Sailor, Soldier, Airman, Marine and Wolverine: How veterans transition from war to campus life

BY RACHEL VAN GILDER

Published January 3, 2011

The University is home to about 40,000 students from many different walks of life. About 214 of these students have life experiences radically different from the rest of the student body: they are veterans of the United States military. After immersion in the chaotic life of wartime, they are reintroduced into the life of higher education.


IN PRINT



Since the U.S. is currently involved in two large-scale conflicts in the Middle East, many of these vets have served overseas in combat zones. For these former military personnel, the University is a different world. For many veterans, the transition from soldier, sailor, airman or Marine to full-time student isn’t easy.

A different experience

In the winter of 2007, Eric Fretz, a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve and a Ph.D. candidate, was involuntarily recalled to serve a year-long tour in Iraq.

“Seven days before Christmas, I was working at my wife’s medical clinic. Seven days before Christmas,” said Fretz who was in his 19th year in the military and was planning to retire. “The guy on the phone — he had this British accent, it was the funniest thing — he said: ‘This is Petty Officer so-and-so, from New Orleans. Are you sitting down, sir?’

I said, ‘Uh, I’m standing, Petty Officer, but go ahead. Pass your traffic, what do you got?’

‘Well, I’ve got orders for you, sir. You’re being involuntarily mobilized. We’re sending you to Iraq.’

I remember sitting down, looking out at that snow fall … and I said, ‘When do I leave?’ ”

After that conversation, Fretz had 20 days before he would spend at least one year in Iraq. “I couldn’t tell my wife for two days,” Fretz remembered.

During his tour in Iraq, Fretz served with the Army’s 18th Airborne Corps. He explained that though he was in the Navy, he was assigned to work with the Army because the Marine Corps were so strained.

Fretz has made the transition from sailor to student several times: he alternated from active duty to reserves and obtained two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s and a Ph.D. along the way.

“It’s always a significant thing,” said Fretz, who received his first bachelor’s degree from the University and was a member of the NROTC. “Very quickly, you get pulled across that boundary. Either you can thrive in that environment, or you can’t.”

Not all military personnel on campus are veterans. The Tri-Service ROTC prepares cadets and midshipmen to become officers in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, but some of the ROTC staff members and individuals training to become officers have served time in Iraq or Afghanistan while others served during the Gulf War.

Capt. Rodney Sapp of the Marine Corps is stationed in the Naval ROTC unit. He advises Marines in the unit and served six months in Iraq during 2006. For Sapp, the awareness required of an active-duty soldier was hard to shake when he returned to the States.

“The most difficult thing was coming down from the high tempo of operations,” Sapp said.

“Being in the combat zone, you’re always on the alert, no matter what it is. Even if it’s a small plastic bottle … and it looks like it’s out of place, you kind of zone in on it. Well, plastic bottles are around here all the time. So you may still tend to look at that plastic bottle the same way you did in Iraq. So it’s this thing of looking around, always figuring out, always assessing my environment when it’s pretty safe. I still do that sometimes.”

According to Fretz, time in a war zone takes its toll on the average soldier.

“For those who go into a combat zone, for those who actually have to deal with people trying to kill them … That’s a problem. That’s not normal. That damages people,” explained Fretz, who also received a doctorate from the University’s Combined Program in Education and Psychology in December 2010.

Anthony Woodward, a second-year graduate student in the Ross School of Business and former Army captain, left the military after his second tour in Iraq.

“The continued deployments, they were taking me away from family, friends, my 20s. So I decided to get out,” Woodward said. “I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Woodward, like hundreds of thousands of other veterans across the country, decided to head back to the classroom.

Becoming a Wolverine

The first step for veterans who choose to go back to school is to get accepted. That’s where the University’s Student Veterans Assistance program comes in.

Philip Larson is the transition specialist with the Office of New Student Programs and chair of the University Council on Student Veterans. Larson’s job is to help veterans transition from active duty military life to student life.

“The chain of the command is pretty direct in the military … the University is not that hierarchical,” said Larson, who is also an Air Force veteran.

In order to emulate this direct hierarchy, Larson operates as a single point of contact for veterans looking for information. He helps prepare them for campus life and directs them to resources within the University.

After navigating the admissions process, veterans must obtain the funds they are entitled to under the federal G.I. Bill.

The G.I. Bill underwent changes in late 2009. The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill affects veterans who served for at least 90 days of military service following Sept. 11, 2001, according to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Post-9/11 bill entitles these veterans to funds equaling the cost of undergraduate tuition at the most expensive public university in a state. In Michigan, that institution is the University of Michigan.

The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, however, doesn’t cover the complete cost of tuition for the University’s more expensive graduate schools. For veterans who have served three years, G.I. Bill funds can be supplemented by the federal Yellow Ribbon Program. The Yellow Ribbon Program allows schools to provide additional financial aid for tuition that will be matched by the VA. The University has set unlimited aid for those who are 100-percent eligible for the G.I. Bill.

Once veterans have been admitted and their tuition is secured, their academic life doesn’t simply fall into place. Veterans have a unique set of challenges to face as they enter the University community.

Changing worlds

The real struggles for veterans when they step foot on campus. Fretz, who’s made the transition several times, called it “not hard, but challenging, because you’re changing worlds again.”

The mentality of the military in comparison to the world of academia is widely divergent.

“In the military, everything is precise and focused, and if you can’t give your answer quickly and cleanly, you don’t know what you’re doing, and you’ve got to be right," Fretz said. "But in academia, a short answer is generally what an unintelligent person gives because they haven’t fully unpacked the concepts, they haven’t thought around the issue, they’re not capable of discussing nuance and broad themes."

"You have to learn that culture,” he added.

Woodward said that for him, the transition was “pretty rough.”

“It’s just absolutely a different environment. You had more of an alpha-male aggressive, physically, mentally aggressive environment, and you’re going into more of a politically-correct arena,” Woodward said. “You have to be more collaborative. ... There’s not one person in charge anymore. Those aspects alone were pretty challenging for all of us.”

Some changes in behavior are simple, like cleaning up language in the classroom. “They don’t want to hear any of my profanity,” Fretz said. “My profanity is offensive to them, and I had become — as any sailor — extremely profane.”

For Fretz, changing worlds meant that he needed to change his way of thinking. He had to now think like a scholar instead of a soldier and make the mental adjustment from being in a position of authority as an officer to being a student under a different authority.

“The better adjustment was that I didn’t have to wake up quite as early,” Levine said with a smile.

Finding support

Student veterans, who are often older than traditional students, lose the close-knit community when they exit the military environment, according to Larson. They often find it difficult to relate to their peers.

“You have a very, very close community that’s kind of closed off, in a way, from the rest of the world,” Larson explained. “These are people that you depend upon. These are people that you see every day. They are people you eat, sleep, go into a combat area with, trust your life with. … You develop a very close relationship with these folks.

“And you come to a university setting, and that’s all wiped away.”

To help replace that support structure and ease the integration process, student veterans can participate in the Vet 2 Vet program, which Larson coordinates. Vet 2 Vet helps new student veterans find housing, provides information about the G.I. Bill and Student Veterans Assistance Program and connects veterans with a support system on campus.

Some veterans turn to the University’s Student Veterans Association to find a community. The group is a chapter of the Student Veterans of America, which was founded here in 2007 by University alum and Air Force veteran Derek Blumke.

Anthony Arnold, an LSA senior who was enlisted in the Navy for four years and served in Afghanistan, is the Public Relations chair of the SVA.

According to Arnold, the organization aims to provide incoming veterans with the information and support they need. Members help new student veterans with the transition and to navigate financial aid process. They also participate in programs that support the military. Student veterans can also turn to the veteran’s associations that operate within the Medical School, School of Social Work and Ross School of Business.

Some choose not to identify themselves as veterans. Larson said there are a variety of reasons this happens, including having a bad military experience or simply wanting an uninterrupted college experience.

Fretz, who is also involved in SVA leadership, explained that the SVA has a tough time encouraging veterans to get involved.

“They are aware that their veteran service marks them as different, and they don’t want to be different,” Fretz said. “They don’t want to be singled out.”

Woodward didn’t join the SVA primarily because he doesn’t have a lot of time to deal with the pressures that come with involvement in the Business School. However, he has informally connected with several other veterans in the Business School who help one another work through the transition.

“We have a support network,” Woodward said.

For Larson, the most important thing is helping veterans become, in one way or another, part of the campus community.

“We don’t want to single them out when we’re trying to integrate them into campus.”

The campus community

According to Larson, the 214 student veterans at the University are evenly split between undergraduate and graduate schools. The number of student veterans has increased significantly from three years ago when there were 81 veterans on campus, according to reports in The Michigan Daily from 2007.

Graduate schools, Larson specified, are seeing increased interest, perhaps because of the University’s commitment to the Yellow Ribbon Program. Similarly, The Ross School of Business is recruiting veterans, who have skills in which the school is interested.

The spike in enrollment may have also resulted from the fairly new Student Veterans Assistance Program. In late 2007, Derek Blumke encouraged the University to create an Office of Student Veteran’s Affairs. Several other schools already had similar programs, including Ohio State University and Wisconsin University.

For the last three years, the Council on Student Veterans has met regularly to build the program and provide student veterans with the resources they need. The council is made up of a variety of University officials from Counseling and Psychological Services, the Office of the Registrar, the Career Center, the Center for Services for Students with Disabilities, the Financial Aid Office, the Housing and Admissions offices, academic advisers and several other departments.

In addition to directing student veterans to various resources, Larson does advocacy work for veterans on campus. In his role, he helps prepare faculty members for the differences they will face when working with student veterans. In mid-November, the University held an informative symposium to help the campus community better understand the challenges student veterans face.

Overall, the University is making an effort to make campus easier for student veterans to navigate and more attractive for veterans who are looking to return to school. It’s paying off: G.I. Jobs Magazine recently named the University a “Military-Friendly Campus.”

Interacting with student veterans

With about 214 student veterans, about 550 staff and faculty veterans and the ROTC staff and members on campus, chances are that non-military students, staff and faculty will interact with active or former military personnel.

Many veterans find campus surprisingly accepting, considering the unpopularity of the current conflict in Iraq and Ann Arbor’s liberal reputation. Many veterans say the conflict seems to be more political than prejudicial against them.

Arnold left the University midway through his education to serve in Afghanistan. “I was afraid that I’d miss out on our generation’s call to service,” he said.

When Arnold returned to school, he expected many of his peers to have made prejudgments. But after some time back on campus, he realized that it was him making a prejudgment.

“A lot of people have been able to make the distinction between political figures and political decisions and military personnel,” he said.

Arnold is willing to engage in debate about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — as long as it’s rational.

“I really think it’s really healthy to be able to discuss with people things that you don’t necessarily agree with … to engage somebody in an intelligent conversation that you can learn or grow from,” he said.

Yet there are some guidelines curious individuals should consider. Larson pointed out that it’s inappropriate to ask veterans if they’ve ever had to kill someone. As Sapp put it, “I don’t think we can glorify killing.”

“Don’t believe the myths,” Larson said, adding that not every veteran has post-traumatic stress disorder or is a potential threat.

“A veteran student is a student like you.”

“Be inclusive,” Larson said. “A lot of our students really want that full experience of being a college student.”

Fretz said most veterans just want to “fit back in.”

“Know the individual,” he said. “Don’t let that veteran thing become foreground, because they wouldn’t want it to be.”

Veterans don’t want see themselves as outsiders, so they don’t want their peers to perceive them differently.

“We’re normal people. There’s nothing, you know, particularly special about us,” Levine said.

Above all, veterans almost always appreciate it when people thank them for their service.

“Service in the military — whether or not you deploy in a war time — is just hard,” Fretz said. “And you leave quite a bit of yourself on the table. … They all value the fact that people appreciate what they sacrificed.”