Adjusting to campus life after combat
Published: Friday, May 4, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 15:02
This story was produced as part of “Sustainable Stories,” a reporting project by newswriting students in the UNH Journalism Program. You can find more from the project at sustainu.org.
While his fraternity brothers were partying on campus at the University of New Hampshire, Kyle Merrill was on the front lines of a war a world away.
The 20-year-old dairy management major spent six months of his freshman year in Kunar, Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous regions in the war zone.
Merrill’s outpost, which was built out of sandbags that were atop ruins from the Russian invasion during the 1980s, never saw a quiet day. Taliban fighters hid on ridges and mountain roads waiting for Merrill’s convoy to pass on patrol. The American soldiers were “sitting ducks,” Merrill said.
Since returning to campus in September, Merrill can sometimes flash back to the war zone at unexpected moments: when he mistakes someone stomping down a hallway as mortar fire, for example, or sees a flash of lightning as an explosion.
“You just think about it and are wired,” Merrill said. “You are brought back to a moment of combat.”
Merrill is one of tens of thousands of young veterans taking advantage of the post-911 GI Bill to return to college.
Despite experiencing difficulties when re-entering student life, Merrill said he has weathered the transition well. He said he does not suffer from severe post-combat stress, and that he hopes to return to combat someday as a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces.
Many other veterans are not as lucky. One in five Afghanistan war veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD, according to Lonn Sattler, UNH’s veteran affairs coordinator.
Sattler said two or three soldiers return to UNH with PTSD each semester. Adjusting to campus life is even more difficult for these students, and sometimes veterans drop out of college entirely, according to Sattler.
Effects of war are present even if soldiers don’t have PTSD. It takes time for veterans to switch out of their war mindset, according to Laurence French, UNH senior research associate and author of the book: “War Trauma and its Aftermath: An International Perspective on the Balkan and Gulf Wars.”Soldiers experience hyper vigilance, a state of constant heightened senses.
In his 40 years of research, French has found that soldiers are on high alert, and are often expecting something war-like to happen, such as an IED blowing up a convoy.
PTSD begins when someone experiences a traumatic event or series of events, and over time, signs and symptoms of traumatic stress begin to surface. Survivor guilt - the feeling of guilt if a fellow soldier has died – and dichotomy in cultures – the feeling of being unwelcome – are stresses that soldiers begin to experience in Afghanistan, according to French. Panic disorders, agoraphobia, depression, and acute stress disorder can fester into PTSD if left untreated.
The rapid redeployments that have been happening in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have not helped ease the hyper-vigilance. Veterans never get a chance to adjust to the home world and return to a state of calm, which is very disruptive, according to French.
Soldiers returning home undergo a series of psychological evaluations to determine whether or not they may have PTSD or other traumatic stress issues. The diagnosis of PTSD has a stigma attached to it, and veterans can be reluctant to admit they have it, according to French.
Merrill said many soldiers he knows tell psychiatrists, who evaluate them at least four times after returning home from deployment, that they are “fine.”
“No one wants to be that guy,” Merrill said.
Merrill said he does not suffer from PTSD.
Another current UNH student and Afghanistan war veteran, who did not wish to be named in this article, has a harder battle with the effects of war. This veteran, who returned from Afghanistan after a year deployment in a combat unit, was recently diagnosed with PTSD. He noticed he had changed. He cried frequently and felt depressed. He has neurological damage and memory and hearing loss.
“I knew I had it and tried to deal with it as best I could,” the veteran said.
The unit that he served with experienced heavy combat during its deployment.