Out of the approximate 555,000 post-9/11 veterans in 2011 who attended colleges and universities, the dropout rates reported were as high as 69 percent, depending upon which school you enrolled. And nearly 250,000 veterans nationwide were saddled with student debt, making it more likely they would leave college with debt instead of degrees.
Colleges and universities are vying to create “veteran friendly” programs to attract the billions of dollars provided by the post-9/11 G.I. Bill. But making such a claim requires far more than just rhetoric. In April 2012, President Obama pointed out that recruitment practices were sometimes aggressive and dishonest, and he issued an executive order that requires colleges to provide more information about financial aid and graduation rates.
Student veterans have reported waiting weeks and sometimes months to receive benefits from the VA due to the red-tape and endless paperwork required to process claims. If the student vet attends an institution where the nonresident tuition is higher than the highest resident at a public institution, the school may or may not provide a waiver that the VA will match. Moreover, the post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits are limited to just three years for the student vet to graduate.
The problem, of course, is that some student vets are married and have family responsibilities, as well as difficulties fitting in with their younger counterparts who have no experience, or context, for understanding the student vet’s sometimes inexplicable behavior. The student vet may show up late or even miss a class because of anxiety, or arrive 15 minutes early to find the perfect desk, viewing the room, reducing a sense of physical threat. They may also have difficulty staying seated and need to change positions just to stay focused.
As a young boy, I lived about four blocks from what then was called a “junior college.” As I was entering my favorite ice-cream shop across the campus, I saw my next door neighbor, Dave, a very muscular young man, who recently had been discharged from the Navy. He was standing over a table with four seated young men, threatening to knock their heads together for laughing at him. They apologized profusely, claiming they were not laughing at him. Upon seeing me, he got hold of himself, and offered me a ride home.
On the drive home, I asked him how he knew that the four men were laughing at him. He said he didn’t know for sure, but sometimes felt uptight and upset since returning to college. I asked how he got a discharge with the war still going on. He explained that he received a medical discharge. “For what,” I asked. “Mental issues,” he replied.
We arrived home, but I stayed seated and continued asking questions. He told me that he was below deck on a battleship in the Pacific when a Japanese torpedo hit the hull and water started gushing into the hold. He rushed for the latter and just as he got to the top, the hatches automatically slammed shut and he panicked. Then suddenly a second torpedo hit. The next he knew was that he was in a lifeboat. Although thankful to be alive, he soon began having nightmares and panic attacks. He also mentioned he was seeing a psychoanalyst at the VA who was helping him deal with some suppressed emotions toward his mother and father carried over from childhood.
Because of our age difference, I didn’t see or talk much with Dave, except to say “hi” in passing, but I did hear he was accepted by a major university across town. Several years later, I heard that he graduated in engineering and headed for Alaska. Recently, I asked myself how Dave managed his comeback, while current student vets are having such a difficult time coping with college.
Yet, according to Student Veterans of America, current vets are not having such a difficult time in college. They reported over half the student vets from 2002 through 2013 under the G.I. Bill completed schooling ranging from vocational training to post-graduate. The completion rate for these veterans of 51.7 percent was lower than the four-year graduation rate for younger, non-veterans, which was 59 percent in 2011. But, considering the obstacles and issues that student vets had to deal with, these numbers appeared to refute the dire reports of dropout.
The problem with their assessment is that of the 555,000 post-9/11 veterans in 2011 who attended colleges, the vast majority were not exposed to combat. It is the combat vets who feel deeply alienated from the rest of America—not just being devastated over the loss of comrades, but often having a major identity crisis upon returning home. Difficulties with memory, attention and concentration, as well as mental processing, abstract reasoning, and executive functioning, can be common problems among combat vets.
While most colleges and universities offer counseling and psychological services, they are often staffed with trainees who are sincere and sympathetic, but not up to the task. VA hospitals are frequently staffed with newly-licensed therapists, who have been trained in just one of two VA-favored therapeutic protocols.
The VA offers veterans with Post Traumatic Stress the choice of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Prolonged Exposure (EP) therapy. Both therapies are based upon a mechanical cause and affect model. CBT repeatedly inserts a rational thought between the stimulus (traumatic event) and the response (PTSD symptoms), thereby suppressing the response. EP, on the other hand, repeatedly actuates the stimulus which may moderate the response, but also runs the risk of conditioning (strengthening) the response.
What we need is a streamlined, cost-effective version of the psychoanalytic therapy that Dave received from the VA some years back. One recent version of psychoanalytic therapy is PsychResilience Therapy (PRT). PRT is based upon psychological resilience as a self-referential process that can be re-ignited to provide a sense of self-efficacy under prolonged emotional stress. A successful outcome is brought about by empowering the student vet to openly reflect, and face down the horrific traumatic event that initiated his or her combat PTSD.
This article was co-published with PsychResilience.com