Bringing combat experience to college: New class offers reintegration tools for veterans

By Erin Huggins
Winter 2012

Travel is a multi-sensory experience: the sights, sounds and smells sticking around well after guidebooks are packed away. War is multi-sensory, too—its taste, touch, and tempers lingering long after combat ceases.

“You can’t go from constantly being in harm’s way, being in danger, to being home, to acting normal like nothing’s ever happened,” said alum Greg Foley ’03 (B.S. in public policy and administration), deployed in Iraq from spring 2004 to spring 2005.
To some extent, the military acknowledges the disconnect between combat operations and civilian life, Foley said. After he left Iraq, he was flown to a camp in Kuwait for around a week and a half, and when he returned to the U.S., he completed another week-long demobilization session, plus a final few days in Oregon of reintegration classes—a procedure he remembers as lengthy and hard to focus on.
In the end, the process was enough for Foley, who also was sent to Louisiana for around a month immediately following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the same year he returned from Iraq. He then returned to school, earning his Master of Business Administration at George Fox University. Foley said he enjoyed being back in an educational environment and related well to others following his deployment.
Not all veterans have the same reintegration success story, though.
Criminal Justice Professor, W. Brown, a Vietnam veteran, has interacted with more than 80 clients, separate from his job at Western Oregon University, all veterans charged with crimes ranging from attempted assault to capital murder. He examines the effect of what he terms the “military total institution” on his clients, testifying in court if needed. Since he believes the military itself is to blame and Veterans Affairs’ solutions, such as prescribing dozens of prescription drugs, are not working to solves issues like PTSD, he is looking for other ways to prevent current veteran students from becoming future veteran clients.
In the past, Brown has met with veteran students in his office, often those who were expressing some problems in class. His first question: “What are you doing here?”
Brown, who served from 1966 to 1973, had what he described as a “cushion time” between the military and his higher education, several years to decompress and sort out his experiences. “What we’re seeing in students right now is they’re getting discharged, and there’s no jobs, so they come to school,” he said.
In spring 2012, Brown launched an experimental class, Veterans in Criminal Justice, to help provide the tools veterans need to tackle the social issues of college life. Registration requirements are strict: only veterans who have been deployed are allowed to enroll, establishing solidarity among the class members and creating an environment where they are free to share.
The general student population has no idea about the experiences veterans have had in Iraq or Afghanistan, Brown said.
For example, pictures of exotic journeys posted to Facebook show friends only a little of the adventurer’s actual experiences abroad; media portrayals of Middle Eastern war zones provide even less perspective on what the soldiers face. “Part of what this reintegration class is about is dealing with your own issues, but also learning how to deal with others who are not veterans,” Brown said. “How do you deal with their issues in a way that is not caustic, that is respectful. You have to find out where the switch is and learn how to turn it off.”
Controlling reactions is especially important on the college campus.
“You have to understand that people are curious,” Foley said. But there’s a reason curiosity killed the cat. “When they find out you were in a war, one of the first things people will ask is, ’Did you kill anybody? How many people did you kill?’”
Foley’s youngest sister-in-law was among the first to surprise him with the question. He took it “with a grain of salt,” made a joke and humorously deflected the answer. For many veterans, though, the questions may come from a less personal source—another student, lacking common sense, perhaps, but also information.
Brown advises those who cannot handle the comments: “Before you become a criminal justice case, get out of there. It’s not disrespect, it’s actually respect.”
Ultimately, education is needed on both sides, for veterans and civilians, but the veterans especially “need something different because they are different,” Brown said. Often, veterans will express concerns about what other students will think. Brown’s response is blunt: “Do you really care?”
“You’re you, and that’s it. You’re never going back to where you were. You’re not going to be 15 or 16 again. This is the baggage you’ve got; you’re going to carry it until you’re dead; you’ve got to figure out how to live with it,” Brown said. “That’s the goal of the class.”
Whether the voluntary class will continue at WOU in future terms is still undecided, but Brown would like to see it happen: “The real purpose for me doing this class is I know for a fact they need a class like this, particularly deployed veterans.”
Responses from his current students, mostly seniors graduate students, confirm its usefulness. Brown has had feedback saying, “I should have had this my first quarter…I can’t believe Western waited so long to offer this class.”
Time is another indication that the class is helping. Scheduled to end at 8:20 p.m., Brown said the class sometimes goes for five hours—one Wednesday night early in the term, Brown, arrived home after class close to 11 p.m.

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