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The reality of readjustment

Chaddrick Faison can’t watch the news. Watching the news reminds the veteran of his 2004 deployment in Iraq.

“I don’t want to see stories of soldiers dying,” he said.

Faison, along with 776 other students at USF, attends college using Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits, as the Montgomery GI Bill gives veterans grants for their education. Faison, along with other soldiers who have returned from combat abroad, faces challenges adjusting to civilian life, especially life as a college student, and USF offers various services to help them adjust.

Faison, a junior, was deployed to Tikrit, Iraq for 12 months in 2004. Since he is still a member of the National Guard, he has to report to Tallahassee one weekend per month.

While in Tikrit, Faison was assigned to perimeter security, which meant guarding the entrance of an Army Aviation Battalion. Faison said his deployment in Iraq afforded him time to think.

“I didn’t have my plans together before,” he said, referring to his renewed sense of focus and drive. He also said being in Iraq has led him to “appreciate stuff more.”

Sophomore Sheena Cooper was also deployed to Iraq in 2004. She spent 13 months on a Quick Fire Reaction Team in Taji, Iraq. Her job was to guard a base camp from a high tower. The assignment was dangerous – Cooper recalls a morning when she heard whistles blow before a mortar attack overtook the camp.

“I saw my life flash before my eyes,” she said.

Cooper returned to USF in Spring 2006 and found the readjustment process to be challenging. The hardest part, she said, was feeling like she didn’t fit in anymore. She felt like people wouldn’t understand her.

“I wasn’t into the whole college experience anymore,” said Cooper. She has kept a few friends from before her deployment, but she said that she has become close with other veterans now.

Faison and Cooper credit USF’s Veteran Services Office (VSO) with helping them navigate the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy so they can use their GI Bill benefits. The VSO, located inside the Counseling Center, acts as a liaison between student veterans and the VA or various USF offices, according to Stan Landers, administrative specialist in the VSO.

“The staff provides a point-of-contact for VA students attending USF,” he said.

One of the principal services provided by the VSO involves help with educational benefits paperwork.

A gradual readjustmentSome returning soldiers require assistance other than the financial, however. Young returning soldiers and veterans face a host of challenges while attempting to readjust, including stress, anxiety and depression. The U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs Web site now advertises the fact that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has been updated to provide a new service for veterans in crisis.

If the VSO noticed a veteran at USF who appeared to be experiencing any of those issues, the VSO wouldn’t let the veteran suffer alone, Landers said.

“I would refer the student to the Counseling Center here at USF as they offer emergency services and are professionally trained to evaluate or determine if a student needs to be referred to other outside agencies for assistance,” he said.

Dale Hicks, associate director of the Counseling Center, said the aversion to watching the news expressed by Faison is common. Watching the news, he said, might mean reliving traumatic events for veterans.

Relationships are a major point of contention for returning soldiers. Hicks said that veterans leave their environment for 12 to 18 months at a time, and as a result they often encounter major adjustment issues with spouses and family members.

Student veterans with extreme physical trauma are sent to MacDill Air Force Base, and those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are treated at the James A. Haley VA, the veterans’ hospital near USF, said Hicks. He thinks, however, that some veterans on campus might have PTSD and not know it yet, since symptoms often do not manifest themselves for three to six months. PSTD, said Hicks, involves the reliving of traumatic events, feelings of hyper-vigilance and feeling threatened when there is no threat.

Phillip Zoladz, a psychology doctoral student, has done research on PTSD in conjunction with James A. Haley. Zoladz said many aspects of college life could be potentially challenging to veterans. He said that crowds can be difficult for veterans who often fear public places when they return from combat. In addition, paying attention and concentrating during lectures and homework could be difficult because a veteran may think of his war experience, especially if the material deals with war.

Zoladz also said that veterans may avoid watching the news or reading newspapers because it “could serve as constant reminders.” He said that counseling should be an integral part of the experience of veterans returning to campus.

People often associate PTSD as cowardice, said Zoladz, but it is a real problem that can be treated.

“Some veterans who go too long without help can eventually become suicidal,” he said. “Flashbacks and intrusive memories can be too traumatic.”

Tara Nicotra, a social work intern at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C., works with active duty soldiers who come back for intensive day treatment programs to help them deal with PTSD, anxiety, depression and other issues. The issue that comes up most frequently for soldiers, Nicotra said, are relationship problems.

“They go away and come back a completely different person,” she said.

Nicotra said veterans may only want to be around people who understand them and people who have been in Iraq. She also said that many female soldiers have had experiences with sexual assault, whether from fellow soldiers or people who are ranked higher than them.

Nicotra also felt that watching the news has the potential of being a traumatic experience for veterans and returning soldiers.

“In therapy, you and the patient assess that it’s a safe environment,” she said. “You look around the room and see that no one there is dangerous, so you can talk about it.”

The counselor and patient talk about the traumatic experience a little bit, and then stop, she explained. “It’s a gradual exposure; it’s safe and comforting,” she said, contrasting therapy to news-watching. Whereas therapy creates a safe environment, watching the news can involve unexpected exposure and can trigger an automatic, negative response.

Veterans and returning soldiers may require certain settings to make them feel safe, she said.

“Some people will want to have their seat against the wall, some will want to be near the door,” she said. “Some people talk about crowds. They’ve said they can’t be in big crowds because it reminds them of Baghdad.”

Cooper plans on graduating and moving on to graduate school to get a master’s degree in social work. She plans on pursuing a career as a mental health therapist to work with returning veterans at VA. Cooper was inspired to pursue this path by a friend who served in the infantry as a medic, and has had trouble dealing with the traumatic experiences the friend encountered.

“He has seen a lot,” she said. “He’s been going through a lot.”