People might be used to seeing the keywords ‘mental health’ and ‘veterans’ within many similar dialogues, but that should not serve to discredit the strength created from pushing through a traumatic past.
Straying from the tendency to define people by their invisible disabilities is a path being slowly paved by the individuals that work at FCC’s Veteran and Military Services department and choose to use the benefits it offers. Here at FCC, there are many students with a history of enlistment in the U.S Military, and VMS helps provide all sorts of different aid.
Bobbie Jo Perlitz decided to join the military later in life, at 32. While being a single parent of three boys, she pursued this opportunity of making a better life for them. Perlitz deployed as part of Iraqi Freedom from 2007 to 2009 with the 63rd Expeditionary Signal Battalion; she has a 90% disability rating and a 50% rating in relation to PTSD as a result of her experiences.
“It has not been easy,” she admits, “I really have not felt like I am home anymore since I left my brothers and sisters in arms, but I make the most out of each day I can”.
She praises Amy Coldren (Director of Veteran and Military Services at FCC) for being “understanding” and providing supplies that helped Perlitz genuinely get started on her academic journey. This included information, resources, and simply going “above and beyond for her,” and “with every student that has come to her for help.”
Andrew Casperson’s experience provides support for that sentiment. Casperson joined the Marines at the age of 18 and his combat deployment was in Marjah, Afghanistan from late 2011 into July of 2012. Casperson has been diagnosed with PTSD, severe anxiety disorder, and depression.
Those are just “to name a few” he says, “a direct result of his constant exposure to infantry training tactics as well as deaths resulting from combat and training accidents”.
He credits the Office of Veteran and Military Services with being “a crucial piece towards reaching a higher level of comfortability and overall tolerance”. As it gave him contact names and numbers for addressing certain mental health emergencies. I
The common consensus reached among these veterans, who were interviewed separately, is that the expectation is to never “fully transition” from that part of their lives.
Zachary Caldwell could not agree more. He started the earliest of the bunch, at the age of 17. After his graduation, he was assigned to the 324th Military Police Battalion Headquarters Company. After he completed Basic Training, he enrolled at Shepherd University but was activated as part of the Battalion in 2005 for Operation Iraqi Freedom. While stationed in Baghdad, he witnessed 16-year-old Hamadi, a friend he had made during his time there, being stabbed multiple times in the abdomen as he attempted to protect Caldwell from a detainee attack.
Caldwell received a 70% disability rating as a result of PTSD, Major Depressive Disorder, and anxiety. After his years of service, Caldwell worked at a 9-1-1 emergency communications center in West Virginia, and the diagnoses came by consequence of a call about a man who had been stabbed in the abdomen.
He mentions that he is “quite aware of the stigma associated with a mental health diagnosis”. He has even seen workplace discrimination based on these aspects of himself.
All three of the individuals interviewed have advice for veterans looking to pursue higher education:
Bobbie Jo Perlitz offered up this quote; “You are the only one who can stop yourself from becoming more. Be your own hero, stop being everyone else’s for once and do it for you.”
Andrew Casperson advises “reaching out to the campus’s veteran services or veteran club if it exists” , “surrounding oneself with other likeminded individuals who can relate” and not ignoring “any of the signs of suicide or mental break downs.”
In terms of what citizens can do to thank veterans for their service, Caldwell says they should “BE KIND”. In whatever ways they can.
Zachary Caldwell made a list of 12 advice points.
One is, “Explore. Take classes you would have never taken before. Use your electives to try out things like philosophy, stress management, music, etc.” He quoted John Adams who said, “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.”
All in all, there was nothing but positive things to say about the director of the department, Amy Coldren, former director Rachel Nachlas, and services specialist Tricia Morris. The experiences never leave individuals like the three interviewed, and they don’t necessarily want them too.
What can and has helped are services like those provided by FCC that help them realize that any negative mental impairments as a result of that time period can be managed. They don’t have to be the defining characteristic and can in fact be used for growth, especially in an educational environment.
Zach Caldwell’s 12 Recommendations
1. Choose a school in a major metropolitan area where Basic Housing Allowance payments are the highest. This way the VA pays you more money. Yes, the tuition is covered, but the housing allowance is money in your pocket. Maximize this benefit!
2. Yes, the cost of your degree is covered by the GI Bill and SLRP – or by TA (Tuition Assistance) if you’re in the Guard / Reserve. What you may not know is that you should still apply for scholarships. For one reason, you’ll be awarded those scholarships because you’re awesome. The second reason is that you can pocket that money and save it for your higher degrees (like an MS or PhD). Trust me, I’ve done this and made 17.5K in one semester while the tuition was only 10K. Eligibility for scholarships is not based upon “need” it is based upon “ability.” You’re able – so do it.
3. Start with a general studies degree. Most veteran scholars change their major several times because they’re not sure what they want to study… and the VA requires soldiers to declare a major. Declare your major as general studies. Explore different courses. Your AA / AAS will transfer to other schools.
4. You’ll probably have a GPA worthy of a few honors societies. Join them. SALUTE Veterans National Honor Society is one exclusive to veterans. FCC also has PTK – if you’re eligible for SALUTE, you’re probably eligible for PTK. Join it. There are also honors societies specific to your field of study. Join them to. When you were in uniform, you wore medals on your chest. Honors societies are the equivalent of these medals in the civilian academic world. In three years I’ve racked up SALUTE, PTK, Omicron Sigma Sigma (AKA Order of the Sword and Shield), The Society for Collegiate Leadership and Achievement, and Epsilon Pi Phi. You can put these things on your resume… and they offer some sweet “chest candy” / bling to wear with your graduation regalia.
I mention these things because all those medals, certificates, and whatnot from your military service do not usually translate well into the civilian world. Civilians don’t understand the significance of your Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal, or Meritorious Service Medal. Those military awards didn’t come easy. These civilian accolades are a cakewalk. Show them you can not only play their game. You can win their game, and make it your own.
5. Complete your FAFSA…. BUT REMEMBER – the FAFSA accounts for your income from two years ago (not right now). If you’re unemployed, you need to complete a special conditions form with your school’s financial aid office. If you don’t think this is important – you are wrong. In 2018 I was making 40K per annum at my civilian job as Director of Emergency Communications. FAFSA thought I was making this same amount in 2020 which limited my financial aid to a couple of subsidized loans. AFTER I completed the special conditions form, I was notified that I was eligible for 9.5K in Pell Grant funding.
6. Do not anticipate your civilian peers to place the same level of importance on academics as you do. Remember, you had jerks in basic training. You had screwballs in AIT and MOS school. Ignore them. Focus on the goal. Create your academic fire team / squad / posse and drive on. Your academic assignments are the new mission. They require planning. They require rehearsal. Execution should be second nature. Your civilian academic peers are now your battle buddies. Your professors are now your Company and Battalion Commanders. You’ll have good ones and crappy ones. Don’t let them get in the way of your mission.
7. You’re going to sit in classrooms with civilian peers who don’t speak up. You’re going to get flustered at these folks for not speaking their mind. Just keep in mind that they’ve never had a Drill Sergeant screaming in their face at 4AM. A Drill Sergeant who will not go away until you give him / her the answer they’re looking for (ANY ANSWER). As an enlisted man/ woman, you learned how to voice your opinion without fear of being right or wrong (because any decision in combat is better than no decision). Many of your civilian student peers never learned this lesson because they never had to. You learned that making mistakes and being WRONG is how you learn to do the right thing; the right way.
8. … on that note… You’re going to feel the urge to keep quiet when the professor calls for an answer because you want to fit in with your peers. DON’T. You keep on answering until the professor tells you not to. Yes, I’ve been in classes where professors have said, “someone other than Zach this time.” Don’t take it personally. You’re a damn good student and if that means it makes your peers or your professor uncomfortable – so be it. You keep on being awesome – maybe it will inspire some of your peers to rise to the occasion.
9. EXPLORE! Take classes you would have never taken before. Use your electives to try out things like philosophy, stress management, music, etc. Remember, it was John Adams who said, “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
You have studied the ways of war in order to preserve the tree of liberty, so that others might study these other things. BUT REMEMBER, the sweetest fruits of the tree of liberty are the arts, poetry, literature, etc. If anyone deserves to taste this fruit, it is you, and you will savor its flavor so much more. Too many military personnel have fallen for you to have this opportunity. Don’t let their death be in vain. If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for them. If you need a reminder as to how you managed to make it to college, take a trip to Arlington. The price for your education is often credited as having been paid by the American taxpayer. That assumption is in error.
10. GO TO THE VA. Go get your veterans ID card. If you have any physical or mental health conditions as a result of your military service, go to the 6th floor and talk to Phil Garvey. He’ll get you started with your disability claim. More importantly, get set up with a CPC (primary care) provider. If you’re entitled to VA healthcare, use it. You’ll save on insurance costs your civilian employer tries to stick you with. If you take any medications, you’ll never pay more than 15$ per Rx at the VA.
11. If you’re struggling with mental health concerns, you’re not the first. You won’t be the last. Uncle Sam does a great job preparing young men and women to fight wars. Uncle Sam isn’t that great at returning us the way they found us. That’s okay. We volunteered to serve, we just didn’t understand all of the risks. There are things other than death. At the age of 17, I was okay with death – especially in service to my country. The thing is, most of us don’t die. We live. Mental health struggles and physical ailments were part of the risks we took; even if we didn’t realize it at the time.
Don’t be too proud to call the veterans crisis line. 1-800-273-8255.
It is possible you don’t feel comfortable talking on the phone. That is no excuse to not reach out! You can text 838255.
The Vet Center is another off campus resource. They’ll send counselors to the campus and meet with you on your schedule. Usually, this will take place in a private place on campus. Many of the counselors are fellow veterans but they have civilians as well. You can choose who to talk to.
The Office of Veterans and Military Services is another great place to just come and hang out. While some students may need a “cry closet” or other “safe place” the VMS office is a safe place for veterans. Maybe you don’t need a safe place to cry or emotionally vent. Maybe you just need to be among “your own kind.” Stop by, grab a cup of coffee, grab a snack, watch some TV, listen to some music, BS with fellow veterans, make some new friends, come volunteer or just hang out with us at the Great and Small Therapeutic Horse Farm. After hours, go sing karaoke with us downtown. Heck, if you’re just tired and need a nap, we have an awesome couch. Nobody is going to mess with you if you’re trying to catch some z’s. Oh, and if you need to jump on a computer to work on an assignment… we have those too. We just don’t have the ability to print in the office.
12. If you don’t feel like you fit in with the VFW, American Legion, or other “veterans groups,” then you probably don’t. I didn’t. You may fit in with the Student Veterans of America (SVA). Go to their Leadership Institute, National Conference, and their New Chapter Leaders Summit. You’ll meet some amazing student veteran peers. This organization is one of the most amazing veterans groups I’ve ever encountered. Resume assistance, job search assistance, student financial aid assistance, self-marketing, etc. are a few things this group focuses on. Most importantly, you’re going to find a peer group that not only understands you (because they are you), you’re going to make some awesome lifelong friends. I’m still in touch with no fewer than 15 people I met there. All ages, all creeds, all colors, all different backgrounds – ZERO JUDGEMENTS. This is an organization that will help you rediscover your growth mindset.