“To do a job where people are trying to kill you or blow you up, you can’t think about it. You put it all on a shelf. When veterans come back, they don’t know how to take it off the shelf,” Nicholas Ryan Redford, an Iraq War veteran and philosophy major at Columbia College, said.
During his service Redford slept little, once working a 36-hour shift, and had trouble adapting to a daily lack of routine. After returning to the U.S., Redford noticed problems in his back and knees. The mental toll of service, though, was much higher, according to him. Redford’s personality had changed.
“When I came back, I didn’t ‘come back’ for a year. There are parts of me that are still (in Iraq),” Redford said.
Redford now suffers from generalized anxiety disorder. His hands shake, and he experiences panic attacks brought on by catastrophic thinking.
Returning soldiers often struggle with mental health issues. Experiences like seeing dead bodies, being attacked or knowing someone who has been killed factor into mental health risks, according to the National Center for PTSD.
The Center estimates that 10 to 18 percent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan develop post-traumatic stress disorder, which can cause substance abuse issues. For veterans returning to school, these problems can negatively affect classroom performance. Shawn Martin, team leader of the Manhattan (Kansas) Vet Center, works with veterans’ organizations. He helps instructors identify signs of PTSD among veterans, like lack of concentration and irritability.
“Sometimes, if they’re struggling and professors learn that, they can adapt tests and class structure a little bit,” Martin said.
Columbia College, whose main campus is in downtown Columbia, has experience supporting veterans. With 18 of its 35 campuses on military bases, the college has an active role in helping military personnel obtain higher education degrees.
Yukendra Wynn-Armstrong, senior Veterans Affairs Certifying Official at Columbia College’s Ousley Family Veterans Service Center, identifies common problems related to mental issues among veterans in classrooms.
“Some of the students may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and they may not go to class on a regular basis, may not know how to study for exams, having a hard time focusing and just generally adapting to non-military life,” Wynn-Armstrong said.
Wynn-Armstrong understands the culture from which student veterans come. Like many Ousley Center staff members, she has firsthand experience with adjusting to civilian life as a former Marine.
“Military culture is extremely structured. You know, you’re told to go from point A to point B to point C, what to wear, what time you’re going to eat. And then, when you get out, you don’t have that structure anymore. So you don’t know what to do without being told what to do,” Wynn-Armstrong said.
She sees time management and figuring out expectations as a significant obstacle to these students.
“If you don’t have someone forcing you to go to work, forcing you to go to class, some of the veterans say, ‘Oh, I’ll go to this class, then I’ll go to that class, nobody really cares,’” Wynn-Armstrong said.
Many instructors, though, do not have insight into military life. So, in addition to working with students, Columbia College trains instructors in how to engage with and support student veterans. Last year, the college participated in the “Give Them 30” campaign, a program to help instructors recognize and help student veterans who don’t want to acknowledge their military status. During the 30-minute online course, instructors learn to recognize situations common among student veterans, like having trouble focusing in class, according to Columbia College’s website.
While Columbia College is making efforts to help student veterans, Wynn-Armstrong sees room for improvement.
“I would like to see that there’s some sort of transitional classes for the students, to learn how to adjust from being in the military to being in the classroom. A lot of other colleges in different states have some program in place where it’s strictly student veterans and they’re learning how to adjust and deal with their issues,” Wynn-Armstrong said.
Redford calls veterans’ support at the Ousley Center “fantastic.”
“Three full-time employees are veterans. They’re working their butt off to make sure you get your (veterans’ benefits) on time,” Redford said.
After three years at Columbia College, Redford is finally starting to feel at home in the city. He enjoys insightful discussions with professors, and has connected with other student veterans.
“I fell in love with (Columbia College),” Redford said.