UND works with regional VA offices to ensure student veterans are not left behind in the classroom


David L. Dodds

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UND works with regional VA offices to ensure student veterans are not left behind in the classroom

Some of our bravest men and women ? student veterans who've served in unspeakable conditions for a cause bigger than themselves ? are now finding it difficult to cope in a place most students take for granted as completely safe: the classroom.

With thousands of veterans returning from years-long combat operations in the Middle East and transitioning to student life, schools, such as the University of North Dakota, have taken an active role in understanding their unique situations and needs. In some cases, this means identifying student veterans who may suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and/or Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) and finding ways to make sure their student experience is a success.

Carol Anson, UND's longtime veterans/military advisor, says there are about 750 UND students who currently identify themselves as veterans. Anson and Jessica Rosencrans, veteran & nontraditional student services coordinator at the UND Student Success Center, are two people who are focused on the needs of veterans on campus. Both work very closely with regional representatives of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

They recently helped host a special program called "Combat Veterans & Higher Education: Helping Students with PTSD and TBI." The program was led by Kirsten Hanson, of the regional Vocational Rehabilitation office in Fargo; and Amy Gunkelman, the Operations Enduring Freedom/Iraqi Freedom/ and New Dawn program manager for the Fargo VA Health Care System.

UND staff members from several different offices, including Dean of Students, Housing, Financial Aid, Counseling Center, the Student Success Center, and Career Services, took part in the two-hour presentation on Nov. 7.

"This stuff does not apply just to veterans," Hanson said. "there are many people in the country that may have these debilitating issues."

But because of the traumatic experiences that so many veterans have gone through in recent deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat zones, the VA has made a concerted effort to diagnose, treat and provide ongoing counseling and case management to help them more successfully re-integrate into civilian life. This includes helping thousands of returning veterans who've decided to continue their education at places such as UND.

"It is important for UND to look at this student population and to see how we are serving these students. Whether it is through campus training, access to facilities or streamlining campus procedures; what can UND do to help student veterans with their unique needs?," Rosencrans said. "It is important to keep in mind that veterans are not only readjusting to civilian life, but are learning how to adjust to academic life as well."

The Fargo VA office currently serves more than 6,000 active duty and reserve component veterans from an area that includes all of North Dakota, Northwestern Minnesota and parts of South Dakota. Nationwide, there are about 1 million student veterans using the Montgomery G.I. Bill to get an education, and that is expected to increase by 20 percent in the near term.

Currently, there are about 200,000 cases of veterans with PTSD in the United States. Nested within that figure are 40,000 veterans who are suffering from major depression. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can occur after any kind of traumatic event. It used to be better known in military circles as "shell shock" or "battle fatigue."

Some symptoms of PTSD include experiencing intense fear or helplessness, frequent flashbacks and/or nightmares, avoidance behaviors and appearing overly "keyed up" or hyper aroused.

The VA reports that more than 300,000 veterans of recent military operations have been diagnosed with TBI, most of those ? about 82 percent ? are considered to be a mild form. Symptoms include frequent headaches, difficulty speaking and/or hearing, blurry eyesight, changes in senses of taste and smell, loss of energy and difficulty with balance. On the cognitive side, people who suffer from TBI have difficulty concentrating and paying attention; are forgetful, indecisive and impulsive; and they often need things to be repeated or explained.

Generally speaking, military vets who suffer from PTSD tend to exhibit the same "go-it-alone warrior mentality" that they showed while on deployment. Quite simply, they don't like to talk about it.

Anson said that kind of tendency makes it hard for people like her to readily identify PTSD sufferers.

"They don't want to self-report because they don't want it to appear on their record," Anson said. "They just want to be like everyone else."

On the flipside, student veterans and others with TBI tend to have a need to tell their individual battlefield stories in excruciating detail.

Complicating matters, PTSD and TBI symptoms tend to feed off and reinforce each other, so it's not uncommon for someone to suffer from both.

Regardless of what they're suffering from, officials at UND are working with the VA to find ways to accommodate student veterans' needs in a way that helps them achieve success but doesn't single them out as special cases.

Some strategies that schools are using to help student veterans with PTSD/TBI include giving them preferential seating in a classroom in locations that make them feel most comfortable. Also, schools can incorporate preferential enrollment plans that allow these student vets to register for classes earlier so they can secure courses they need at times that work best for their behavioral and/or cognitive needs. Schools also can work with student veterans by allowing them to take fewer credit hours per academic term and to take their courses in smaller classrooms to make the experience more manageable.

The VA also can provide student veterans, especially those who suffer from TBI, with smart phones ? with helpful reminder apps and other scheduling tools.

"It's something that we like to look at on an individual basis," Gunkelman said.

Gunkelman and Hanson said that pushing student veterans who suffer from PTSD/TBI toward online courses, which they could take from the comfort of their own homes, defeats the purpose of what they're trying to do at the VA.

"We are trying to slowly build their tolerance so that they can successfully live in the community," Gunkelman said.

For more information on Veteran resources at UND, contact:

Carol Anson, veterans/military advisorUND Student Success CenterMemorial Union, Room 261701.777.3364 carol.anson@UND.edu

Jessica Rosencrans, veteran & nontraditional student services coordinatorUND Student Success CenterMemorial Union, Room 261701.777.3228 jessica.rosencrans@UND.edu

Local/regional veteran resources: Grand Forks VA Clinic: 701.335.4380 Fargo Vet Center: 701.237.0942 Lou Lombardi, Grand Forks County veteran services officer: 701.780.8296

David Dodds University & Public Affairs writer

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