Vol. 44, Number 3 - March/April 2009
Program serves as statewide, national model
With thousands of U.S. veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, colleges around the country will be looking for guidance in how to make the soldiers’ transition easier.
Those colleges would be well-served by following the example of Citrus College’s Boots to Books program.
Hailed as a model both throughout the state and nationally, Boots to Books is a collaborative effort on the Glendora campus that features classes, counseling, financial assistance, a book fund and a soon-to-be unveiled Veterans Center where veterans will be able to study, socialize and exchange information. The college has even gone a step further to re-introduce a Veterans Day commemoration to honor the GIs.
Started at grassroots
“A lot of people have been working together on this,” says Bruce Solheim, coordinator of the program. “Some of the best things start at a grassroots level and grow organically.”
A history professor and veteran himself, Solheim noticed in 2006 that more and more young veterans were enrolling in his courses on World War II and Vietnam. The classes, he observed, gave the young men a chance to open up about their own experiences. Soon after, Solheim began meeting with a group of veterans who started the Citrus College Veterans Network began.
"I tell them that I'm a veterans' advocate so they know they can come to me if they are experiencing problems."
Today, Solheim’s two gateway courses are complemented by Counseling 160, a course led by a Manuel Martinez, a readjustment counseling therapist in Los Angeles.
“We needed to entice vets to come into the classes by offering them for credit, but we also wanted the class open for everyone who needs it, non-combat veterans and families,” Solheim says. “We’ve had a father of a deployed veteran take the class because he wanted to be prepared for when his son came home.”
Although other colleges are only now gearing up for the return of veterans to civilian life, Citrus has had a head start. Along with eager volunteers from the community, the program has also received a $100,000 grant from the Wal-Mart Foundation to help finance the center, the Veteran’s Day celebrations, and even a transfer scholarship.
Through considerable outreach to the community and the media, Solheim has been able to build a vital program. The Veterans Day celebrations have also served as an outreach tool to the community. The yearly events have included a flyover of helicopters from the U.S. Army, a 21-gun salute, an honor guard presentation, and guest speakers ranging from military officers to Congressional Rep. Hilda Solis, now U.S. Labor Secretary.
Sending a message
“We are not only sending a message that veterans are welcome, but we are getting the word out to the community,” Solheim says.
After serving two tours of duty, first in Afghanistan and then Iraq, Jose Martinez Pila returned to Southern California to enroll three times in three different colleges before he discovered the veterans program at Citrus College.
“I was just taking classes to take classes. It didn’t stick,” Pila says. “But here at Citrus, there was someone to walk me through it. I immediately felt a connection that they actually cared about veterans.”
Pila says it took him two years to re-acclimate to civilian life before he was ready to commit to college. With an associate’s degree from Citrus under his belt, he plans to transfer to California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, next year to complete a bachelor’s in international business.
Now president of the Citrus College Veterans Network, Pila is the first to admit his transition wasn’t easy.
“I had gone through a lot of traumatic events and it was difficult controlling my feelings and my thoughts,” he says. “When I got out of the service, I thought everyone was attacking me, and I ended up blaming others.”
Taking Manuel Martinez’s counseling class helped Pila with his own transition.
“I’m far from being what I used to be, but because of the course, I know I can work through it,” he says.
With 30 years of experience counseling veterans in Los Angeles, Martinez worked with Solheim to take his practical know-how into the classroom. Together, they developed a complete curriculum designed to prepare veterans for college success. Beginning with a “stress checklist,” Martinez spends the first few weeks talking about Post Traumatic Stress disorders and other issues that are likely to affect returning vets.
“Often the skills soldiers use in combat are a liability to them once they are at home,” Martinez said.
For example, in combat, soldiers may talk about a mission only with those who need to know, but at home, they may shut their family out by not sharing information. Martinez helps soldiers recognize some of these symptoms so they can work to overcome them.
“We’ve gotten really good at diagnosing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many of these folks are benefitting from what we’ve learned previously,” Martinez says.
Still, other disorders and complications are being identified with the new veterans. Some suffer from combat grief in which they have witnessed a death in battle of a comrade. Another syndrome showing up among female veterans is military sexual trauma , which occurs when the very people they count on to keep them safe – their fellow soldiers -- have sexually assaulted them. Blast injuries have also become common during the current war and are causing hidden brain damage. And of course, there are physical disabilities.
“It’s very tough for someone to adapt to a new body image. One day they are strong young men and women, and the next day, they have to deal with a disability. It’s tough,” Martinez says.
Veterans Center opening
The Veterans Center recently moved to a permanent home on campus and will host a grand opening in the spring. The center will feature a multi-function common area, a big-screen TV, and a lounge. Community volunteers will be recruited to staff the center which will serve as a mini-USO.
Regardless of whether every college has a full-fledged program to serve veterans, there are many things faculty can do to make the transition from “boots to books” easier for veterans.
For example, it’s helpful for faculty to know whether they have veterans in the class in case certain things trigger agitation. A faculty member at a college nearby reported that the light from a laser pen set off one re-entry vet, while others have become agitated during political discussions.
“It helps to ask if there are any veterans in the class right from the beginning,” Solheim says. “I tell them that I’m a veterans’ advocate so they know they can come to me if they are experiencing problems.”
More information on Citrus College’s program can be found at http://citruscollege.edu. For more information on Boots to Books, go to www.bootstobooks.org.
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