The transition from active deployment to civilian life is one that many sailors, marines, soldiers, airmen, and guardians look forward to, but it also has its challenges. This can be especially true for those who have served in combat, are still on active or reserve duty, or are dependents of current servicemembers.
Counseling & Psychological Services seeks to help capitalize on the strengths, experience, leadership and diversity that student veterans and military personnel bring to our campus. We are invested in your success at SDSU, and we are here to provide support. We recognize the assets that student veterans can bring to their college experience - specialized vocational experience/training, self-reliance, organizational skills, commitment and perseverance in attaining goals, and an ability to function effectively within a hierarchical organization. We also understand the common transitional experiences that student veterans new to the SDSU community and campus often encounter, such as:
- Developing a personal identity that includes experiences and values gained outside of the military.
- Difficulty relating to traditional college students. Age differences and the maturity that comes with military service frequently cause veterans to feel different than and potentially alienated from traditional college students.
- Negotiating the structural and procedural differences between the military and higher education bureaucracies (e.g., knowing the rules and norms of the campus, how to address professors and others in positions of authority).
- Encountering faculty, staff, and/or students with strong and potentially negative views on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and having to think about whether or not to identify yourself as a veteran who was deployed for OIF/OEF.
- Being asked insensitive questions, like “Did you kill anyone?” instead of being asked about how many people you helped or saved.
- Getting used to using words like “walls” instead of “bulkheads” and “bathroom” instead of “head” or “latrine” again. And yes, we’re joking.
Like any other student, academic life can also be stressful at times for reasons completely unrelated to your service, and student veterans/servicemembers can benefit from talking with a campus professional in a confidential environment , being heard, and gaining other perspectives on a problem.
You may feel as though you are returning to an unfamiliar environment or that exposure to the sights and sounds of war have left you a changed person. Even if you have not been exposed to combat, you likely still experienced the cumulative stresses of living in dangerous and unpredictable environments, separation from loved ones and deferring other life goals. Often, one of the most challenging tasks for returning veterans is putting aside “survival mode behaviors” which, while critical during deployments, may create difficulties in civilian life. Examples of behaviors that veterans are asked to leave behind include:
- Being on constant alert for danger.
- Taking charge of situations, and expecting others to obey directions without question.
- Keeping emotions sealed off.
- Suspicion of others.
- Reacting quickly and asking questions later.
- Focus on accomplishing a task no matter what.
Despite these challenges, there are a number of step veterans can take to put their military experience in perspective and to regain a sense of control and normalcy. In negotiating this transition it can be helpful to:
- Pace yourself. Avoid becoming overwhelmed by understanding that your transition will take time. Allow yourself to gradually integrate your identity as a veteran with that of being a civilian SDSU student.
- Consider use of a daily schedule to maintain organization and to adjust to the greater number of options and choices available to you.
- Actively reduce feelings of isolation by finding others you can talk to. Connecting with others veterans who understand the impact and experience of being in combat can be particularly helpful. Connecting with available resources at SDSU and in the San Diego community can also help to ensure your success.
- Reestablish relationships with family members. Recognize that this is a transition for them as well, as they may have adopted new responsibilities or habits in your absence. Communicate openly when renegotiating family roles.
- Prepare an answer to questions about your active duty experience. This can reduce the awkwardness of sharing what you experienced and the impact that those experiences had on you.
- Pay attention to your physical needs. Get enough sleep, eat healthy, and get exercise. Exercise and adequate sleep are perhaps the best anti-stress strategies available.
- Limit use of alcohol and substances. Use increases the likelihood of depression, insomnia, relationship problems, academic difficulties and legal troubles.
- Avoid triggering painful memories of combat by limiting your exposure to war-related media.
- Be active in your efforts to integrate your identity as a veteran with your new identity as a civilian SDSU student. Make an effort to identify and be true to your beliefs, values, passions, and hobbies.
- Consider seeking meaning and fulfillment through attending religious services, prayer/meditation, counseling, and/or volunteer work.
While many veterans will make a successful return to civilian life, research suggests that as many as 1 in 3 will suffer from persistent complications related to their OIF/OEF deployment experiences. This is particularly true for veterans who have experienced combat. With the passage of time and living in a more predictable, civilian environment, these complications typically fade with time. However, if you notice any of the following reactions that interfere with your daily life and relationships, professional assistance may be helpful:
- Recurring and intrusive memories and/or dreams of combat.
- Avoidance of anything associated with war-zone experiences.
- Diminished interest to participate in important or previously enjoyed activities.
- Feelings of being emotionally distant, detached, and/or estranged from others.
- Suicidal thoughts, feelings, or behavior.
- Frequent experiences of irritability, anger, and/or rage.
- Hypervigilance and being easily startled by noises and movements.
- Guilt or anger over having been unable to prevent the death or injury of others.
- Abuse of alcohol and drugs as a way to cope with or avoid thinking about painful memories.
It is important to know that the above reactions are normal in the context of war, and that these reactions do NOT need to limit your ability to be successful in your academic, civilian life. Many of our therapists are trained in interventions designed to heal the post-traumatic stress injuries that sometimes result from war experiences.
To learn more about post-traumatic stress injuries, see the following links:
SDSU Student Veterans Organization
Vet2Vet Veterans Peer Support Line
The Joan and Art Barron Veterans Center
located in the Education Building, room 151,
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website
for returning Active Duty, National Guard and Reserve service members.
Chula Vista Vet Center
180 Otay Lakes Road, Suite 108
Bonita, CA 91902
San Diego Vet Center
2790 Truxtun Road, Ste 130
San Diego CA 92106
San Marcos Vet Center
1 Civic Center Drive
San Marcos, CA 92069
Vet Center Combat Call Center: (877) WAR-VETS
VA Benefits: (800) 827-1000