The front lines of the long journey home

Pasadena City College Veterans Resource Center. (Photo: Samara Freemark)Pasadena City College Veterans Resource Center. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

Colleges and universities have become the front lines of one of the great challenges posed by war: how to reintegrate the people who’ve served.

This essay is part of the larger radio documentary From Boots to Books, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).

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The Second Home

At 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, the tree-lined paths of Pasadena City College’s campus in Southern California are quiet, with only a handful of the community college’s 25,000 students walking sleepily to class.

But inside the school’s Veterans Resource Center, more than a dozen students are drinking coffee, eating cookies and shooting the breeze.

At the front desk, there are sign-up sheets for veterans who need help dealing with parking tickets or divorces or want to meet with a volunteer CPA about taxes. There’s a flyer on the wall for a suicide prevention training, and one tacked to the door for housing counseling. A woman is ordering lunch for a meeting of the Band of Sisters female veterans group and a couple of volunteers from a local VFW post have stopped by to recruit members. A retired engineer is tutoring a young veteran in calculus at a round table in the middle of the room. One student is holding the leash on a massive German shepherd wearing a service vest.

On a couch in the back of the room, a woman named Sindy Montoya is waiting to meet with one of the center’s counselors.

Sindy separated from the Army in 2013. While enlisted, she had a new car, and money in her pocket. When she got out, all that disappeared. She was left with a young daughter, a bad marriage, a PTSD diagnosis and no job.

Student veteran James Hutson raises a flag outside of PCC's Veterans Resource Center. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Student veteran James Hutson raises a flag outside of PCC’s Veterans Resource Center. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

“I thought even when you get out you’ll be from the military so you should have something good, but I’ve gone out and got shit,” she says. “I loved my job [in the Army] but coming out I’m worth nothing. [I did] ammunition and explosives…When am I going to bomb something?”

Sindy left her husband and moved in with her mom, but her mom’s boyfriend kicked her out. She stayed with a friend’s mother, and then on another friend’s couch. She finally enrolled at PCC because school meant GI Bill benefits, and GI Bill benefits meant an apartment for her and her daughter.

“When I came here, I didn’t want to be around anyone, especially veterans,” she says.

Sindy tried to fit in with the other students on campus — “civilians,” she still calls them — but she was keenly aware of a disconnect.

“They don’t know what we went through,” she says.

She started stopping in at the resource center just to talk to people who could understand what she had experienced.

“In the military we had battle buddies,” she says, fellow soldiers who looked out for each other. “It took me a year to realize that I have battle buddies here [at school] too. If not for the resource center, I’d be a lost cause.”

But what Sindy really wants is a job, and she’s here today to talk to center counselor Carol Calandra about dropping out.

Service patches pinned to a board in the Veterans Resource Center. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Service patches pinned to a board in the Veterans Resource Center. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Calandra appears a few minutes later. She’s a vivacious redhead with a loud voice and a commanding presence. As she walks through the resource center, students flock to her to talk about problems they’re having with professors, or to ask her about scholarships, or debrief her about their weekends.

Sindy follows Calandra into her office at the back of the center and sits down. She lays out her plan: drop out of school and find work as a prison guard. Calandra is skeptical. “You don’t need a job, you need a career,” she says. “And without an education, you’re not going to have a career.”

Sindy reluctantly agrees to stay in school, at least for now.

After Sindy leaves the office, Calandra sighs. She’s had this conversation before. Sindy dropped out the previous semester, and Calandra hunted her down and brought her back to school.

“She’s got a long road ahead of her,” Calandra says.

The long road home

The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 – known as the Post-9/11 GI Bill – represents the largest expansion of educational assistance to veterans since WWII. Enacted in 2009, it covers the following benefits:

  • Up to 36 months of tuition equivalent to the cost of the most expensive undergraduate public university in that state. A service member is allowed to pass on the benefits to a dependent or spouse.
  • A monthly housing and living stipend. The amount depends on the geographical zip code of the educational institution, ranging from an expensive place like New York City ($3,775 / month) to a less expensive one like Duluth, MN ($1,318 /month).
  • An annual stipend to cover educational materials such as administrative fees, materials and books up to $1,000.
  • An eligibility period of up to 15 years after separating from active duty.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the longest in American history. Now they’re ending, and the men and women who served are leaving the military and moving into civilian life.

For many of them, the road back home leads through the nation’s colleges and universities.

To date, more than a million veterans have used the Post-9/11 GI Bill to go to college, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $40 billion.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is a generous benefit, and it represents a massive expansion over the Montgomery GI Bill, the education benefit that proceeded it. The new bill pays for the full cost of four years of a public education. That money can be applied to private schools as well. It also pays a housing allowance and book stipend.

But having the resources to go to college doesn’t guarantee success.

Non-traditional nontraditional students

Dan Standage joined the Marines in 1991, intending to make a career there. But after suffering a rare reaction to a vaccine for Japanese encephalitis, Standage lost his vision and left the military in 2001.

When he got out, he enrolled at the University of Arizona in Tuscon. Standage calls the experience of going back to school “rough.” Coping with a new disability was difficult. So was learning to navigate the world of higher education.

31%
of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with TBI, PTSD, or both. Source: Rand.

“My parents were grossly uneducated,” Standage says. “Neither one of them graduated from high school. Going in as a first-time, first-generation college student…you don’t know the landscape at all. Everything is brand new.”

Student veterans are statistically more likely than their peers to be the first in their families to go to college. And many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are entering college with newly acquired disabilities that can affect academic performance, particularly posttraumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.

Today, Standage is the Director of Disability Services at Student Veterans of America (SVA), working with SVA chapters across the country to ease veterans’ transitions back to civilian and collegiate life.

“College is 40 percent academic and 60 percent social,” he says. “Anybody [can] do the academics…The harder part is figuring out your place on that campus and learning how to be a good student.”

“Anybody [can] do the academics … The harder part is figuring out your place on that campus.”
–Dan Standage, Student Veterans of America

But the kinds of services and support veterans find when they arrive on campus vary widely across colleges, because the federal government doesn’t require colleges to offer any veterans services as a condition of accepting GI Bill money.

“Everybody knows to have a link on their website that says, ‘Are you a vet?'” says Craig Bryan, a psychologist at the University of Utah and the head of the school’s National Center for Veterans Studies. “What we’re still trying to figure out is how best to integrate veterans into college campuses and make sure they’re succeeding.”

A report published last year by the U.S. Department of Education highlights the range of services available across higher education.

Just 8 percent of surveyed colleges and universities offer courses specifically for student veterans. About a fifth offer specialized mental health counseling, and about 10 percent offer specialized study skills counseling. About 20 percent offer training to faculty in mental health issues associated with the transition from military to civilian life.

And less than a fifth of colleges and universities the Department surveyed had what Walter Tillman, the Director of Programs at Student Veterans of America, calls a “game changer” for student veterans: a dedicated space, usually called a veterans resource center.

And resource centers are more common at four-year colleges than at the kinds of schools where about two-thirds of veterans end up: two-year community colleges and for-profit institutions.

“We’ve seen the difference that having a central home on campus can make in the life of a student veteran,” Tillman says. “No matter where they are in the chaos of the higher education process, they know that, ‘I can go to this building and have all my questions answered, fill out all my paperwork, even just hang out with fellow veterans.'”

“We need to approach work with veterans from a diversity perspective,” says Craig Bryan, who calls veterans “non-traditional nontraditional students.” “[Veterans] have this identity and it’s not the same as the rest of society….[For] colleges that don’t have a resource center, I would ask, do they have one for LGBT students? For racial minorities? For religious groups? I would challenge them to think about military students in the same way.”

The Advocates

Veterans Resource Center counselor Carol Calandra first started at Pasadena City College in 2006 as a student, returning to school in her 40s to study counseling. She remembers seeing veterans showing up in her classes, “veteran after veteran, in class with no books, no backpack.”

The veterans would talk about getting hammered, or the problems they were having with their wives, or about how they were sleeping in their trucks because their GI Bill checks hadn’t shown up yet.

“My father in law was a POW,” Calandra says. “My uncles served in Vietnam. They both came back changed. Something just clicked and I went, ‘Hell no. Not on my watch. Not this generation.'”

Student veterans Jessica Ruano and Alex Moreno, with Moreno’s service dog in PCC's resource center. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Student veterans Jessica Ruano and Alex Moreno, with Moreno’s service dog in PCC’s resource center. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Calandra, a civilian, helped found PCC’s first Veterans’ Club. The Club later became a chapter of the national organization Student Veterans of America, which started in 2008 with 20 groups and has since grown to about 1,200 at schools across the country.

Around this same time, an academic counselor at PCC named Patty D’Orange-Martin started to notice more veterans on campus. D’Orange-Martin is married to a veteran, and her son serves in the Navy, so she became a kind of informal mentor to student veterans. She was troubled by what she saw as the poor support veterans received in the transition from the military to school.

“I’ll be emailing with someone in Iraq and they will be coming back on a certain day and maybe two or three days later classes start,” she says. “We’ve literally had people come home on a Friday and start school on a Monday. That’s not much of a transition.”

D’Orange-Martin began lobbying PCC’s administration to invest more resources in veterans’ services. She introduced Cynthia Olivo, PCC’s Associate Vice President of Student Affairs, to a few student veterans on campus.

“When you have a veteran standing in front of you, talking about their experience in the war, it’s a very compelling narrative,” says Olivo. “And it’s one that does require pause, and respect and resources.”

Olivo convinced the administration to hire D’Orange-Martin part time as a veterans’ counselor. Then PCC designated a space to serve as the school’s first veterans’ resource center (“barely more than a closet,” D’Orange-Martin says). Later, administrators inserted a line item into the college’s budget for veterans’ services, which eventually paid to bring Carol Calandra on as a counselor in the center. Today, PCC’s resource center has moved to a larger complex of three rooms, and the school spends about $200,000 a year on programs for its 800 veterans.

“For some of those schools that don’t have services, that question has been asked: ‘Why is it falling on us?'” says Patty D’Orange-Martin. “Well, what’s the alternative? If community colleges don’t provide these services, who’s going to do it? Congress wrote this check for the GI Bill, and now they come back and there are no provisions for how to take care of them. We are that safety net. We’re on the front lines with them to try to get them to transition.”

We became a platoon

Robin Alparaz’s reason for joining the Army wouldn’t look great on a recruitment flyer.

“I woke up really hungover,” he says. “I thought, ‘What am I doing with my life?'”

“They taught us how to become a functioning civilian again.”
–Robin Alparaz

The son of Filipino immigrants who settled in the Los Angeles suburbs, Robin was raised to excel; his parents hoped he would become an engineer.

But as a teenager Robin started drinking, graduated to Oxycodone and moved out of his parents’ house. By the time he was 21, he had hit rock bottom. One morning, nursing a hangover, he headed off on his skateboard to downtown Burbank and, for the first time, noticed an Army recruiting center there. He walked in and announced he wanted to join.

“I wasn’t even thinking,” he remembers. “It was impulsive, rash decision….but it was my chance at a second chance.”

It took Robin three tries to pass the Army’s drug tests, but eventually he enlisted. In 2012 he deployed to Afghanistan, where his job was to aim his base’s Howitzers. Whenever his unit came under fire, everyone else would hunker down, and Robin would run out to the guns.

“It sucked,” he says. “No matter how many targets we eliminated, they kept coming. All day, all night, and it hit me that I could die at any second.”

But something else happened while he was deployed. His parents sent him a Kindle, and he started reading. First the Game of Thrones series, which he found almost impenetrably difficult. He retreated to Harry Potter and slowly, painstakingly, worked his way up to The Count of Monte Cristo.

In a strange way, Robin’s time in Afghanistan taught him to love reading. He even started to write a little while he was deployed, and he began to think that he might be good at it. But Afghanistan, Robin says, also really messed with him.

When Robin returned from deployment to a base in Kansas, he was scared and angry.

“Nothing would calm me down,” he says.

He was prescribed antidepressants; they didn’t work. One night, Robin took five weeks’ worth of pills. Friends from his unit got him to the hospital, and he turned out okay, but the Army medically retired him with a diagnosis of PTSD and depression.

When Robin got out, he enrolled at a state college in Kansas. It was a nice school, he says, in a nice college town. But he had no real support there, and he dropped out quickly.

Robin drove back to California and moved back in with his parents. He still had GI Bill money, so he figured he might as well give school another try. That’s how he ended up at Pasadena City College.

When Robin Alparaz showed up at PCC, he was directed to the Veterans Resource Center. There, he met Patty D’Orange-Martin and Carol Calandra, who told him about a program they offered specifically to help the student veterans having the most trouble adjusting to civilian life. They called it the “veterans cohort.”

Robin Alparaz on duty in Afghanistan. (Submitted photo)

Robin Alparaz on duty in Afghanistan. (Submitted photo)

The cohort is designed to smooth the transition from the military to civilian life. It’s a kind of training wheels for the first semester of college. A cohort of about 25 veterans takes four classes together in their first semester: an introduction to higher education class, an English credit, a science credit and the Personal Development class, which everyone calls “Boots to Books.” The class is taught by Patty D’Orange-Martin’s husband, Harold Martin, a Vietnam veteran and a psychology professor at PCC.

“These veterans are outstanding in terms of helping one another but aren’t good at asking for help,” Martin says. “We have to be proactive. I want to give them practical skills and life skills to get them to the end.”

Those practical skills include how to take notes, read an academic text and organize a life outside of the structure of the military. The life skills portion goes deeper. The class starts with a showing of a documentary from 1946 about World War II veterans being treated for depression and emotional trauma at a government mental hospital. It moves on to units on coping with stupid questions from civilians (“‘Did you kill anyone?’ is the big one,” says Martin), and building solid relationships with friends and partners.

“I remember the first day it was dead silence until people started introducing themselves,” says Robin Alparaz. “After a few weeks, we became a small platoon.”

“They taught us how to study, how to prioritize time, how to talk to people,” he remembers. “I had to relearn small talk. And they taught us how to become a functioning civilian again. That was pretty cool.”

One night I went to the final session of the semester’s Boots to Books class.

The class had been working on essays about where they had come from and where they hoped to go. This evening, students had to present their work to their classmates.

The Boots to Books class listens to a student presentation. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

The Boots to Books class listens to a student presentation. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

A dozen guys were scattered across a big classroom. Everyone was nervous, and things started off with a lot of joking around.

But the vibe quickly got serious. A few guys presented, and then a veteran named Josh got up. He spoke about how, when he first started school, he was living in his RV, and how hopeless that had made him feel. His voice broke. He started to cry.

This was a class of combat veterans. But when Josh was done, half the guys were wiping their eyes.

One of them was Jonathan Richie, who got up next.

“It’s taken a lot of strength to admit here that I tried to kill myself,” he said. “When you talk to someone who’s not a veteran and they ask why I left the Marine Corps, I can’t say that I killed myself. They’ll look at you like you’re crazy. So I have to make up a story. I have a story and it sucks. It felt good to tell you, because you’re all veterans and you’re not judging.”

He pointed at Josh, sitting at a desk in the corner.

“Josh, I had no idea,” he said. “If you need me, call me. We need to bond, we need to be close. This class brought us closer together.”

Not every veteran needs things like the Boots to Books class. Many student veterans leave the military determined and focused, and they ace college.

But many student veterans do need help. And most of them aren’t in places where they’ll find it.

“Higher education moves slowly, and we don’t have the time,” says Harold Martin. “There are lots of bumper stickers, lots of flags, but that’s not enough. It doesn’t help you get through school, get treatment for traumatic brain injury, get you through tough classes. That’s the kind of support they need.”

Martin looks down at the messy pile of essays his students submitted, and shuffles the papers together.

“Where’s the pressure?” he asks. “Where’s the commitment?”

This essay is part of the larger radio documentary From Boots to Books, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).

Episode: From Boots to Books