Veterans returning to school fight stigmas, culture changes

(Sammy Jo Hester/The Daily Herald via AP)
Chris O’Neal enjoys dinner with his family at their home in Lehi, Utah. There are around 800 identified student veterans, like Chris, at Utah Valley University, and hundreds more who haven’t self-identified. (Associated Press)

Trampas Rogers doesn’t like driving. He especially doesn’t like seeing unattended trash sitting on the side of the road.

After deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he cleared routes of roadside bombs as a “bomb bunny,” his educational experience is vastly different from the traditional student entering a university immediately after high school.

“Things have changed since 2008 to where I am now, but make no mistake about it, that will be with me until the day I die,” said Rogers, a Utah Valley University student studying political science.

There are around 800 identified student veterans at UVU, and hundreds more who haven’t self-identified. They’re nontraditional students, many with children, starting over with a new identity, who have a different set of struggles and challenges than students who enter universities as teenagers.

“We have a position of rank, a position of power, charged with individuals’ lives in our hands, and we get out and we have none of that,” Rogers said. “It is as if we just left high school.”

Chris O’Neal’s playful daughter sang a song in the background as his newest child, 7-week-old Hunter, made a little noise in his mother’s arm. It’s a busy house, he explained; he’s living in his in-law’s basement with his wife, Amy, and their children, 9-year-old Lily, 5-year-old Grayson, 3-year-old Claire and Hunter, who was born early into the semester.

“He was like, ‘Oh, he’s born,'” Amy said. “‘Well, I have class.’ It was crazy.”

(Sammy Jo Hester/The Daily Herald via AP
Chris and Amy O’Neal hold their son, Hunter, at their home in Lehi, Utah. Many student veterans, like Chris many have children and are starting over with a new identity, a different set of struggles and challenges than traditional students. (Associated Press)

Chris joined the Army in 2007 and exited in May of 2014 because of his family and after feeling like he’d lost his purpose for why he’d joined.

“My oldest was old enough — I had to make the decision of whether to drag my kids and make them Army brats,” Chris said.

The family returned to Georgia after multiple deployments. Chris’s plan was to take a well-paying contracting job with the military for a year and then use that money to return to school, but those jobs had dwindled. He had some college, but his skills weren’t very transferable from the military to the civilian world.

“No one cared that I had done these things which, in the military, were really cool,” he said.

He found a job that would pay well, but the amount of travel involved wouldn’t allow him to attend classes. Later, he found a low-paying job operating a forklift in a warehouse and finally heard his in-laws were building a house in Utah County, bringing him to UVU.

The G.I. Bill helps with tuition and housing expenses, but only while a veteran is in school. Living with family has greatly reduced the O’Neal’s financial burdens, and he plans to get at least one job during the summer.

“It’s nice with the G.I. Bill, but the day-to-day living past that, we wouldn’t have been able to do it,” Amy said.

Chris, who is studying construction management, treats school like a job and remains at UVU until his coursework is finished. He admits he started out as the stereotype of the grumpy veteran, but then had an English professor who emphasized open discussion.

“She did the majority of the work in getting me to understand that everyone has their own experiences and I can’t hold people younger than me, or chose different paths than me, hold that against them, which is what a lot of vets do,” Chris said. “We sacrifice a lot and people don’t understand.”

There was some social anxiety when it came to classes, especially when the majority of the students in a course are 18 years old.

“It is really hard to walk into a study group or something or a social of some kind and know what to talk about,” Chris said. “So I would say that just talking about normal things with normal people was the hardest.”

He was nervous about returning to school; he didn’t do so well at it the first time, but has gotten into the routine.

“There are a lot of aspects of college that seem so simple going back a second time that were so hard,” Chris said. “There are some classes that are hard, but the overall experience and requirements that college have are so simple compared to life.”

But, despite the readjustments it’s caused, his previous career has given him a perspective a traditional student doesn’t have.

“He definitely got leadership skills from the military,” Amy said. “He is a hard worker. He knows what a full day’s work is.”

He used to have bad dreams, but Chris said he doesn’t suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. His deployments, where he served as an intelligence analyst at a computer in a little metal box, were relatively safe.

But after leaving the military, he started to miss the camaraderie the service brought. Then, one day when he was in UVU’s Veteran Success Center, he was approached by another veteran and asked if he was one, too. He’s since become one of the leaders of the university’s chapter of the Student Veterans of America.

“When he got out of the military, he was a little lost,” Amy said. “He said his feeling of purpose was gone, and he found it in the veterans’ club.”

He was named the group’s Veteran of the Year at a surprise during a basketball game, and has realized that being a part of a group of veterans who are passionate about helping other veterans is where he wants to be.

He wants to find funding for a G.I. Bill replacement for family members of veterans who have committed suicide, or to fill in the gaps between what the G.I. Bill provides and what veterans need. He also wants to start a 5K run to benefit student veterans.

For now, he wants people to understand that if a veteran has an outburst or says something inappropriate, it could be because they’re still adjusting from military or deployment culture. Some veterans have continuing challenges from their time in the service, but they shouldn’t be treated any differently.

“We get a treatment similar to someone with Down syndrome, or almost like they don’t know what to do with us,” Chris said. “Treat them like you would your kids.”

Sammy Jo Hester/The Daily Herald via AP
Chris O’Neal talks with his son Grayson at their home in Lehi, Utah. Student veterans with families, like Chris, at Utah Valley University, with children face a different set of challenges than traditional students. (Associated Press)

“There is a reason we sit with our back to the wall,” Rogers said, sitting in the dim lounge of UVU’s Veteran Success Center. “We know where the exits are. I love this room, there are three entrances, therefore there are three exits.”

Rogers was 30 when he returned to school. He was medically discharged from the Army after six years of service and spent the next year without a job.

“I was having problems because of my experiences through the war, and I just couldn’t find a job that suited me,” Rogers said.

Then, in the summer of 2010, he realized he could use the G.I. Bill to pay for the majority of his college. He’s graduating next year and plans to continue to graduate school and then get a job in government in order to help and represent other veterans, of which about half don’t access their educational benefits.

“They know they got benefits, but due to the constant hassle of jumping through every hula hoop for a document, it is just ridiculous,” Rogers said. “And then when they do get help, it isn’t the help they need.”

Even the help they do get doesn’t last forever. Many vets run out of benefits before they graduate, whether because they change their mind on a major, get sick, have to retake a class or life gets in the way.

Rogers didn’t start identifying as a veteran until this year, when he said the political climate finally made him leave the shadows. He’s involved in the local chapter of the Student Veterans of America club, which has helped him connect to other student veterans.

“It is a place where you can talk the talk with other vets and they know what you’re talking about,” Rogers said. “When you go out into the civilian world, you are alone. Vets are quiet, unless you throw beer at us.”

Connecting with others has been hard. Attending classes with civilian teenagers whose greatest life worries are paying bills or waking up early, he said, was initially miserable.

“I’m sitting here in class and I didn’t get an ounce of sleep because I just don’t sleep, and I have to hear this individual talk about how their life sucks because they had to get up at 6:30,” Rogers said. “The mindless B.S. that civilians think is stressful, to us it is the most minute thing in the world to us.”

To Rogers, it’s a good day when “bullets aren’t flying and people aren’t dying,” as he says, and other students don’t think about worrying about stepping on a mine on their way to their front door.

“In our world, you don’t know what you’re talking about until you’ve been in a gunfight,” he said.

Forming a group of veterans has allowed them to keep an eye on each other, something that could potentially save lives locally.

“If you haven’t heard from a guy you know, and it’s been a month, there’s a high probability that they took their life,” Rogers said.

He wants to be an example of hope to other vets and show them that if they chose to not self-identify as one, that’s OK. For the public, he wants to dismantle the stigma of a mindless, bloodthirsty veteran.

“No matter what they may say about us, a veteran will lay his life for a civilian, and they don’t know anything about them,” Rogers said. “They’re protectors. So we’re not the scary boogeyman that you might think we are. We are the people who kill the boogeyman.”

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