Most students take the stereotypical route of graduating from high school and then moving on to college. Some might even take a gap year or skip the college route entirely and go straight to a career.
Others join the military and later come to college as a student veteran.
Veterans exist among most student populations and face challenges that many non-veteran students don’t even think about.
The transition from active duty to civilian life isn’t seamless however, according to Houston Clearwater, Student Veteran Association vice president and sophomore computer science major. Clearwater served from 2013-2017 in Korea, Georgia and Arizona.
“For me, at least in my experience, it was kind of hard,” Clearwater said. “I went from having all these friends, who I (thought of) as family, and (now) I spend all my time (with) basically me and my girlfriend. Which, don’t get me wrong, I love her to death, but it wasn’t that family I’d had. Even my own family, who’s here in Kansas...it’s just not the same.”
For veterans everywhere, the feeling of being an outsider is common, according to Clearwater. It happens just as often on college campuses.
“Assimilating back into civilian populous, you know, it’s difficult for a lot of people,” Clearwater said. “A lot of people feel like they don’t have people that can support them, where they did have a support system with the Army or whatever branch of service they were in.”
This difficulty with assimilation contributes to suicide rates among veterans, according to Michael White, junior political science major. White, who spent four and a half years in Germany, Afghanistan and Texas, described the situation as an abrupt change from a lot of structure to very little.
“It’s a problem that a lot of veterans have a difficult time with and it kind of leads to the suicide crisis,” White said. “It’s difficult, it really is…You had a job everyday before you woke up. You already knew what you were doing the next day and now every day is just kind of a new thing.”
While Clearwater exited the military and immediately started college, White worked for awhile in between exiting the military and starting college.
“When I got out of the army...I had an acceptance letter to Pittsburg State and then I went to a recruit military job fair, started climbing cell towers and doing 4G LTE upgrades,” White said. “I did the one inside of Allen Fieldhouse on KU campus and all (throughout) the midwest.”
He was working when a military buddy reached out.
“I actually had a friend of mine who really encouraged me to use my GI Bill,” White said. “That friend was attending Emporia State at the time, and he said I should come here…My dad was a Hornet, and my mom was a Hornet, so it kind of made sense.”
Among the many misconceptions veterans face, one is even though they might look angry, White said they’re really not and they enjoy working with their non-veteran classmates.
“Although we look kind of angry a lot of the time, we’re very approachable people,” White said. “Most of us are a little bit older, so we have a little bit more experience in life, I guess, in some aspects. But, I learn things from my classmates every day that I appreciate. They give me different perspectives for a lot of things.”
According to Clearwater, another misunderstanding veterans face is that all suffer from mental health issues.
While the number of veterans with PTSD varies depending on the particular war, the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs states that about 11-20 percent of veterans who fought in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have some form of PTSD.
“‘Every veteran has PTSD, right?’ That’s a huge misconception,” Clearwater said. “That we’re all on the brink of the wire, about to go crazy or something…That just couldn’t be further from the truth. Some of our members do have PTSD, but it wouldn’t be what the media portrays to you as someone who has PTSD. They live life like the rest of us. I mean, they have their problems with it, but in the end, we’re all people.”
Following along those lines, Clearwater also said that not everyone was involved in
“Another misconception, I’m trying to look at it from the outside in, is that we’re all combat veterans or have been in combat or went somewhere where there was combat,” Clearwater said. “That’s not true. There’s a lot that have, and there’s a lot of us that haven’t.”
Both White and Clearwater said that currently, one of the main issues veterans at ESU are struggling with is having a point person to go to for help with credits, applying their GI Bill, or anything veteran related.
“I’d say one of the most common issues is representation,” White said. “We’ve had numerous people fill the role of who the veterans go to for veteran problems, (and) it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find people that stay in that role.”
According to Clearwater, with no one to fill this role, veterans “have to know a guy” to get the help they need.
However, the university recently developed this role and it’s now being filled by Sarah Johnson, who is working with Ceara Shaughnessy, assistant professor of counselor education.
Shaughnessy recently sponsored a resolution through Faculty Senate which increased the number of credits veteran’s receive from 18 to 30. Also announced during a senate meeting is that Allison Garrett, president of ESU, will be finalizing these changes in the UPM in October, according to David Cordle, provost.
Veterans can also go to the Student Veterans Association for help with anything they need. Clearwater said outside of providing help in an academic capacity, the SVA can also help provide a sense of community and family.
“One of the big things that we actually provide (is help assimilating back to civilian life), and it’s not necessarily a program,” Clearwater said, “Luckily for me,…when I first came to town, my girlfriend had said something (like) ‘Hey, you should go to this bar downtown, there’s a guy there (and) I know at least he’s a student veteran,’ or something like that and I was like ‘OK well, I’ll go talk to him,’ and that’s where I met Mike White. Mike White got me involved in just about anything he could. He brought me into the SVA, and man, it was like I had a family again.”
According to Clearwater, the veterans on campus share a bond, and they’d do almost anything to help one another.
“This semester, first day of school, I went to go get in my car, I walked in my garage turned the key over and click. Nothing,” Clearwater said. “So, day one was starting out pretty bad. Luckily, I made a post to the Facebook group and not 10 minutes later, Mike White was there picking me up.”
“It’s like a family to us and we always try to look out for one another and take care of each other,” Clearwater said. “That’s one of the things, you know, if someone called me right now and said ‘Hey man, I’m stuck on the side of the road. Can you come get me?’ I’m leaving right now and going to go get them. I believe every single one of our members would do that for each other.”
A major part of being a veteran on campus is the sense of community and family they have with each other. It’s more than a label and identifier.
“We all understand, we all came from a similar background,” Clearwater said. “We’ve had different experiences, but we have a general understanding of each other...If you’re a student veteran, come talk to us.”