For many student veterans, a new battle begins after arriving on campus
Shane Hale enlisted in the U.S. Army with one goal — to earn a college degree, aided by the GI Bill. He reported to basic training on Sept. 11, 2001.
And then the world changed.
After two tours in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division and two years in community college, Hale accomplished his dream of becoming a student and eventually graduated from UNC in December 2011.
“It was one of the best days of my life — the day I was accepted,” Hale said.
But when Hale arrived at UNC, he was confronted with the shock of transitioning to civilian life on a college campus. Hale’s story is common among veterans, and one that has long gone unaddressed.
Some challenges veterans face on campus are smaller — navigating Veterans Affairs benefits while remembering how to write an essay. Some are bigger — providing for a family while re-learning how to talk or even walk. And others — the cultural shift, crippling isolation, depression — seem insurmountable.
When Hale arrived on campus, he pushed his military past aside to focus on life as a student — the life he always wanted. But the loss of identity that comes with leaving more than five years behind was disorienting.
“Before you knew exactly what you were, what you were doing,” he said. “When you come here you’re trying to get to this student identity, but you don’t know what that is. Yes, you are a student here, but you don’t feel like a Tar Heel.”
It’s impossible to know how many veterans are enrolled at UNC. Admissions only began tracking the number of veterans on campus last year. Twenty-seven active duty military service members or veterans entered UNC in August 2014. Currently, there are 405 students using VA benefits at UNC-CH, which also includes dependents.
Just like any other student population, veterans are a diverse group in age, background and experience. According to Student Veterans of America, 85 percent are over the age of 24. Forty-seven percent have a family. Some have spent years in combat while some never left the U.S.
The Carolina Veterans Organization tracks about 60 veterans on campus, said President Jacob Hinton. The group was reactivated in September 2013.
Many veterans do not know the organization exists. Knowledge of it travels mainly through word of mouth, Hinton said. Leaders identify most veterans through chance interactions on campus and watching for telltale military mannerisms in the Pit.
“We profile,” Hinton said. “If you’ve got a backpack that’s military, a military haircut and boots, we have business cards to pass out.”
The CVO operates in a small office on the second floor of the Student Union, serving as a knowledge base, support system and informal counseling center for veterans. Resources specifically for veterans are scarce, but the CVO tries to connect veterans with existing resources across campus.
What the University doesn’t provide is what veterans know best: order.
“The culture of military life is that you have an in-processing center,” Hinton said. “You show up with your family and you get a packet with what you need to do. On it is a check sheet. We’re used to that. We lived years of that.”
Student veterans face a sea of paperwork and bureaucracy before setting foot in a classroom, from the GI Bill to health insurance to course registration. Questions must be directed to individual offices where members of a veterans resource team are identified as points of contact.
Veterans are often shuffled between offices, burdened by misinformation and confusion about the intricacies of benefits and the GI Bill, said Lara Taylor, a 2014 graduate and founding member of the CVO.
Taylor served in personnel in the U.S. Air Force, meeting with service members new to a base and providing all necessary information for their transition to the military.
UNC does not have an equivalent person for a veteran new to campus — someone to sit down with who has all the answers.
“It’s a big shock because it’s all on you now to go to all these different places and figure out what you need to do,” Taylor said.
She pointed to groups such as the LGBTQ community on campus, which has a dedicated center and employees on campus, as the kind of organization missing at UNC-CH for veterans.
“What veterans need is to be connected to other veterans and be supported in a way that students in other underrepresented groups are being supported,” Taylor said.
It would be helpful for UNC to have a full-time staff member devoted solely to veterans, said Assistant Dean of Students Brian Papajcik. Papajcik is currently the point person for veteran’s resources, though that is just one facet of his job description.
“It’s something a lot of universities are moving toward — having this one person veterans can go to,” Papajcik said. “I’ve tried to be that person, but one of the caveats of my experience is I’m not a veteran.”
Papajcik concentrates on connecting veterans to each other and to resources, he said. One of the major issues he hears from students using GI Bill benefits is the delay in funds between when classes begin and when the first living stipend is issued.
“As a veteran put it to me once, you can go broke pretty quickly when you go to school waiting for that payment to come in,” he said.
Currently, Papajcik is working to expand Green Zone Training, a program that educates about the concerns of military-affiliated students, to more faculty, administrators and students. He is also creating a mentorship program among veterans.
The number of veterans enrolling in universities jumped since the advent of the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2009, spurring a nationwide focus on providing for this student population.
“There’s no reason to think it’s going to plateau for the foreseeable future. So this is something we’re going to need to address.”
For veterans struggling to feel comfortable on campus, connecting with other veterans who serve as friends, mentors and counselors can be life changing.
For an older veteran who has a family and lives off campus, finding common ground with the traditional 18- to 21-year-old student is difficult, Taylor said.
“A lot of veterans, particularly combat vets, feel even older than they are. I hear that all the time from combat vets — ‘I feel so old’. Not only in mind but in body,” she said.
Veterans, particularly those who have seen combat, come to campus with a different perspective, Hale said.
“Especially if they picked up PTSD or saw someone they know get hurt or die — you have that added burden, that added experience to you,” Hale said. “And after having that kind of experience, you come to a place like this and you see the world differently at this point. You’re looking at people on campus and realizing what they complain about and sometimes it might seem trivial.”
This augments a feeling of isolation, Hale said. No one understands because they weren’t there.
“It’s just hard to make friends.”
Tommy MacPherson enlisted in the Marine Corps to see the world. Quick to laugh and always having fun, the 26-year-old New Hampshire native served five years stationed at Cherry Point in Havelock, N.C.
“Part of it was to get out of town, part of it was to get the GI Bill and the benefits,” MacPherson said. “And there’s pride in serving your country. What can you do that’s better?”
He spent seven months in Afghanistan and seven in Japan, arriving at UNC days before the spring semester of 2014.
With a large frame, a tattoo peeking out from his shirt sleeve, and a tough speech peppered with curses, MacPherson doesn’t look like the type to scare easy. But transitioning to college, he said, was scary.
“It’s nerve-wracking to go from your day being so structured and so planned,” he said. “You’re going to work Monday to Friday, unless you’re deployed and then you work whenever the fuck they want you to work. You know what’s going to happen, and you know for sure you’re going to have money in your pocket and a place to live.”
MacPherson spent much of his first semester lost — navigating the University, struggling in classes and studying alone. He had no idea the CVO existed until he met Hinton, who happened to be enrolled in the same Astronomy lab.
“We were both the oldest kids in the class, and older than our TA, too,” MacPherson said. “We started talking and he was like ‘I was in the Army’, and I was like ‘No shit man, I was in the Marines!’ so we started shooting the breeze and became friends.”
MacPherson points to a CVO social at Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery as the moment when it all started to get better.
“Once I made friends with them I met so many people. That has probably been the best resource for me here. And I would have had no idea.”
“Military-friendly” grew as a buzzword in higher education as thousands of young veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and began to use GI Bill benefits. Veterans flooded college campuses, prompting action on federal, state and university system levels.
In April 2014, Gov. Pat McCrory issued Executive Order 49 creating the Governor’s Working Group on Veterans, Service Members and Their Families. The Working Group coordinates between local, state and national agencies to improve services for the military and create jobs for veterans.
The UNC system shares a similar mission to cater to North Carolina’s nearly 800,000 veterans. UNC SERVES is a working group established in 2010 to report and make recommendations on access, retention and graduation rates for military affiliated students at each UNC institution.
Papajcik said many UNC-system schools are investing significant resources into becoming military friendly, opening veterans’ centers and hiring additional full-time staff.
But multiple factors affect the number of veterans on campus and the needs they require, including geographic location and selectivity of the university. Fayetteville State University, for example, which neighbors Ft. Bragg, has a different military student profile than UNC-CH.
While the system is enthusiastic about becoming military-friendly, individual universities are lagging behind, Hinton said.
“UNC has this idea that they want to be military friendly, but I think they just don’t know how to be fully,” he said. “As the state pushes and makes headway, I hope in the future it can be pushed on a university level.”
UNC will offer a new academic resource to veterans next June: the Warrior Scholar Project, a two-week intensive reading- and writing-based course to allow veterans to re-acclimate to the idea of schoolwork.
Lena Brokob, a former Marines aircraft mechanic and UNC alumna who founded the CVO in September 2013 , is working with Taylor to bring a pilot one-week program to Chapel Hill.
The program reminds student veterans, many of whom are several years removed from traditional schooling, how to read and write essays and study effectively. Veterans regain confidence in these abilities and connect with other veterans in the same position.
“You know you’re good at the military but you come into the civilian world and think you’re probably not good at this,” Brokob said. “[The program] gives them confidence in their intellectual ability, and it’s motivating in that way.”
But student leaders believe UNC has a long way left to go to serve its veterans.
Some of their recommendations are simple — a designated website for student veterans with links to all necessary resources and updated lounge for veterans to meet and help one another.
Others could be harder to implement, such as hiring dedicated administrators and changing transfer credit policies. Veterans, including those who served overseas, do not receive Experiential Education (EE) credit for their service, though other students commonly earn this credit through community service and studying abroad.
“We all like the University — ask any vet,” Hinton said. “But if you ask if UNC is military friendly, I guarantee the majority would say absolutely not.”
The skills that become ingrained in the military — like how to disassemble a rifle or polish boots — do not contribute to success in college. But veterans often don’t want to ask for help when they need it, Hale said.
“Coming from the military, you’re very prideful. Asking for help is very difficult,” he said. “You’ve got this mentality that you can do anything. You’re trained to survive and do extraordinary things, but you never think school is going to be even harder.”
Today, years after leaving the Army and after graduation, Hale considers himself fully transitioned back to civilian life. In his work in the back offices of Davis Library, he has left certain habits behind, like the hardened, abrupt speech characteristic of military communication. He no longer panics when he makes a mistake at work because it does not mean life or death for those around him.
As the advisor to the CVO, he has interests and goals. A past, present and future.
“I have an identity now,” he said. “It does happen. But for some it takes longer, and for some it might not happen at all.”