Military veterans restarting their educational lives on college campuses across the Washington, D.C., metro region may gravitate to student-veteran organizations that help members find study partners, manage their government benefits, and even receive physical therapy.
Many four-year colleges and community colleges, along with individual programs within these schools, invite former and current members of the armed forces to join for weekly or monthly meetings with others that utilize military benefits to attend courses. Attendance of the veteran group meetings is often spotty, with some schools having just recently started a student-veteran organization.
Managing the dynamics of student-veteran groups, however, has proven tricky for some group leaders as they try to bridge the gap that sometimes exists between combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and veterans who served in noncombat roles.
A campus’ student-veteran group should be there primarily to connect service members in their effort to acclimate into civilian life, said Erik Ogilvie, president of the student-veteran organization at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School.
“[Veterans] have a different background that sets us apart from the normal student who hasn't had any of those experiences,” said Ogilvie, an Army veteran who launched the on-campus group at the beginning of the spring semester.
Blending in with college students who haven’t served in the military, Ogilvie said, is a goal for many veterans returning to college after a stint as a service member. Disassociating with fellow veterans, he said, is understandable but misguided.
“It’s true that some people want to interact with civilians more than veterans, but it's important that they interact with people who they share experiences with, and understand where they're coming from,” he said. “You have to realize no one [outside of the military] has had the life experience that you've had.”
Catherine Cornish, president of Anne Arundel Community College’s Student Veterans of America organization who served in the army from 1996-2004, said there is an occasional rift between service members who spent their military careers in the U.S. and those who served on Middle Eastern battlefields.
“Some [Iraq and Afghanistan war] veterans won’t show up to our meetings because of the stigma that might be attached to their deployments,” said Cornish, who is pursuing a degree in cyber security. “Politics might come into play too, and people generally want to avoid that.”
About 30 of the over 1,100 veterans at Anne Arundel Community College regularly attend the student-veteran group’s meetings, which are designed to help veterans understand the many government benefits available to them and how to best access tuition help and money allocated for housing assistance while they’re in school.
“I realized that I didn’t even know a lot of these benefits are available to me,” Cornish said, referring to medical benefits offered through Veterans Affairs. “People just don’t know it’s there for them. We want to meet those needs and make sure that doesn’t happen to our veterans.”
The student-veteran organization at Montgomery College’s Rockville campus has grown from its days of meeting in a utility closet, where meeting attendees sat on paper shredders and copy machines.
Rose Sachs, chairwoman of disability support services at Montgomery College, said convincing veterans to attend the college’s meetings with fellow vets meant fighting “the ingrained ethic of, ‘You don’t ask for any help from anyone anytime.’”
According to Sachs, that unwillingness to seek a little help here and there prevents many veterans from searching for study partners. Asking for help from campus veteran groups is even more unlikely for veterans with invisible conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Sachs said.
“If you’re not blind or deaf or missing a limb from something that happened in the battlefield, there’s a lot of paranoia and stigma about disabilities that no one can see,” she said.
Sachs said Montgomery College’s student-veteran group enjoyed a bump in attendance after it offered acupuncture for any of the school’s 700 veterans who needed it. The college also offers discounted and free tickets to professional sporting events in the D.C. area and open gym hours just for former service members.
“We’ve seen how popular these little programs can be,” Sachs said.
Ogilvie said he had made contacts with local business owners in hopes of helping soon-to-be Johns Hopkins graduates enter the workforce without a lull between graduation and their first day on the job.
Many veterans said it’s a priority not just to find some sort of employment after school, but to find a job that makes them want to get out of bed every morning, said Ogilvie.
“We want to help them find meaningful employment that helps them feed their families and find the kind of fulfillment they had when they were in uniform,” said Ogilvie, who served one year in Iraq. “When you're sitting in a business meeting, it's not the same as when you're sitting with your soldiers. There’s nothing quite like going out in combat with your soldiers.”