Monday, November 12, 2012

Repost - Guest Post: The State of Health of Student Veterans

This guest post originally appeared on our blog in July. However, the topic is so appropriate for Veterans Day that we decided to repost!

As a health educator at an urban institution of higher education that currently serves approximately 350 GI Bill benefit students, I have recognized a need for those of us working in college health to better understand our student veterans. I am also a U.S. Army veteran that served a tour of duty in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. When I attended university during the mid-to-late 1990's, there were no campus veteran support services available, nor was there a student veteran organization. The transition for me was difficult and involved a lot of self medication. I, as many servicemembers before and after me, was trained to take care of myself and my buddies - to show weakness in any way is not what a soldier does. The world has evolved since - the reduced stigma of mental health and the many support organizations that are available to meet the needs of all veterans is amazing. However, we still have a long way to go to completely eliminate the stigma of mental illness in the military.

Military servicemembers and veterans are attending college in record numbers. In part, this is the result of the implementation of the Post 9/11 GI Bill. The Post 9/11 GI Bill is a robust education benefit that makes the pursuit of a degree in higher education available to our nation's next Greatest Generation at virtually no cost to them. The number of student veterans is expected to continue to increase as more servicemembers transition out of the military. Many of these veterans are first generation students who also require additional support to successfully navigate the hurdles of pursuing a degree in higher education. This is not to say that institutions of higher education must create new programs to support student veterans, but they must evaluate and enhance existing services to meet the specific needs that student veterans bring to campus.

Student veterans often are not comparable to traditional students in their motivation to achieve higher education. Many look at this as their next mission that they must complete. They are often older than traditional students and have a more global life experience. Many have families they must support that necessitate the need for them to work a full-time job while they are also a full time student. Most have served in an area of hazardous duty where their life, or the lives of their comrades, has been threatened or tragically lost. The impacts of combat are not always visible and may not manifest themselves immediately. The transition from military to civilian and from boots to books may be a significant challenge for many student veterans. The visible wounds of war are easy to recognize, treat and accommodate. It is the invisible wounds of war - post traumatic stress (PTS), anxiety, traumatic brain injuries (TBI), or military sexual trauma (MST) to name a few - that present a challenge not only for the veteran, but also for those around them - family, other students, faculty and staff.

As professionals in college health, we are in a position to gain a better understanding of what the impacts of not only combat but also military service in general may have on student veterans. How do we accomplish this? By doing what we do best. Assess, assess, assess. Again this does not mean that we have to create new assessment tools, but rather that we augment existing tools in order to pull out veteran specific data. This is what was done by the Missouri Partners In Prevention (PIP) in 2009. Each spring PIP conducts the Missouri College Health Behavior Survey (MCHBS) on 17 campuses both public and private. This survey looks specifically at college students behaviors around alcohol and drugs, mental health, gambling, sexual assault, suicide, distracted driving, etc. In 2009, the MCHBS was augmented with approximately 40 veteran specific questions related to PTS, MST, TBI, engagement, alcohol and drug behaviors, and suicidality. Participants who indicated military service were directed to these additional questions in addition to the general MCHBS survey. In 2011, PIP received an additional SAMHSA grant to develop a stand alone Veterans Behavior Survey that will be piloted in fall 2012  by PIP schools who choose to participate.

The American College Health Association (ACHA) - National College Health Assessment (NCHA) began asking veteran status  in 2011. Campuses that participate in the ACHA-NCHA now have a mechanism to reference veteran responses to this comprehensive college health assessment tool.  ACHA also has a Coalition for the Wellness Needs of Military Veteran Students.The Coalition is open to all members of ACHA who are interested in working with, advocating for, and supporting veterans in higher education.
The challenge now for campuses is to move beyond being veteran friendly to being genuinely veteran supportive. This can only happen when higher education professionals gain an understanding of student veterans and work to positively support and impact their lives. After all they have given of themselves to support and defend our freedoms; it is now up to us to support and advocate for them so that they may be successful college students.

This post contributed by Bill Smith.

Bill Smith currently lives in Kansas City, Missouri and is the Health Educator with Student Health & Wellness at the University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC). He holds a Bachelors of Social Work from Washburn University (2000) and a Master of Science in Management from Baker University (2003).

He has worked in college health for nearly twelve years with a special emphasis on sexual health, alcohol and other drug use, and stress management. Prior experience includes six and a half years as a health educator at the University of Kansas and ­five years working in a community mental health center and with a community based HIV/AIDS service organization in Topeka, Kansas.

Bill has been asked to speak on the topic of student Veterans success by various organizations including:
  • The National Science Foundation
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
  • Missouri Partners In Prevention
  • Metropolitan Community College – Longview Campus
  • The Community College of Philadelphia
  • The Illinois Higher Education Center
  • Region 10 Association of College Unions International

He is a former soldier having served in the Army both on active duty and in the reserves. You can reach Bill at

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