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Making the Transition from Combat to College


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris with a story about helping soldiers adjust to life after war. At the University of Minnesota, veterans and other students have set up a special center to try to smooth the transition from combat to college. Here's Mark Zdechlik of Minnesota Public Radio.

MARK ZDECHLIK reporting:

The new Veterans Transition Center at the University of Minnesota was designed with freshman Ross Holtan in mind. Holtan's memories of Iraq still loom large nearly a year after leaving the war zone. Summer thunderstorms outside of his South Minneapolis apartment have jolted him awake, fumbling for the gun and armor, which are no longer at his bedside. His military training as a Russian linguist was of little value in Baghdad, so he was primarily assigned convoy security along the Baghdad airport highway. And even in the serenity of Minnesota, Ross Holtan finds it difficult to leave behind some high-speed survival driving skills he honed in Iraq.

Mr. ROSS HOLTAN: I have to really make sure I'm not going as fast as I can and watching out for overpasses; that was a big deal over there--stuff dropped off of overpasses. We'd swerve back and forth, and, you know, sometimes I catch myself kind of doing that

ZDECHLIK: Holtan also says that since Iraq, he tends to be aggressive and sometimes feels uncomfortable in crowds. Like many young men and women, Holtan enlisted in the Army in high school to earn money for college. He's one of 400-plus veterans attending the University of Minnesota with GI Bill benefits. Holtan says he's happy to be at school but that it's not what he expected. He feels like an outsider.

Mr. HOLTAN: You know, I figured I would go in and I would meet all kinds of people, you know, and--but, like, I'm 24, done a lot of things that these other guys haven't, you know, and so I don't--I haven't interacted with many people there very much.

ZDECHLIK: He says he's more accustomed to following orders than plotting his own course, and he continues to struggle with some day-to-day trappings of civilian life.

Kimberly Solavi(ph) is majoring in child psychology at the University of Minnesota. While she's aware there are veterans here, she says they don't stand out. Solavi says assimilating in college is difficult for many students, and she thinks vets who choose to share their experiences wouldn't draw criticism.

Ms. KIMBERLY SOLAVI: The war, you know, in our society may be unpopular, but these are just people. They're not the president. They're not, you know, the people who caused the war. So, in that aspect, you can't relate the two. You just have to look at them as individuals and see what they've been through and not treat them--you know, not take your views of the war and project it onto them.

ZDECHLIK: But Holtan isn't convinced of that and says he's not interested in debating anti-war students on campus.

Mr. HOLTAN: Some people can be a little combative on, you know, where I stand or what I believe, and so I usually don't bring it up.

ZDECHLIK: U of M junior Andrew Davis has two Army tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq behind him. When he returned and started college last year, he, too, felt like he didn't fit in, and that motivated him to try to help other returning soldiers.

Mr. ANDREW DAVIS: First and foremost, it's a safe haven and a resource center for veterans to get together with each other and to kind of not necessarily hide but to kind of get away from some of the stressors they might be feeling on campus, whether it be professors or students that aren't treating them the same way as other people or whether it just happens to be the major adjustment it takes to go from combat to college.

ZDECHLIK: Jerry Rinehart, the University of Minnesota's head of student affairs, applauds the effort to help reconnect returning vets. The school is providing space for the Veterans Transition Center but doesn't want it to become a flash point for debate about the war. Rinehart says he thinks student culture these days contrasts sharply with that during the Vietnam War, when frustration was often directed at returning soldiers.

Mr. JERRY RINEHART (University of Minnesota): I think we learned an awful lot from the Vietnam War of what not to do. And today I think everyone recognizes that, whatever their perspective on the war is, it is not the soldiers' problem, it's not their fault.

ZDECHLIK: Veterans Administration officials say they don't track retention rates or even know exactly how many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are currently using GI Bill benefits to attend college. But they, too, applaud the effort to help returning soldiers earn their degrees. For NPR News, I'm Mark Zdechlik in St. Paul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mark Zdechlik