroom panic or anxiety, a warning from the teacher if it will be necessary to darken the classroom or otherwise create a trigger, and permission for the student to leave the classroom if panic becomes severe. Jennifer Blevins Sinski suggests in her article “Classroom Strategies for Teaching Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury” that professors avoid using assigned seating, since some student veterans may worry about people approaching them from behind and prefer to sit in the back of the class. 

Military communication focuses so much on brevity that some veterans have difficulties completing longer assignments. Focusing on what students should include in a paper or a speech, rather than how long it should be, can remove some of the pressure a student veteran may feel. In many contexts, a short but well-crafted paper with a clear, well-developed argument can be better than a long one.

If veterans are feeling alienated from other college students, they may not want to share personal experiences that highlight their differences from the rest of the student body. No student should be forced to do assignments that involve sharing personal experiences. 

Accommodations should be framed within an expectation of recovery. Recovery, however, isn’t instantaneous; some veterans can be very hard on themselves for not being as resilient as they hoped. Veterans with diagnosed disabilities should be referred to the appropriate services and encouraged to use the resources available to them. Many are reluctant to seek help because self-reliance is emphasized and psychiatric care is stigmatized in many contexts in the armed forces. Veterans in nonmilitary contexts often do not get accommodations to which they are entitled. Faculty members should work in conjunction with trained psychiatric professionals and not attempt to replace them. 

Military training emphasizes real-world application and embeds immediate assessment. Providing specific grading rubrics, examples of tangible applications for abstract principles, and timely feedback may be helpful to veterans as well as other students. Day planners can be especially useful for veterans suffering from TBI, PTSD, or persistent, mild cognitive disorder. 

Balancing freedom and structure is difficult. When a veteran, or any other student, is struggling with an ambiguous assignment, the professor must evaluate what each particular student needs at each developmental step. It may be helpful to create a standard operating procedure for students during their first semester of college and to encourage them to develop their own SOPs in the following terms. A military SOP can be a springboard for academic work. 

Professors expect students to develop approaches to problems independently. Articulating this difference in expectations between the academy and the military makes it easier for veterans to move beyond the reliance on preset guidelines they learned in the military. 

Making grading rubrics available before assignments are due benefits all students who want structure. Likewise, developing standard operating procedures can be useful to students with many different learning styles, especially in introductory courses. Differing approaches to language in the military and civilian life can provide an opening for the whole class to explore communication styles. 

Many veterans are choosing college as their primary avenue for transition to civilian life. Faculty members need to fine-tune their skills to support veterans, by recognizing the significant strengths that these veterans bring to the classroom as well as their differences in learning styles. Conscious, skillful, and appropriate accommodation for the needs of veterans will not only aid in their learning but also strengthen classes. Honoring the gifts, vulnerabilities, and differences of veterans is essential, both within the academic world and in American society at large. 

Alisa Roost is assistant professor of the humanities at Hostos Community College in the South Bronx. Her e-mail address is aroost@hostos.cuny.edu. Noah Roost is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of PTSD. He works at the Veterans Administration and in private practice in Portland, Oregon. His website is www.portlandmindfultherapy.com.

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