Student veterans adjust to civilian life by finding community, inform classroom discussion with experiences
It was only within the first two weeks of Richard Bailey’s deployment to Iraq that his life was put seriously in danger.
He was coming back from the on-base gym with a few of his buddies. All of a sudden, something heavy flew over the wall and landed inside the twisted wire of the compound with a thud.
“We heard this noise and we looked up and what looked like a thermos was coming out of the sky,” he said. “It hit the ground, and first we’re like, ‘What the heck is this?’ And then we realized it was an artillery round.”
The group, upon realizing what it was, booked it from the site, hearts racing and adrenaline pumping.
The mortar turned out to be a dud. Had it gone off, Bailey and his friends would not be alive today.
“It’s stuff like that that keeps you up at night,” he said. “That was a close call. But you experience that type of stuff when you’re in a combat zone — especially some place like Iraq. … It’s a war with no front lines.”
Bailey carried that memory, as well as others he made while deployed, everywhere he went. And when he came to UTD at age 40 to become a student once more, he used those experiences to contribute a unique perspective in the classroom and connect with other student veterans.
In his 22 years of experience, certain incidents stick out to Bailey, a political science junior.
He was mobilized to serve in Iraq from 2005 to 2006. He said, as a student veteran, he is able to bring real-life experiences to the table during class discussions. For example, when addressing the problems within Veterans Affairs, Bailey can point to when it took one year for the national department to administer him a cortisone shot.
“This isn’t something you hear on the news, this is happening to me,” he said.
Political science senior Eric Bruno spent 16 years in the Marine Corps. He said his time in the Corps made him both a better student and a better civilian.
“I learned to take everything in stride,” he said. “(To be) proud of my successes, and also acknowledge my failures.”
Part of what drew Bruno to UTD in the first place was the reputation of the Veteran Services Center.
“I felt really comfortable here,” Bruno said.
When Danielle Navarro, a political science senior and former Army paratrooper, went back to school, she too chose UTD. She got a work-study position at the Veteran Services Center connecting incoming student veterans with the resources available to them.
Although she is now retired and attends school full-time, she was originally motivated to serve abroad because she wanted to see what war was really like.
“A lot of people don’t get to see what we really go through,” she said. “We miss our families. We go though all this pain. … People think that we’re bad people sometimes, but we’re not. We’re here to help them.”
Navarro said one of the most challenging aspects of being a student veteran is dealing with the reminders of her more disturbing memories from her deployment.
“We have to come in and adjust to something (different),” she said. “Some of us have post-traumatic stress disorders. For myself, for example, what a professor says can … trigger PTSD, but we have to know how to be able to control it.”
She was deployed to Afghanistan for a year during her service, where she built a support system of colleagues who helped her when she saw frightening scenes.
“You become a family,” she said. “You build a bond with these people that you don’t know. … They are like brothers and sisters.”
She said it is often difficult for her to sit in a class when the discussion is over something that brings back distressing recollections from her time overseas.
“I think just getting out there and talking to other veterans always helps out a lot,” Navarro said. “You don’t have to feel like you’re by yourself all the time.”
Bruno agreed that the veteran community on campus was helpful and supportive, especially during the sometimes rocky transition to civilian life.
“It’s nice to talk to other veterans, because I think a lot of us miss it,” he said. “It’s important for us to talk through our frustrations and … talk those feelings out.”
Bailey expressed similar benefits of having a community to relate to. He said it doesn’t matter what kind of service someone did in his or her deployment, the veterans on campus can uniquely understand each others’ experiences.
“As a veteran, you’re getting shot at or mortared at,” he said. “When you try to talk to somebody that’s never been through that, people look at it as kind of surreal. But it’s real to us and we can identify with that.”
In addition to the troubling memories some veterans come home with, they also face unique obstacles other students never confront.
As an active member of the reserves, Bailey has to manage his annually required training along with schoolwork. Usually, it occurs during the summer, but this past semester he had to miss a week of school to go to Fort Dix, N.J.
Luckily, he said, when he has to miss school, it doesn’t take that long for him to catch up. At UTD, he said his teachers have been very understanding about his situation.
As a transfer student from Richland Community College, Bailey spent five or six years pursuing his associate degree off and on. After leaving to join the civilian workforce for a time, he eventually came back and finished his two-year degree in 2015.
“I was using the GI Bill at the time … (but) I couldn’t afford to go full time (at Richland),” he said.
Now, Bailey is not using the GI Bill to pay for his college tuition.
“I tried to apply for the post-9/11 GI Bill … and I’ve been having a heck of a time trying to (get it),” he said. “It’s been a big headache.”
Bailey has talked to both Veterans Affairs and a congressman to try to figure out his dilemma, but hasn’t received a straight answer.
“It is what it is,” he said. “If I don’t qualify for it, I don’t qualify for it. … I get one answer one time and then when I inquire about it again, I get a different answer.”
Navarro has also used the GI Bill to help fund her education.
“The GI Bill actually helps a lot, but you can’t always depend on it,” she said. “As a single mom … (I) can’t live off it.”
On campus student veterans carry with them a distinct perspective, shaped by years spent in military service. However, Bailey said, who they are is comprised of much more than just their time spent in war zones.
“I’m proud of my service. I’d do it again, if my country or my president asked me to do it,” he said. “It’s a big part of my life, but it’s only one aspect.”