Counseling Services

Resources For Returning War Veterans

Moving from War to Academic Zones

The transition of a veteran from combat to a college environment produces a unique set of challenges and stresses. Some of these are observable and apparent: a 'ruc sac' is exchanged for a book bag, a 'mess tent' is replaced by a dining hall, and camouflage gives way to school colors. Most transitional issues, however, are far more subtle and complex

The challenges faced by veterans who transition to academic settings include:

  • Developing a primary identity other than as a service member.
  • Difficulty relating to and connecting with traditional college students. Age differences and the experience of combat (e.g., bullets whizzing by, mortar attacks, roadside bombs) frequently cause veterans to feel different than and alienated from traditional college students. Typical student concerns like grades, parties, and joining organizations seldom have the same significance to veterans, who often voice a sense of greater maturity and seriousness than traditional students. The felt alienation can be exacerbated on politically charged campuses where antiwar protests occur.
  • Finding importance and meaning in experiences and ideas that are not life-or-death. Campus life and concerns may seem trivial compared to those found in combat.
  • Negotiating the structural and procedural differences between the military and higher education bureaucracies (e.g., knowing the rules and mores of the campus, where to go to get things done, how to address professors and others in positions of authority).
  • Making a much greater number of decisions in a far more complex world. While the potential consequences of a combatant's decisions are staggering, the total number of autonomous daily decisions is quite small when compared to college life.
  • Developing a sense of safety and comfort on campus (e.g., choosing classroom seats that allow for monitoring of others and rapid escape, such as sitting with their back to the wall and near a door).
  • Boredom (e.g., transitioning from the adrenaline rush experienced in the 'high' of battle)
  • Having difficulty returning to their previous roles (as parent, spouse, children of their parents). The wartime experience often changes a veteran's worldview, life priorities, and goals.

These issues, when coupled with the challenges related to returning to general civilian life, place returning veteran students at a significantly higher risk of experiencing personal dissatisfaction and dropping out.

Resource: James Madison University Counseling Center for Returning War Veterans