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How US veterans adjust from battlefield to classroom

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John McClelland: "You'll never be friends with someone better than being in a firefight with them"

Returning US veterans of recent conflicts are increasingly taking advantage of legislation that helps them enter education, but some struggle to adjust to a new life, writes the BBC's Dumeetha Luthra in New York.

Going to college is a process of adaptation. For many, it is the first time they are away from home, the first time they have a taste of independence.

But imagine that arrival intensified by the experience of war: straight from the battlefield into the classroom. You're not just leaving home; you're leaving a lifestyle.

Gone are the camaraderie and the intensity of combat; the rigid discipline in which you are part of a team and have a very clearly defined role. Instead, you must attend classes and hand in homework.

John McClelland served four years in the US army as a medic in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I feel bad sometimes that I'm here while everyone else is still over there. I'm here worrying about term papers, I'm here worrying about quizzes, making sure my grammar is correct," he says.

Support network

John's story is becoming a common one.

Curtis Rodgers
Columbia's Curtis Rodgers says it is important to meet veterans' needs

The latest GI bill has set up provisions that give substantial financial assistance to veterans going into education. It has meant that many returning veterans who could not previously afford to go to college now have the option and are choosing to take it up.

This means that campuses are increasingly focusing on the particular needs of veterans. The support networks that are already there for students are being bumped up to provide specific services for them, and many faculties are working with veteran associations to ensure that the new students get all the help they need.

Curtis Rodgers, dean of enrolment at Columbia's School of General Studies, says the veterans bring experience and a different perspective, and so it is important to meet their needs.

This is particularly true in the areas of healthcare, as it is inevitable that some of the students will be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"One of the issues we've responded to is to make students aware of the resources available to them as they make the transition," Mr Rodgers says.

From October 2008 to September 2009, the US Department of Veterans Affairs paid more than $3.5bn (£2.3bn) to 500,000 students.

Just in the past five months, some 425,000 students have enrolled, and it is estimated that over the year there will be a 25% increase in the number of veterans enrolling as students.

'Missing the military'

Columbia, where John McLelland studies, has the largest veteran student community in the Ivy League colleges and its own veterans' group.

The military was one of best experiences of my life, in fact my best friends are from the military
John McClelland

He says the first thing he did when he arrived was to latch on to the veteran community. He adds that without it, things would not have been as smooth.

John says, with a wry smile, that he joined the military on April Fools' Day in 2003. He signed up because he did not know what to do next, could not afford college and he supported the war in Iraq.

Five years on, he was ready to leave when he ended his last tour of duty in 2008, but he says he does miss the military, unexpectedly so.

"The military was one of best experiences of my life, in fact my best friends are from the military. When I came to Columbia, I found this community that understands, it's not that I wanted to isolate myself, but it was good at the beginning.

"I miss the military, but I don't want it to be the defining experience of my life. Right now it is," he says.

On their own

Mr Rodgers says colleges need to be aware of the difficulties of transition.

"Suddenly you go from a military environment where you're part of a larger organisation, with the fellow marines that you're in the same unit with. It's a group intelligence.

"And then - when these students make the decision to pursue college work - it's very individualised. During the period of transition, they're on their own and it takes them time to adjust and be comfortable with that."

John says he himself has not sought psychological help, but that does not mean he has been able to deal with it all.

"I think a lot of people talk about PTSD, and there's a lot of different interpretations of it, and there's a lot of different ways of expressing it. It's not just you have it or you don't, it's a whole continuum. For me when I get brought back into it, it's only when I am by myself, you feel something welling up inside of you."

The GI bill has provided veterans with the support to come to college, and campuses are keen to integrate their varied experiences and talents into the student population.

Veterans are taking advantage of all these positive signs, but it is a long road ahead finding the equilibrium of life between the intensity of war and the informality of a student demands.

John says he studies history and linguistics directly because of his experiences. He says he wants to derive some meaning from them. It is not the end, and he will one day re-engage with his military life, he says.



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