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From the battlefield to the classroom

Student veterans my have left the battlefield for the classroom but the battlefield may not have left them. The persistent effects of military life were the topic of Timm Lovitt’s, member of the Veteran’s Training Support Center (VTSC), presentation on campus as part of Disability Awareness Month.

In his presentation, Lovitt described his life as a veteran of front-line combat, having served as a marine infantryman in both Afghanistan and Iraq. During his service he survived a suicide bombing, but what he and the medical staff did not realize was, although he appeared unhurt, he had sustained an injury no one could see. Lovitt’s invisible injury was the focus of his talk.

After surviving the suicide bombing, Lovitt suffered a traumatic brain injury, which he explained was an umbrella term for any injury that disrupts the functions of the brain, even temporarily.  The three most common causes of traumatic brain injury are blunt force trauma, sudden and violent changes in air pressure and the blast exposure that Lovitt encountered.  It was not until much later, when the neurological changes from the blast became apparent, that Lovitt realized he was hurt.

Besides his physical injury, Lovitt was also open about the post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, he had suffered from as a result.  PTSD, he explained, was “a normal response to an abnormal situation” and focused on its nature as a learned response to past trauma. Lovitt stated that media often misrepresents PTSD as a disorder causing people to be dangerous and unable to live in society. In fact, Lovitt said, this portrayal could be further from the truth. Instead, he said, it manifests in behavioral ways that can affect student veterans.  Laser pointers, he said, were a common trigger associated with laser sights in combat.  Constantly shifting focus, looking for threats, can impact a student’s ability to focus on lectures or studying.  Another example was that a veteran with PTSD might have trouble socially, as they can seem very guarded and suspicious to new people.

Even those who do not get injured during tours of duty often face a challenge of perspective.  This phenomenon has been termed “battlemind” by studies sponsored by the Department of Defense, and it refers to the difference in traits emphasized by civilian versus military life. Military life, Lovitt explained, emphasized teamwork, adherence to rules and discipline, while civilian life, especially for college students, favors self-reliance, creativity and self-expression. These values often cause friction with people who do not understand these attitudes, which often leads to misinterpretation.

Another component of the panel involved discussing military sexual trauma (MST), another term that encompasses anything from sexual harassment to rape.  It is estimated that 60-75% of women on active duty may experience some form of MST during their tour of duty.  VA estimates, meanwhile, that only 1 in 5 of them will report it.

When Timm Lovitt came home to Seattle in 2006, he began to realize the short supply of help for veterans transitioning to civilian life, and that the transition was not taking place in military programs but rather in schools, businesses and homes.

“When I transitioned out, there were a whole bunch of us who transitioned out at the same time.  Over the course of that first year, we had three of my good friends commit suicide.  So I committed to the charge and said ‘this is what my life’s work is going to be.’ Because those guys meant something to me, and I know we all went through the same stuff, we all dealt with the same struggle,” said Lovitt.

Another component of the panel involved discussing military sexual trauma (MST), another term that encompasses anything from sexual harassment to rape.  It is estimated that 60-75% of women on active duty may experience some form of MST during their tour of duty.  VA estimates, meanwhile, that only 1 in 5 of them will report it.

The invisible wounds of mental injury, Lovitt said, are one of the five most common injuries in veterans, and emphasized that accommodations for mental health are just as important and available as physical ones under the law.

At the end of the panel, three students and Steve Roberts, WSU Vancouver alumnus and the campus veteran corps coordinator, closed out the presentation and spoke about their experiences returning to school after military life.  The group mentioned a lack of transitional resources, mentioned by Lovitt, and the challenges of seeking mental health resources while on duty. One student mentioned that seeking mental health recourses created a perception of weakness that could limit a soldier’s chances for promotion.

The stories provided insight into the obstacles student veterans face at WSU Vancouver. The stories also offered suggestions that could help veterans make the transition back to civilian life. Roberts added that his office, on the second floor of the library, was always open to help not only veterans, but people seeking to better understand them.

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One Comment

  1. Such an important topic, Thank you Rob!