transition

Afghanistan Post Mortem: Readjustment takes time

Stress over time: Fantasy

Stress over time: Fantasy

About three-quarters through the deployment, I could physically feel that my patience, or rather, my ability to be patient, had severely diminished. I found myself getting easily frustrated with things that I would have been able to manage much better earlier in the deployment. My patience had been eroded, but I was cognizant of it, and because I was aware of it, I was able to manage my own impatience (eh, some of the time).

Speaking with other leaders about this, they reported a similar phenomenon. The challenges of leadership coupled with the stress of deployment had chipped away at their mental stores.

And the deployment went on, and then we went home.

Despite the constant drum-beat during re-integration training that war has a significant effect on the psyche, the thought that “everything will be better when we get home” still lingers. While it’s true that the immediate danger is gone, the phsyiological changes that occured and led to our being easily frustrated probably takes time to reset. It’s hard to imagine that the cumulative effect of nine months of deployed life (coupled with the tough training that preceded it) is wiped away simply by crossing enough time-zones and setting feet down on American soil.

Stress over time: Reality

Stress over time: Reality

education, transition

The Veteran Back-to-School Reader

It’s back to school time. For new student veterans, that means awkwardly moving between campus buildings at a 120 paces a minute, looking for the seat with either the easiest egress route or full view of all students (my personal choice), and digging deep into regulations on how to fully access education benefits.

I thought that it might be helpful to write a post that links some good reading for the new student veteran. If you know of anything that I should add to this, let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it.

Posts about the technical aspects of college:
A Veteran’s Blueprint for College – The nuts and bolts of going to college as a veteran.
College Success: Leveraging Your Vet-Cred – How to use your veteran experience to your advantage while at school 

Posts about college life for veterans:
From Soldier to Student, a Bumpy Road – The strange life of the student veteran, by Alex Horton
Johnny Get Your Textbook – What it’s like… by Colby Buzzell

Posts about transitioning out of the military:
Life After Iraq: 10 Lessons on Transitioning Out of the MilitaryThis is good general advice on making it work outside of the military.

Posts about studying Arabic as a veteran:
Learning a Language, and Relearning a Country – A former soldier decides to study Arabic and faces some awkwardness and discomfort.

education, transition

A Veteran’s Blueprint for College

This post originally ran on VAntage Point, the VA’s blog. Since school is starting, I thought I’d repost it here.

Having just finished school, I wanted to write an amazing article on what that experience was like as a veteran. (Un)fortunately, Alex Horton and Colby Buzzell recently wrote fantastic articles about that strange transition – and did so in a way that I could not. So instead, I’d like to add to the conversation by writing about some of the nuts and bolts of going to college on the GI Bill and ultimately finishing school with a degree.

In the five years since leaving the Army, I managed to squeeze out an undergraduate degree (CCNY, 2010) and a master’s degree (SOAS, 2011) almost entirely covered by the GI Bill. Starting school, it’s important to understand that getting an education is a long and grueling process. I spent as much time in school as I did in the Army. This post chronicles that journey and might act as a light blueprint for a veteran looking to go to school.

Overcome the skepticism and go

During my last six months of active duty, I met with a number of senior NCOs and retention specialists to discuss staying in the Army and my plans upon separating. The conversations usually went like this:

NCO: “You’re getting out? What are you going to do?”
Me: “I’m going to go to college.”
NCO: “Yeah, alright. It’s not that easy, you know.”

Informal conversations with peers about my future as a college student were often met with rolled eyes and skepticism. It was generally assumed that separating soldiers responded with “going to college” as an answer to questions about future plans without actually putting the thought into what going to college entails. College was also shrouded in mystery as a foreign institution far outside of the base gate since most of the enlisted soldiers surrounding me had not attended. This mystery meant they didn’t have a good second line of questioning. A soldier could say they were simply going to college and that was a good enough plan. Most active duty soldiers don’t have much experience with accessing VA benefits, so there is little advice they can offer.

But if you’re serious about going to school – do it. Don’t be discouraged by the skeptics.

Swallow your pride – start at community college if you must

Fortunately, I had a basic plan. I wanted to pursue Middle East studies and Arabic. In order to do that, I needed to go to a school that offered it. I wanted to go to the City College of New York (CCNY), but I was not a good student in high school, so applying directly was not an option. So, I swallowed my pride and enrolled in a local community college to sharpen my academic skills and boost my GPA before applying to CCNY. At community college, I only took core courses that would easily transfer to CCNY by checking the requirements of the degree program I wanted at CCNY and matching up the requirements to courses at the community college I was attending. I had to take a year of remedial math before I could even enroll in a math course that actually counted. It wasn’t fun, but I needed it. And this year of taking courses I didn’t necessarily want to take laid the foundation for future academic success.

I got my first taste of life with the GI Bill at community college. Fortunately, the community college I attended had a full-time representative that handled veterans issues and she ensured I always received GI Bill payments. If your school has a veterans office, lean on it. Hard.

Start with core courses/general studies – they transfer easier

After a year of community college, I transferred to the City College of New York. Because I had only taken core courses, nearly all of my credits transferred – meaning I hadn’t wasted any time. Switching my GI Bill to this new school was trickier, since it required switching regions. I didn’t have any problems with receiving payments though, because I applied for the GI Bill early and checked up regularly. Phone calls and website inquiries are a student veteran’s best friend when it comes to ensuring timely disbursement of funds.

Stay up-to-date on the latest benefit changes

By the time the Post-9/11 GI Bill was introduced, I had nearly exhausted all of my Montgomery GI Bill benefits. I was a little bummed, since I was otherwise fully eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill and would have received substantially more than what I was getting with the Montgomery. Closely reading the rules governing the new benefit, however, I learned that if I exhausted my Montgomery GI Bill I would then be eligible for twelve months of Post-9/11 GI Bill. Knowing this, I was able to continue to receive GI Bill benefits in the final months of my undergraduate program and then use what was left to help pay for a graduate program in London.

If you do something weird (like study abroad), be prepared to work – you might be trailblazing

I chose to continue my education by attending the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers studying at foreign institutions, but the rules governing this are different than the rules governing studying at US institutions. In order to make it work, I needed to get the specific program I was interested in approved by the VA before I could start receiving benefits. This can be a long process and one that requires lots of phone calls to desks in VA offices across the US.

I also needed to get letters from the VA documenting approximately how much money I would receive over the course of the year to apply for a UK visa – not a normal thing that the VA does. Also, all housing allowances for foreign institutions are set at a locked rate regardless of the location overseas, which may be substantially less than what you will need. While studying in London, I had a GI Bill discrepancy, and troubleshooting the issue was a little more difficult since calling back to the US could get expensive. Lastly, administrative staff at foreign institutions may have never processed a US veteran before, so you need to be prepared to teach someone “how to do it.”

Spin your service into more opportunities

The Post-9/11 GI Bill shouldn’t be the only legacy of your military service while in school. Veterans represent a tiny portion of any college campus. That, together with the unique experiences, ingrained discipline, and plethora of stories can easily by marshaled to pursue other opportunities, like prestigious scholarships. By supplementing your Post-9/11 GI Bill with other scholarships, you can extend the life of your benefits and potentially squeeze out another degree before you finish.

Start slow, but stay in the game

Since starting school, there have been two problems that I’ve seen over and over again with veterans and college: the veteran who never starts school because of how long it takes to finish and the one that never finishes because he or she takes on too much at once. The first puts off going to school every semester because it’s going to take forever anyway (“Why bother? I have to take a year of classes that don’t even count before I can even start school for real”). The second starts school and then is in a rush to finish, often taking too many courses while holding a job and taking on too many side projects. Both of these veterans have a hard time finishing college, but their solutions are similar: start slow and build momentum. Even if it means starting with one or two courses a semester. Slowly, the veteran will build momentum and start taking on more. Each course is one course closer to finishing.

Lastly, as much as possible, resist the urge to take a semester off. These breaks often last longer than intended.

Good luck!

Additional tips:

Enroll as soon as possible – the sooner you start, the sooner you finish

Have a basic plan (what do you ultimately want to study?)

Backwards plan – find the job you want – determine what degree or education it requires – determine which school offers it – figure out how to get into that school – execute!

Knock out your core requirements first – this might take a year or more, in which time you can think critically about the end game and make adjustments if necessary. Also, core requirements are usually the most transferable, so if you change schools, they won’t be credits, time, and money wasted.

Know the rules to the GI Bill and stay up-to-date on changes (this can mean more money, or at least, not having to pay back)

Inquiry, inquiry, inquiry (if you have any problems, send an inquiry immediately through the VA website)

When it comes to the GI Bill, apply early and check up regularly

Be on the lookout for other veteran-specific scholarships

Stay in school – even if it means one course a semester

 

 

transition

The importance of “serious talk” for readjusting veterans

As part of my dissertation exploring Iraqi military experiences during the Iran-Iraq War era, I researched anthropologists’ experiences with veteran communities. Strikingly, many came to similar conclusions regarding what one anthropologist identifies as “serious talk.” That is, the process of communicating a personal war experience to a formal or public audience serves a critical role in the readjustment of the veteran. My own experience speaking and writing about my war experience confirms this for myself. While this may seem like common sense to many veterans, the research suggests that engaging in “serious talk” may ease the transition veterans face when returning to civilian life.

Perhaps naively, before deploying in 2003, I thought that when I came home from war there would be a formal “debriefing.” In the movies, I remember soldiers were routinely “debriefed’ after a mission. I pictured a process that would take place over the course of a week or two. We’d show up in the morning, conduct physical training, eat breakfast, and then stroll into a small darkened theater, clutching mugs of strong coffee. Like a cross between an AAR and a counseling session, the unit would be guided through a deconstruction and reconstruction of the entire deployment. Maps, photos, and video would augment the process. It would be informal, conversational, and involve everyone.

This imagined debriefing would give everyone, from private to commander, the opportunity to speak and relate their experience, for the sake of getting it out. It would not simply discuss the mechanics of war (the AAR does that), but would focus on the human experience of war, for which no amount of training creates experts.

Likewise, I imagined sitting in the dining room with my family, letters, maps, and photographs strewn about the table, where I would discuss at length what the experience was like – from boots on the ground to wheels up. We’d stay up late drinking coffee or beer and I’d lay it all out, once and for all. The ultimate war story.

Neither of these things happened. Maybe the first happens in some places, with some units. I’ve read stories about adventure vacations that platoons take to decompress.

Admittedly, I could have forced my family to sit down and listen to me tell them everything. But I never wanted to do that, and despite their assurances that they were always ready to listen, I’m not sure they really wanted it either. I just imagined that it would happen shortly after returning home.

Instead, my war experience has leaked out in small anecdotes over the course of several years. If I’m in a giving mood, a familiar sight or smell might compel me to quickly tell a story to my wife or parents. Even when I see other veterans, war talk is usually sparse, or spoken about in generalizations since war experiences are vastly different. Speaking in generalities (“man, Iraq was hot”) makes it easier to accommodate the different experiences of other veterans, while acknowledging that there is a shared service between us.

My difficulty in speaking about war is not unique. War talk is a subject that has received significant attention from anthropologists studying veteran communities. Anthropologist Theresa O’Nell worked with a community of Native American Vietnam veterans and wrote about their process of “coming home” (1999).

O’Nell’s important contribution is her identification of “profane talk” and “serious talk” as two modes veterans use to speak about war.

“Profane talk” is the dominant mode, usually done with other veterans, and consists of jokes, cursing, and the retelling of war stories, often with the purpose of establishing dominance among other men.

These are the “no shit, there I was” stories. “Serious talk,” on the other hand, usually takes place in public or ceremonial settings. It is characterized by a more thoughtful and reflective tone. A speech at a Memorial Day event, an Op-Ed in a local newspaper, and blog posts can be forms of “serious talk.” This essay is a form of “serious talk.”

O’Nell offers that veterans who only engage in “profane talk” are “confined to that generation, trapped in that time and place.”

They are forever in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. For those who engage in “serious talk,” however, “war memories undergo a semiotic transformation within which they are detached from combat-based meanings of death and survival, and become reattached to the sense and flux of ongoing intergenerational and transhistorical tribal life.”

In “serious talk” the veteran is usually speaking to a non-veteran audience. Words and ideas must be reconstructed to be understood. This process of deconstructing and repackaging stories for general consumption forces the veteran to reflect and work through his or her own experiences.

Like O’Nell, Eyal Ben-Ari identified “serious talk” as therapeutic. An anthropologist and reservist in the Israeli military, he wrote an analytical essay on his experience as a soldier during the first Palestinian intifada (1989).

In a section titled “At the Edge of My Society,” Ben-Ari writes about the reasons he wrote the article. He writes “Telling this tale – or more precisely relating my personal story to the more distanced analysis – has provided me with a means for confronting the experience of Hebron as well as for facing some of the deeper implications of my actions and those of my friends and comrades.”

In his essay on survivors of the attack on Peal Harbor, Geoffrey White also identifies “serious talk” as a way of healing and reconciling the past (1999).

The survivors, US Navy veterans, work as tour guides at the memorial for the attack, and are themselves living memorials. White has observed the importance of public performance of “traumatic, repressed, and hidden” memories as a means of healing for war veterans.

The process of packaging military experiences and presenting them to a public or formal audience serves a role in settling the veteran’s conscience.

A few years after leaving the military, I had the opportunity to participate in a museum project called It Is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq. The project consisted of a sparsely curated gallery of pictures from post-2003 Iraq and the husk of a car destroyed in a bombing. In the center of the gallery a person with some connection to Iraq would sit or stand surrounded by a small crowd of museum-going New Yorkers and tourists. The role of the speaker was simple: speak about their Iraq experience. As a veteran, my experience was war. Confronted by a crowd mostly ignorant of the military and hostile towards the war, my challenge was presenting my experience in a way that was easily understood, nonpolitical, and humanizing.

The experience was a strange one, because I was essentially a live, speaking exhibit. People asked me questions, and I answered. Some questions were dumb; the standard “did you kill anyone” type questions that you expect from high school kids, not the aging New York art crowd. Others were more complex and required thoughtful answers, like being asked to recall the level of cultural and language training provided and how that affected tactical operations. Or, how I personally reconcile my participation in an unpopular war with pride in military service (the assumption, of course, that it must be reconciled). Over the course of about a month, I spoke on four or five different occasions. The experience forced me to think about my Iraq experience in a critical way and then communicate that to a public audience. I remember watching the face of an NYU graduate student quizzically contort as she realized I was not a monster. She told me she protested strongly against the Iraq War and was antimilitary, but had never actually met someone who served before.

While the exhibit was designed to inform the general public about Iraq, I believe that the process was more beneficial to me than anyone who attended. This was the first time I was forced to present my memory and experience to a critical public. I survived, and left each night feeling charged and better sorted than the night before.

Since then, I have continued to share my war experience through public writing. It is still challenging, but the process allows me to communicate everything that I wanted to communicate in the debriefing theater and at the dining room table in a safe and manageable way. While this process may not be helpful, appropriate, or needed for all veterans, it has been helpful for me, and previous research suggests that it may be helpful for others as well.

This post originally appeared at Small Wars Journal.


education, transition

College Success: Leveraging Your Vet Cred

Be Exotic

As Veterans, we hold a powerful tool to employ on our quest for a first-rate education: our stories.

Our experience in the Armed Forces makes us different from the average student. In the words of a scholarship advisor and friend, we are “exotic.” There’s no getting around this fact. In a country where less than one-percent of the population serves, we represent a tiny portion of society, and people are curious about us. This curiosity can be used to our benefit to help us get the best education possible.

Over the past five years, I have employed my military experience to great effect, not on my resumé, but in personal statements and essays. As a result, I have been able to augment my education through the Post-9/11 GI Bill in a variety of ways, such as pursuing my graduate degree in London. To be blunt, I’ve used my military experience to my advantage. And you can, too.

It’s Not Cheap or Dishonorable

At this point, I know there are some Veterans who will read this and think “I don’t feel comfortable using the story of my service for personal gain.” I understand that sentiment, because at one time I felt the same way.

I got out of the Army in 2006 and went straight to community college. As an older student who deployed twice to Iraq, I wasn’t interested in student life or anything that would distract me from my ultimate goal–getting my degree and getting on with life. I walked briskly between classes with my head down, ignoring students around me. I chose not to seek out other veterans on campus–there were many–out of a fear of somehow getting sucked back into the world I had just left. I was in college for a new and different experience.

When I transferred to the City College of New York (CCNY) in 2008, I began to apply for scholarships and fellowships. Without fail, these required personal statements or essays describing leadership challenges, organizational experiences, or service stories. At first, I refused to write anything about my military service, because I felt that it would be dishonorable to do so, or it would be cheap. I thought that if I was going to be successful, it would be of my own accord and academic record–not because I had war stories.

The truth is though, for those of us who joined shortly after high school, without our military experience, there really isn’t much else to write about.

Thankfully, I had a number of excellent mentors at CCNY who strongly encouraged me to include my military experience in my applications. After much wrangling, I relented. Not only did I begin to include my military experience, but I highlighted it.

For most of us, our military service is the defining experience of our lives. To omit that is doing an injustice to ourselves, and placing us at a disadvantage. Our service should not be omitted, but celebrated. The things we have done and achieved are often incredible, and reflect well on both ourselves and the Armed Forces. Why hide that?

Embracing my military experience not only led me to academic success, it also forced me to pay attention to student Veteran issues on campus and find ways to get involved in veterans advocacy. With a group of other City College Veterans, we started the City College Veterans Association–an advocacy and social club for Veterans on campus. Having a community of Veterans on campus that encourages one another and shares stories builds confidence, and makes owning the Veteran identity easier–and a lot more fun!

Techniques, Tactics, and Procedures

There are a few things to keep in mind when leaning on military experience in academic settings.

1. Keep it clean. No shit, there I was…” is a great way to start a story with buddies at the bar, but doesn’t work well on a personal statement. Also, unless it is absolutely necessary, leave out the blood and gore.

2. Highlight leadership. Enlisted or officer, most of us have served in leadership positions at some point during our military careers. Good leaders know that it’s not just about telling people what to do. Stories about complex leadership challenges while serving stand out.

3. Fight stereotypes. Most Veterans I know are extremely thoughtful and have very complex ideas on the nature of war and military service. This surprises a lot of people. Find stories that demonstrate this.

4. Be a story teller. People love stories, and Veterans have the best. When you get an opportunity to share your story, think of it as an opportunity to sharpen it, and tell it better (without embellishing, of course!).

5. Know when to reveal, and when to conceal. Sometimes a military story just isn’t appropriate or doesn’t fit. Don’t force it.

Scholarships

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is an amazing benefit, but it doesn’t do everything for everyone. Here are links to some scholarship programs where military stories can be leveraged:

And here’s a link to a comprehensive list, courtesy of CUNY.

Good luck!

This was originally posted at VAntage Point, the VA’s blog on June 21, 2011.