School a culture shock for returning vets
When Elisha Odegaard returned to Rochester Community and Technical College after serving two tours in Iraq, he felt like an astronaut who had returned to earth after living on Mars.
The Rochester vet discovered a chasm of experience separating him from his younger civilian classmates.
He knew the irrevocable nature of war: Three members of his Minnesota National Guard unit killed in an IED attack while on one deployment to Iraq. Returned statewide, the one-time medic had military friends who were struggling with suicidal thoughts. Yet in school, Odegaard found himself surrounded by 18-year-old, non-military classmates whose most important conversation might be the party they went to.
"I felt a huge sense of disconnect outside of the military and my family," said Odegaard, who wears a polished silver wrist band engraved with the names of the three solders who died in Iraq.
With the end of the war in Iraq and the winding down of operations in Afghanistan, more and more veterans are pouring into school. They bring with them experiences and memories that will set them apart from their civilian counterparts and often make their transition to academic life difficult. Some will give up.
RCTC and Riverland Community College have both seen a surge in veteran enrollments. RCTC has seen a 22 percent jump from 2008 to 2011 and Riverland a 37 percent rise over the same four-year period. The entire Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, of which both schools are part, has seen a whopping 57 percent increase over that same time period.
The world of military experience is a wide one, from the clerk who has worked behind the lines, relatively safe from violence, to the hardened soldier who has seen repeated combat.
Intermingling with fresh-faced teens recently graduated from high school are RCTC vets who served in Special Forces, as snipers in Iraq and Afghanistan and soldiers who have killed and who have seen their buddies die in combat.
Some also are coping with adjustment problems and serious disorders: post-traumatic stress related to combat and often accompanied by substance abuse.
"The biggest challenge that confronts veterans coming back is that you're a different person. You can try and pretend to be the old person, but you're a different person trying to figure out what that is," Odegaard said.