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Mathew Bumbalough, Indiana University

Matthew Bumbalough.jpgWith the scaling back of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans are finishing their time in service and returning to school in increasing numbers.  Returning (or going for the first time) to school after being discharged is not a new phenomenon.  Ever since the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, known more commonly as the GI Bill, veterans and their families have flocked to colleges and universities to take advantage of higher education.  Veterans have always been part of the landscape of most universities, and they bring with them issues of readjustment, PTSD, and disabilities.  These veterans are ones that, more often than not, come to the university eager, ready, and wanting to succeed.  As such, it is essential that advisors understand how to engage with veterans in advising sessions and in conversations about their academic trajectories.

Being able to foster a relationship with a veteran can be easy as long as there is mutual respect on both sides of the table.  I had a colleague once tell me that because of their military training, veterans seemed to be more assertive than their peers and as a result might be abrupt in speech and manner.  However, this is not always the case, and assuming that all veterans will act this way might not be conducive to developing good conversation.  Indeed, the personalities, experiences, and backgrounds of all veterans are as varied as any student group, and there is no way to tell who they are unless there is communication first.  There will be veterans who are against war and violence as well as those who advocate for more military interventionism.  Some might be attending a university with hopes of obtaining a commission in the armed forces while others will take a path that explores languages and cultures.  Despite their differences, there are three similarities that many veterans share: readjustment, PTSD, and disability.


A recent study by Elnittsky, Blevins, Fisher, and Magruder (2017) claims that all veterans go through a period of transition to civilian life when leaving the military.  Chief among some of the issues they will face is a cultural adjustment from having been part of an organization that promotes an identity much different from that of a civilian.  The culture shock of going to a large university, for example, can be jarring as their military identity conflicts with the identity that universities promote.  This is true for all veteran populations: from those who have deployed to those that spent their entire enlistment in the continental US.  Every branch of service subjects their enlistees to a highly regimented lifestyle and enlistees adjusting as civilians find themselves without the support system that controlled everything from how they make their bed to what time they eat.  In addition, more than half may find themselves unemployed after separation (Lazier et al., 2016), leading to episodic moments of depression or uncertainty.  Some of them will jump right in to college, while others may wait for several years.  In any situation, these factors can serve to either motivate or discourage a student who is probably attending classes for the first time.  It is difficult to define what successful readjustment looks like, but knowing resources that veterans can turn to if they are struggling can alleviate some of their concerns of being a college student.


A study by Phillips et al. (2016) showed that up to 27% of veterans have some form of PTSD.  This sometimes invisible illness comes in many shapes and forms, and each veteran may or may not have coping strategies to deal with episodes.  It is important for advisors to keep this in mind as these coping strategies, good or bad, tend to increase after deployments (Sayer et al., 2010).  As most veterans will be going to colleges and universities soon after they receive their discharge, these issues may not become manifest until they are well into their first semester of study.  In this case, it is important for advisors to know which services on campus are best suited to dealing with these issues in case a student brings the issue up in an advising meeting.  That is not to say that advisors should refer every veteran to counseling services, but it is helpful to know how they can set up an appointment if students do express wanting to improve their mental health.  There are numerous studies examining PTSD in veterans, but the best thing in most advising sessions is to listen to the student and foster a connection on an interpersonal level.


In a study by Bell, Boland, Dudgeon, and Johnson (2013), they found that 38.43% of their respondents (students at the university) had a disability rating of 10% or higher, and another study showed that 87% had some form of chronic pain (Phillips et al., 2016).  This could include everything from limited mobility to PTSD, but it shows that many of the returning veterans are dealing with disability issues in one way or another.  Many of these disabilities are the results of deployments and include injuries that can negatively affect neurological functioning such as traumatic brain injury.  Advisors should then know how to refer veteran students to local VA clinics and in some cases should refer the student to disability services if the issue is causing the student to fall behind in their studies.  Finally, advisors should review the university or college’s policies on disabilities and accommodations.  Each student will have unique issues that may not be solvable, but learning how to cope and reach academic goals can help to alleviate the stress caused by disability.

Using the GI Bill

As a final note, while it is important that advisors understand readjustment, PTSD, and disability for veteran students, it is also important for advisors to know at least something about the benefits that veterans are using.  The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which the majority of veterans use, has several stipulations:

  • it provides 36 month of benefits               ;
  • is prorated based on days in which school is in session;
  • requires full-time student status to get the housing stipend;
  • caps tuition and fees at $17,500 for out of state, private, and foreign universities;
  • provides no housing stipend for distance education programs; and
  • only covers certificates from a degree-granting college or university.

The bureaucracy behind the GI Bill can be daunting, but it is important to know the basics in case there is a veteran who may try to take less than the amount of classes required for full-time status or who will not complete their degree in four years.  However, most veterans are accustomed to bureaucracy and will appreciate that advisors make an effort on their behalf.  When in doubt, referring student veterans to a veterans support office is always a good idea.

The Role of the Advisor

To successfully understand and advise recently separated veterans, advisors should make sure they are aware of their role in the meeting as well as provide the veteran with further resources in and around the campus.  Some ways an advisor can prepare for a meeting or support veterans on campus include

  • knowing the location of the campus veteran’s office,
  • knowing the location of the nearest VA Clinic or hospital,
  • knowing the warning signs of substance abuse,
  • knowing the warning signs of PTSD,
  • knowing the rules and regulations of the GI Bill,
  • ensuring that the veteran knows about university student veteran’s groups,
  • providing updated information on employment opportunities, and
  • sending updates to veterans about other support groups and networks.

Advisors are oftentimes the first stop for veterans in starting their college careers, and it is important to understand that they are not a traditional student.  Many of them will be older and some will have had experiences overseas that they are still dealing with on different psychological and physical levels.  Now that these veterans are students, they will appreciate the value of their experiences, and it will be up to the advisor to ensure that the obstacles they face are not impossible to overcome as their identity changes.

Mathew Bumbalough, PhD
Academic Advisor
Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education
Indiana University

References & Further Readings

Bell, G. L., Boland, E. A., Dudgeon, B., & Johnson, K. (2013). The post-9/11 GI Bill: Insights

from veterans using Department of Veterans Affairs educational benefits. Rehabilitation Research, Policy, and Education27(4), 246-260.

Elnitsky, C. A., Blevins, C. L., Fisher, M. P., & Magruder, K. (2017). Military service member and veteran

reintegration: A critical review and adapted ecological model. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry87(2), 114.

Lazier, R. L., Gawne, A. W., & Williamson, N. S. (2016). Veteran Family Reintegration: Strategic Insights to Inform Stakeholders’ Efforts. Journal of Public and Nonprofit Affairs2(1), 48-57.

Phillips, K. M., Clark, M. E., Gironda, R. J., McGarity, S., Kerns, R. W., Elnitsky, C. A., & Collins, R. C. (2016). Pain and psychiatric comorbidities among two groups of Iraq and Afghanistan era veterans. Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development, 53, 413– 432.

Sayer, N. A., Noorbaloochi, S., Frazier, P., Carlson, K., Gravely, A., & Murdoch, M. (2010). Reintegration

problems and treatment interests among Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans receiving VA medical care. Psychiatric Services, 61, 589 –597.

Cite this article using APA style as: Bumbalough, M. (2017, June). Understanding readjustment, PTSD, and disability with recently separated veterans. Academic Advising Today, 40(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2017 June 40:2


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