UNL student veterans’ lives and college experiences

Student veteran Justin Otoski deployed to Afghanistan from 2010-2011 and is now the UNL Student Veterans Organization president. Courtesy photo from Otoski.

Student veteran Justin Otoski deployed to Afghanistan from 2010-2011 and is now the UNL Student Veterans Organization president. Courtesy photo from Otoski.

Story and media by Benjamin Schoenkin, NewsNetNebraska

Many may think of college students as people who come to college directly from high school, but that represents just a part of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln student body.

The UNL Military and Veteran Success Center estimates that there are about 700 student veterans currently enrolled at the university. The center includes both active, reserve, guard, veteran and military dependents in its count of veteran students.

Unlike many traditional students who come to college after high school graduation, the transition for military veterans is different. It is different for them as the world they are coming from includes conflict and loss of life. Some of them come from a place where they and many of the people they served with had to put their lives on the line every day.

Those who have deployed to a war zone meet challenges when transitioning into classrooms with students who are often much younger and have very different life experiences.

UNL student veterans’ backgrounds and experiences

UNL Student Veterans organization (SVO) President Justin Otoski is a veteran of the Nebraska National Guard and deployed to Afghanistan from 2010-2011. He said that it is different to come to school after years of military service compared to coming right out of high school.

“I guess the best way to say it is they have a lot more preparation,” Otoski said. “They are coming straight from one school environment to another. Being a student veteran a lot of the times you are still learning how to be a student again because for a lot of student vets it’s been a long time since they have been in a traditional college classroom, so that’s a challenge.”

Adam Koenig (2008 UNL graduate) came to UNL directly from high school in 2003. During his time as an undergraduate he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve and took a two-semester break for basic training. Koenig deployed while still an undergraduate to Iraq. He said the transition back to campus life after deployment was difficult:

Listen:“Basically what other students would say to you didn’t seem to matter to you anymore because you had bigger issues and bigger ideas afoot and just simple okay where is the next party gonna be or I got this class to get done. Okay, that’s nice and all but I got this class I have to make up, I got this class I got to still do. I got all these other responsibilities that hold plus the weekends and all that fun jazz,” Koenig said.

NewsNetNebraska also spoke with one veteran student who wanted to remain anonymous because he or she is diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The student did not want their name disclosed because of the stigma often associated with people diagnosed with PTSD. Also, the student said that PTSD affects his or her academic performance.

“Sometimes I just, I will have a trigger I can’t sleep and I will be up all night,” the anonymous veteran said.”Then, trying to function the next day when you are getting almost no sleep, that definitely affects your classes. Sometimes there will be a trigger, a date or something that will just raise that anxiety level so high that you can’t function in a classroom. There has been times where I have just been so on edge that I haven’t been able to, if I made it to a classroom, haven’t been able to actually go in and go to class.”

Veterans who make the choice to attend college are following in the footsteps of millions of veterans who have made the same decision since WWII.

War veterans
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 7.8 million WWII veterans, about half of all veterans from the war, used the GI Bill to further their education after returning home. The GI Bill, started during WWII, provides financial support for veterans going to college or career training.

During WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing into law the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (GI Bill). Photo: FDR Library

During WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing into law the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (GI Bill). Photo: FDR Library

Servicemen and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, like those of past wars, are going to college. Some UNL student veterans including Otoski and SVO Treasurer Dannee Sengdara, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, chose to enlist in the years following 9/11. Both Otoski and Sengdara deployed to Afghanistan:

 

In 2008, the Post-9/11 GI Bill was created for veterans meeting certain conditions if they were in the military after Sept. 10, 2001. In addition to tuition assistance, the Post-9/11 bill also provides housing allowances and lets military dependents use their parent’s educational benefits.

There has been an increase in the number of veterans using GI Bill benefits to attend college in Nebraska as shown in the graph below:

 
Colleges and universities across the country are working to try and assist student veterans with their transition to campus and academic life. Students and those working to support student veterans say that while work is being done to aid in the successful transition of veterans, additional work is still needed. On college campuses, there are student veteran organizations to support student veterans with the transition to college life. Some schools are opening student veteran centers like the one recently created at UNL.

New Military & Veteran Success Center

This year, UNL debuted the Military & Veteran Success Center. The center officially opened on September 11, 2015, Patriots Day, 14 years after the tragic terrorist attacks on 9/11. The center serves active, reserve, guard and military dependents.

Center Director retired U.S. Navy Captain Darrell Everhart said that the center fills a need for veterans. He said the center creates a veterans headquarters on campus where veterans can come for support and assistance:

 

Veterans transitioning to UNL

Otoski and Sengdara would like to see some improvements in services for veterans following their own transition experiences to college:

 

Transitions also sometimes mean heading back to a war zone after attending UNL. Koenig deployed a second time to Iraq following graduation. He took his finals early to graduate in 2008 in order to get to training on time. Koenig said that deploying a second time brought with it familiarity and being around other military members once again:

Listen:“Kind of felt like coming home because honestly when you are here at the university or anywhere in the civilian world anymore you are out of place. When you go back to war is when you feel like you are going home,” Koenig said.

Additional challenges facing veterans coming home

For veterans with PTSD, making the transition back to nonmilitary life presents them with additional challenges.

According to the Department of Veteran Affairs writes on their website regarding the percentages of veterans who deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq having Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), “About 11-20 out of every 100 Veterans (or between 11-20%) who served in OIF or OEF have PTSD in a given year.” OIF refers to Operation Iraqi Freedom and OEF refers to Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes the war in Afghanistan.

While there are no official statistics, there are some veteran students at UNL who do have PTSD.

The veteran with PTSD who asked to remain anonymous talked about the challenges that he or she faced.The anonymous source said it was very difficult during deployment to know others who had died:

“There is a lot of death and just bad stuff or having friends get blown up and getting shot at. Always hearing about somebody, a roadside bomb going off and sometimes even just that high anxiety when you don’t know if you are going to get blown up that day or not or when you hear everyday somebody getting blown up on the same routes that you are driving.”

The veteran expressed some frustration with a lack of knowledge about PTSD among faculty at UNL:

“Being in class, teachers obviously like make an assumption because you’re tired and thinks like oh, did you go out and get drunk last night, they don’t really know that it was not that, it was something else.”

Additionally the veteran added that he or she has friends who have taken their own lives and that people who may have PTSD should seek help from places such as the VA.

Fallen military personnel

While the veterans who have returned to UNL after deploying made it home safely, there are many who lost their lives while fighting in the War on Terror.

According to a May 2015 PBS article, 6,852 U.S. military members have died in the Global War on Terror. When those veterans died serving their country, they left behind the other victims of war that we sometimes forget about.

This past November, Patriotic Productions orchestrated a Nebraska Gold Star Kids Honor Flight for the children and wives of servicemen who lost their lives while deployed. The 35 children and 23 widows who participated in the event have connections to Nebraska.

The UNL SVO and UNL ROTC assisted with the activities.

Many of the events took place in Lincoln. The widows and children attended a memorial ceremony at the UNL Pershing Military & Naval Science Building. Later in the day, they went to the Nebraska vs. Michigan State football game. For some, the trip meant coming back to where their fallen serviceman had attended college and began their military career:

 

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