Adjusting to campus life after combat
Published: Friday, May 4, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 15:02
“We were attacked for three weeks straight,” he said.
Now, the sound of a garbage truck emptying a dumpster or other loud noises take him back to the moment of combat.
“I have heightened senses,” he said. “I’m always vigilant.”
The veteran doesn’t like when people are walking behind him, and he avoids going to unfamiliar places.
For his part, Merrill faced many struggles while still in Afghanistan. He lost a friend and fellow soldier when his convoy was run off the road by an Afghanistan police truck. The 50,000-pound vehicle flipped multiple times before crashing into a house. Merrill’s machine gun hit him in the mouth, knocking out his top teeth and leaving his lip nearly torn off.
Merrill developed acute stress disorder after the accident; he had trouble sleeping and experienced flashbacks for about two weeks.
“I saw him like four times after he died,” Merrill said of his dead friend. “Looking across the street, I swore I saw him. “
This facial recall is consistent with traumatic stress, according to French.
Merrill’s platoon saw 10 firefights, and his sergeant major was shot in the chest during one of the fights. Sleeping pills were given to his platoon after these moments of combat to help the soldiers sleep and relax, according to Merrill. These types of traumatic experiences age the veterans and further set them apart from their college peers.
According to French, many veterans deal with the troubles of adjusting and managing their stress by drinking.
“When I first got back, I drank a lot,” Merrill said. “I remember thinking to myself, I haven’t gone a night without a drink. Is this a problem?”
The veteran who asked not to be named went on a 28-day drinking binge when he first got home from Afghanistan.
“I used drinking as a way to cope,” the veteran said.
Both veterans have cut back on their drinking since their initial returns to civilian life.
Prescriptions such as Zoloft are prescribed to veterans exhibiting signs of trauma, according to French. However, many trauma cases are left untreated, which can be dangerous situations.
“For untreated war trauma, the worst result is suicide,” French said.
Recent studies have shown that suicide in veterans is the highest it has ever been, according to French. Every 80 minutes a veteran commits suicide, according to an April 2012 article in the New York Times. More than 6,500 veteran suicides are reported every year, which is more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began, according to the article.
The problems and concerns of the typical college student are trivial compared to what veterans experienced during their deployment, according to Merrill and the anonymous veteran.
“You don’t care anymore,” Merrill said. “It’s hard to put it. Little things don’t matter anymore. If someone’s mad about something little, you don’t care - there’ve been worse things.”
The anonymous veteran suffering from PTSD has found it hard to maintain relationships because he feels that no one understands him.
Often, veterans see themselves as more different from their peers than their peers see them, according to Sattler.
“That’s terrible. You want to meet with them and give some of that [normalcy] back,” Sattler said.
Veterans are accustomed to being around people going through similar experiences as they are, but once they are back on college campuses, they find themselves isolated from their peer group by their experiences. That can cut two ways.
“I feel older. I’m much more mature than the people around me,” Merrill said.
“I’m very argumentative now. Little things piss me off. I have lost friends over disagreements,” the anonymous veteran said.
Universities and colleges across the country are trying to help ease the transition for veterans. At UNH, Student Veteran Organization (SVO) and offices across campus offer a “Brown Bag Lunch” every Thursday to help veterans network with other veterans, review benefits, and connect with campus services that they may need to help make their transition easier.
UNH is working with administrators, faculty, staff, and students to promote awareness for veterans on campus. Little things such as allowing a veteran to sit in the back of the class, so that no one is behind him, are things that need to be brought to the attention of the community in order to help the veterans adjust, according to Sattler.
Merrill said he is trying to channel his experience for a better future. He said military discipline has helped him to work harder at schoolwork and achieve academic success.
“My freshman year was a joke,” Merrill said. “But then I went into the Army and it taught me a thing or two. I do what I’m told and I get good grades.”