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Program Teaches Vets How To Survive The Classroom

Most American troops have left Iraq, and many have left Afghanistan. Now more than half a million of them have left the service — and they're going to college. Some vets say the transition is like landing on another planet, but they aren't the only ones struggling: The college staffs are, too.

At Sierra Community College, about an hour from Sacramento in Rocklin, Calif., there are hundreds of new kinds of students mixed in with the 18-year-olds fresh out of high school. Like James Reimers, who just turned 25. He was running patrols in Baghdad when many of his classmates were in the fifth grade.

"Some people walking around, they have like, Mohawks, and a nose ring, and like, a chain coming out of their ear," Reimers says. "It makes you feel like you don't fit in here. Just, like, what's going on?"

Or 37-year-old Jay Blake. He has short hair and his arm is covered with warrior tattoos. He says he is struggling at Sierra.

"When I was in Iraq ... there was a mission," Blake says. "Walking around with a rifle and telling people, 'You go here, you do this, and you do that,' and if they don't, I have the opportunity to go ahead and hit them upside the head with my rifle if I want to," he says laughing, "You know, but I just can't do that" on Sierra's campus. "How do I interact?"

Classroom Struggles

Veterans started flooding college campuses at the end of World War II. Three years ago, Congress expanded the program for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Since then, the Department of Veterans Affairs says more than 600,000 of them have gone to schools on the GI Bill. The VA doesn't have exact statistics, but surveys suggest that at least a quarter of those vets are attending community colleges, like Sierra.

"The guys [are] feeling lost," says Catherine Morris, one of Sierra's main academic advisers. The school has roughly 800 vets on its campus among its 20,000 students. "And I had so many guys telling me that they were actually more afraid of going to college than they were in combat."

In Michelle Johnson's English class, the room is packed with about 30 students. The four vets in the class are clumped together in the corner, like their own mini-platoon, including Reimers, who later says he is not sure how to relate to the other students in the class. Vets like Reimers are haunted by their memories of war.

"One day in Baghdad ... there [were] five of our guys and an interpreter in a Bradley [tank]," Reimers says. "And they rolled over, I think it was a 200-pound bomb, and it just blew it to pieces, and none of them survived, obviously. And we had to go out there and pick up what was left — the remains of the fallen soldiers."

Reimers says the only way he survived was to shut down part of his brain. But now he's studying mechanical engineering, and he needs to turn his brain back on.

"But sometimes my brain doesn't want to. I look at the words and I read them and then I just, it doesn't compute at all," he says.

Balancing New Civilian Life

There are also vets on campus like Crystal Turner — already a young mother. Turner, 24, went to Iraq while in the Marine Corps and married another Marine.

Marine veteran Crystal Turner, a student at Sierra College, holds her daughter, Marley Rose, while she tries to coax her son, Michael, into finishing a walk in the park near their home in Sacramento.
David Gilkey / NPR
Marine veteran Crystal Turner, a student at Sierra College, holds her daughter, Marley Rose, while she tries to coax her son, Michael, into finishing a walk in the park near their home in Sacramento.

She says she didn't return from the war with post-traumatic stress, but she's overwhelmed trying to piece together a new life. She and her two young children live in a tiny apartment, with so many toys scattered on the carpet that it is difficult to walk. Her husband is still in the Marines and lives near his base about two hours away. So Turner says she's basically raising their two kids by herself. Plus she works 25 hours a week. Plus she's taking a full course load at Sierra.

"I don't really have that many relationships with other students that are not vets. I don't. I feel like I just don't fit in with them," she says.

Unprepared Schools Present Challenges

When vets from Iraq and Afghanistan started pouring onto college campuses, veterans' advocates assumed that colleges would be ready. The military's own studies show that hundreds of thousands of vets have come home with mental health problems or traumatic brain injuries, or both. Many others are struggling mothers like Turner. But surveys by education groups show that most colleges haven't done much to help them. Rodrigo Garcia, chairman of Student Veterans of America and assistant director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, says he's worried.

I had so many guys telling me that they were actually more afraid of going to college than they were in combat.

"I am a bit apprehensive. And I would say that I am a bit peeved that more colleges and universities are not doing more," he says.

Back at Sierra, academic adviser Morris — who also served in the Marines — was upset that her own college wasn't doing more. A few years ago, she went to the executives who ran the college and asked to set up a special program to support veterans. But they told her no, citing budget reasons.

When Willy Duncan, the new president of the college, took over last year, he told her the budget was cut even more.

"We've essentially had to cut access. We've essentially had to reduce the number of students that we could serve, so we are turning students away," he says.

Duncan says he wants to fund a major program for vets.

"I think it's hugely important for us to do it."

But Duncan says, so far, the only kind of support that can be provided is moral support. The California Legislature has slashed college budgets across the state. Sierra has cut teachers. It has cut salaries and benefits. It has eliminated whole courses.

"We have 800 vets on campus, which I would consider a large cohort. But we have 20,000 students that we do have to serve. And we can't serve vets at the expense of other students — we need to be able to serve them all," he says.

A Call For Duty

So Morris got together with a colleague and a handful of students, and they decided to create their own veterans program. They persuaded officials to let them share a resource center for athletes and other student groups inside the college's library. So now there's a tiny office where vets can get advice on how to apply for VA benefits. There are desks with computers, where vets can do schoolwork or email. There are a mini-refrigerator and some shelves stocked with food.

Eric Theeler goes over some of his class assignments with veterans and student-athletes, who share a workspace in Sierra College's library.
David Gilkey / NPR
Eric Theeler goes over some of his class assignments with veterans and student-athletes, who share a workspace in Sierra College's library.

There's also a "relaxation room" that's just big enough for two chairs and a lamp. Morris says the vets come here when they're about to blow, and they turn off the lamp and shut the door.

"One of the guys was in a typing class. And because of all the noise, and the type-type-type-type-type, and all the activity, he would sometimes get an anxiety attack. Which is very common amongst my vets. When you think you have a classroom of 30 people, sometimes guys will just pick up and leave the class before a full-on panic attack," says Morris.

Morris also started holding workshops for the faculty to help them understand problems vets have. She got the college to let vets sign up for classes before other students, so they don't have the stress of getting bumped. She persuaded the VA to send two counselors to Sierra, one day every week, so vets can have therapy sessions right on campus. And Morris has persuaded her bosses to let her work almost full time giving academic counseling just to vets. For one thing, they need it to figure out the GI Bill.

On a recent morning, Morris was trying to explain the rules to a new student, Jason Thomas, who had served as a Marine. Thomas was learning that the GI Bill that Congress passed is incredibly complicated. If you don't sign up for the right kind of courses or take them at the right time, the VA will cut off your money.

"So, if you have an eight-week class, then normally the VA determines that six units is full time," Morris says, pointing at a dense-looking chart, "although it all depends exactly, because you have to follow this formula: You have to add up all the days, count every single day in the period and divide it by seven, and if you have a remainder of three, you have this many weeks; if you have a remainder of four, it's this many weeks," she says, looking at Thomas to see if he's following. He laughs.

The experience of Sierra Community College suggests that any college could create a veterans program, if — and Duncan says this is a big if — there is at least one staff member who is passionate about helping them.

One of the most striking aspects of Sierra's program is that it's so simple. Yet many — if not most — colleges don't have even that. "I think one of the things that makes our program successful is the fact that we have a vets' counselor — that's Catherine [Morris]," says Duncan. "You know, without kind of a champion paying attention to vets, it's hard for a college to kind of grapple with that."

Most students who go to community college attend one close to home. But some veterans said that they moved from another part of the state specifically for Sierra's program.

Reimers says he checked out other community colleges, but they didn't have a clue about the challenges vets face.

"Sierra College, I checked them out, and their veterans program ... appealed to me; it just kind of popped. Just making it easier for vets to go to school," Reimers says.

And guess what, he says, he just received his grades: two A's and two B's.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Daniel Zwerdling is a correspondent in NPR's Investigations Unit.
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