I was barely old enough to order a beer when I found myself being deployed to Iraq. This was post-9/11 so to say tensions were high is an understatement at best. I was thrown right into the deep end.
I was smart enough to know I didn’t know everything. But still, nothing in my 21 years prepared me for what I would see during that year on active duty. I went from attending classes and juggling studies to engaging in small arms fire and being hit with an improvised explosive device during my first week in country. I led more than 180 combat patrols as an Army Infantry team leader and as a member of a recon/sniper team.
When I returned to college in the fall of 2006, I was quite literally a different person. The classmates I had been with my previous three years in college had graduated the previous spring. Lost in a sea of strange faces, I felt unmoored and alone.
In addition to the culture shock that comes with returning home after active duty, I was struggling with things I simply could not understand. I couldn’t sleep, I was easily agitated, and I always felt “on alert.” I thought as time went on, my memories would fade. But instead of time healing all wounds, I found myself remembering things I had experienced with alarming clarity. A simple and seemingly innocent sound or smell could suddenly trigger rapid fire memories that left me shaken and anxious to get home.
I was older than others in the class, both in terms of age and experience. Trying to relate to my new classmates felt forced and it often left me emotionally and physically exhausted. Things that were so simple before - including being able to simply kick back and have fun - felt completely out of reach.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder. While PTSD was known about in 2006, it wasn’t something many people spoke of and it was often framed as some “new age” diagnosis. The truth is PTSD has been around in one form or another for centuries, though previous generations called it by different names. Back then, people used terms like shell-shocked, soldier’s heart, and battle fatigue. Call it what you will, for as long as people have been fighting wars, soldiers have been coming home to a completely new battle: One they fight against themselves.
But back in 2006, all I knew was that I was struggling to fit in at school and willing to do almost anything to just feel normal again. I started drinking socially to help me relax and relate better to my fellow students. I wanted to embrace the time I had left at school, to embrace the “normalcy” it offered.
I started drinking socially to make it easier to relax and loosen up. Suddenly, I could talk to my fellow classmates, go out for a few drinks, have some fun, and even come home and pass out in bed. In a way, I felt I had found the key. Maybe this was my “new normal.” However, what began as an attempt to feel “normal” soon spiraled out of control. As time went on, my drinking escalated. Even though I drank more hoping to get that same effect, I was effectively chasing my own tail. I drank more to feel better but wound up still struggling with all the same issues, only now I usually had a hangover as well.
It wasn’t long before this began to affect my academic life as well as my social life. I felt myself slipping in classes and shrugging off assignments. Although my education had been one of the motivating factors behind enlisting, I was watching it all begin to slip away and felt powerless to do anything about it.
I felt completely alone. The truth, however, is that I was anything but alone. According to the Military Times, up to one quarter of post-9/11 veterans struggle with some kind of substance misuse. Of those struggling with substance misuse, 20% have PTSD and 15% struggle with depression. Many of us are facing all three issues - substance misuse, PTSD, and clinical depression - at the same time. Tackling even one of these issues is a challenge; multiply it by three and it’s easy to see how things can get complicated very fast.
While post-9/11 veterans make up only about 5% (as of 2015-2016) of students actively enrolled on college campuses across America, their needs can be profound (Hill et al., 2019). To address this persistent problem, colleges and universities must improve their understanding of the various risk and protective factors specific to substance misuse prevention for student-veterans.
The injuries I incurred in the war are invisible; and as a combat veteran, I was convinced that because I successfully dealt with so much in Iraq, I had to deal with the pain I was experiencing on my own. Despite my best efforts to deal with the issues I was experiencing, the emotional turmoil and fatigue that came with it quickly caused me to turn further inward.
This spiral continued until I realized that the life I was living was not one that fulfilled my full potential. I was proud of my service and I knew that I could handle living and fighting in a combat zone. Then why couldn't I do something as simple as maintain friendships and feel safe in group settings?
After months of questioning what I was experiencing, and repeatedly following the same self-destructive pattern, I began looking for a way to help myself. As difficult as it was for me to accept that I had a problem, it was still too difficult for me to seek help. I felt certain that I would find a solution to this problem through hard work and focus.
Through a commitment to improvement, trial and error, and a lot of reading, I began to create a solid foundation for the future that was focused on post-traumatic growth. By seeing the worst that the world has to offer, I saw the importance of embracing the good. Our experiences highlight how fragile, how fleeting, how precious our daily experiences can be. I remember understanding it best when I thought about how much I wanted to embrace and relish the time I had in school. I wanted to experience and enjoy that time as a student. Unchecked, that desire led me to drinking as a shortcut to “relaxing” enough to enjoy it.
With creating a new foundation for the future, I was able to embrace and appreciate those same experiences without the crutch of alcohol or the pain of the morning after. This approach was more along the lines of training to be the best that I can be. From the basic structure to the logical approach, it was something I could relate to. It was something that didn’t feel like a “one size fits all” approach. More to the point, it didn’t minimize what I had dealt with. In fact, it embraced it and used my traumatic experience to highlight the strengths I had and help me focus on honing those to help with my current situation.
They say what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and that’s true, but not the whole story. I know now my experiences are more than just my trauma - they have become a part of my purpose. While they don’t define me, they do guide me. Ultimately, the lessons to be learned from my experience are ones of risk and protective factors and of cultural competence.
The culture and everyday life of your average person is a million miles away from that of an active duty member of the military. Add the element of being a college student and we’re talking entirely different planets. More often than not, the risk and protective factors for college students are very different from those associated with military members.
Risk and protective factors for veterans are unique, and at times conflicting. For example, a risk factor for a veteran such as their experience in combat and the memories of being a soldier, may also be connected to a protective factor, such as the accountability and discipline gained through experience in the military. The key to supporting student veterans is to first identify these factors, define how they contribute to problematic behavior, and then define how they can be used to manage destructive tendencies.
Additionally, it is crucial for any prevention professional to consider the culture from which their students come before attempting to design a program grounded in evidence-based strategies. Trust is critical in any behavioral health-related relationship, but even more so with veterans. Many of us returned with little warning or understanding of how life would change when we came home. Tailoring, building, and shaping student-veteran prevention efforts are about more than being a more effective prevention professional. It’s about changing and saving lives.
Finally, keep in mind that resources exist for both veterans and prevention professionals. Make the Connection is an online resource center for veterans that focuses on creating a sense of community and helps those experiencing isolation to know they are not alone. I encourage anyone interested in better serving this population to explore this resource as well.
It is my hope that the challenges I experienced upon returning to college can be prevented or at least quickly and effectively addressed for the future generation of veterans. To achieve this, prevention professionals should engage a broad swath of stakeholders as they develop an increased understanding of the veteran population. For it is only through a deeper understanding of our service members’ collective experiences that universities will be able to develop and implement effective prevention strategies on their campuses.
‘Prevention is better together and together we are stronger.’
Refer back to my previous View from the Field for more tips for serving student veterans.
Bond Hill, C., Kurzweil, M., Davidson, E., & Schwartz, E. (2019, January 10). Enrolling More Veterans at High-Graduation-Rate Colleges and Universities. Ithaka S&R. Retrieved October 15, 2020, from https://sr.ithaka.org/publications/enrolling-more-veterans-at-high-graduation-rate-colleges-and-universities/
Moore, B. A., & Falke, K. (2018, June 4). How veterans’ struggles can lead to post-traumatic growth. Military Times. Retrieved October 15, 2020, from https://www.militarytimes.com/opinion/commentary/2018/06/04/how-veterans-struggles-can-lead-to-post-traumatic-growth/
Shane, L. (2020, July 22). Substance abuse can block veterans from getting mental health help, researchers warn. Military Times. Retrieved October 14, 2020, from https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2020/07/22/substance-abuse-can-block-veterans-from-getting-mental-health-help-researchers-warn/
Dave Closson is Director of the Mid-America Prevention Technology Transfer Center, which is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The PTTC serves as a prevention catalyst, empowering individuals and fostering partnerships to promote safe, healthy, and drug-free communities across Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas. Dave previously worked as a Training/Technical Assistance Specialist for SAMHSA’s Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies, and was formerly the Assistant Director of the Illinois Higher Education Center. Dave brings a unique experience to substance misuse prevention, having served as a police officer at Eastern Illinois University. Dave is proud to have served in the Illinois Army National Guard for six years and was deployed under Operation Iraqi Freedom. For his service, he was awarded two Army Commendation Medals, one for valor and one for meritorious service; Combat Infantryman’s Badge; Air Assault Badge; National Defense Service Ribbon; Iraq Campaign Medal; and Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.