By Gary Hengstler
Photography by Adam Brimer and Raffe Lazarian
Fireworks exploded at Neyland Stadium. While a euphoric crowd cheered after the Vols scored a touchdown, in a nearby apartment, a young woman scurried for her closet.
The former soldier coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) spent the rest of the day huddled on her closet floor as fireworks punctuated touchdowns.
Jayetta Rogers, UT Knoxville veteran student services coordinator, says she warns student veterans about fireworks, game-day traffic, pedestrian walkway congestion and things most would consider ordinary but can trigger an episode.
While extreme and rare, PTSD is one of a myriad of issues student veterans can face on campus. Rogers and her counterparts at Chattanooga, Martin and the Health Science Center in Memphis spearhead UT efforts to help veterans transition from regimented military life to the more chaotic campus environment.
With new laws or programs, such as the Tennessee Veterans Act in 2014, the Veteran Reconnect Grant initiated in 2015, the 2017 Tennessee Strong Act for National Guard members and modifications to the 1944 federal G.I. Bill, the number of student veterans on UT campuses has risen.
At UT Knoxville, the number of students using VA benefits rose from 661 in 2014 to 921 in 2017. At UT Chattanooga, the figure rose from 412 in 2016 to 550 in 2017. UT Martin began its program in February 2017 with 126, and by fall, enrollment rose to 666, boosted by an aggressive recruiting campaign with West Tennessee National Guard units. The Health Science Center had 40 student veterans in 2016 and more than 50 in 2017.
Accustomed to rigid military structure, UT Knoxville freshman philosophy major Jordan Harris had difficulty transitioning to the university environment.
“One thing that helped me is the calming effect of a place where I can talk to others with shared camaraderie, shared background and common goals,” says Harris, a former U.S. Navy diver in special operations forces in the Middle East. “You served your country, and now, this is your next mission.”
Robert Barber is a UT Chattanooga graduate student in cyber security and former president of the Student Veterans’ Organization. He says the student veterans center there gave him a sense of belonging that helped him become more involved on campus.
“When you go from a family of 175,000 to a campus of 19-year-olds who don’t share your background, it is great to have a place where you can meet with 30 to 40 of your military family members who understand your concerns and can help you,” says Barber, who served as a Marine in Iraq, Afghanistan and South Korea.
Veterans also are helped by campus coordinators who serve as administrators, counselors, psychologists, advocates, veterans’ benefits experts and friends.
Their work has its origins in the G.I. Bill established to benefit returning World War II veterans. Since then, the federal and Tennessee governments have expanded offerings for veterans and refined them into a complex mosaic. The post-9/11 G.I. Bill permits veterans to transfer benefits to spouses and dependents. Another law added educational benefits for veterans with 10 percent or greater disability.
The Tennessee Strong Act gives tuition reimbursement to Tennessee National Guard members, their spouses and children.
Each veterans’ initiative has a two-fold purpose, says Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. The first is to support Drive to 55—the state’s initiative toward 55 percent of Tennesseans having a post-secondary credential by 2025. The second purpose is to establish Tennessee as having the most veteran-friendly college campuses in the nation.
“When veterans return from serving our nation, higher education can play a unique role in ensuring leadership skills they gained in the military are able to be translated into civilian careers,” says Krause, a U.S. Army veteran twice deployed to Iraq. “Veterans also bring a rich combination of experiences to the classroom, which can enrich the experience for traditional students.”
In 2007, a little more than 5,000 veterans used the G.I. Bill to return to the classroom in Tennessee. Since the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill of 2009, veteran
students in Tennessee peaked at more than 13,700 and today number about 11,000—not including an additional400 Tennessee National Guard members.
Squoia Holmes is a UTC assistant registrar and Veterans Administration (VA) certifying agent. Holmes evaluates prior college credit, submission of enrollment certification and changes in status and degree completion for veterans.
“Every student has an academic advisor,” she says, “but I also serve as their VA advisor, which means they get a second person looking at their schedules and making sure the classes are degree-applicable, moving toward graduation.”
Since joined by Knoxville, Martin and Chattanooga, the Health Science Center was the first UT campus to achieve the state’s VETS (Veterans Education Transition Support) Campus designation. It signifies that the campus surveys veterans annually to determine their needs, educates the campus about veterans’ challenges and assesses whether military training and experience can translate into college credit.
Susan Davies, UTHSC associate vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment services, says many student veterans are Army and Navy work scholarship students in medicine and dentistry on their career paths as officers.
“At UTHSC, there is not as much age difference because we have students who did ROTC in undergraduate and have had some service but are coming back to get their medical or dental degree,” she says. The UTHSC student veteran average age of 26 is on par with nonveteran graduate students.
In fall 2017, Rogers and her staff at UT Knoxville opened a new veterans resource center— with study areas and meeting space—in Hodges Library.
“The biggest issue we have is the transition from military to civilian and military to student life,” Rogers says.
To help, Rogers urges students to keep a written calendar to manage their time. Doing so helps veterans transition from a rigid structure to a more relaxed student lifestyle, Rogers says. Most of all, she stresses, student veterans should contact her office for help if they feel overwhelmed.
All campuses also have “Green Zone” training for faculty and staff to help understand veterans’ issues in transitioning. Student veterans often attend to provide their perspectives.
Marcus VanCleave was in the U.S. Marines for nine years, including serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, before attending UT Martin. “We got everything we needed,” he says of UT Martin’s assistance for veterans.
Now, he works to return the favor. After graduating with a political science degree in 2017, he became West Tennessee veterans services coordinator for the Tennessee Department of Veterans Services.