War zones exist on a completely different plane than Pensacola, and the passage back and forth between the two worlds can be formidable. Even the most basic conversations can be challenging.
“When you get back and someone says, ‘How is it?’ First of all, that’s a really dumb question. Second, they don’t really want to know,” said Dr. Sam Mathews, University of West Florida associate professor and Vietnam War veteran. “You start telling them, about 30 seconds their eyes glaze over—what they want is the elevator speech.”
Mathews will share his insights on Nov. 16 in a panel discussion entitled “Life Issues for Veterans.” The event, A Colloquium on the Health and Well-Being of Military Veterans, is co-hosted by UWF Center on Aging and UWF Military and Veterans Resource Center.
With thousands of veterans returning from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the life issues of veterans and their transition back into their lives before war are gaining national attention in the media.
The reality for most of these soldiers is that their return to civilian life can be a jarring experience. Given the benefits offered by the Post 9/11 GI Bill, many choose to pursue an education upon their return home. Around 1,200 veterans are enrolled locally at the University of West Florida.
The move from the war zone to campus life comes with challenges. Along with dealing with issues that plague many veterans—such as Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), family problems or an alarmingly high suicide rate—these new students must also traverse the usually unfamiliar landscape of academia.
“That’s why we’re here, actually,” said Marc Churchwell, director of UWF’s Military and Veterans Resource Center. The MVRC opened last year. Its mission is to help veterans transitioning from the military to the campus. From life in wartime, to life afterward.
“It’s very busy,” Churchwell smiled.
Welcome Home, Stranger
Dr. Sam Mathews, Ph.D., a veteran of the U.S. Army, returned home from his three and a half years in Vietnam in 1972.
“I was a cryptologic technician,” he recalled. “We were sort of a ‘mission impossible’ kind of group, which means we were not to be captured. We didn’t wear parachutes. If the plane went down, they’d bomb the wreckage.”
Matthews can empathize with challenges facing the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. He found himself adrift when he came home. There were side trips en route to his Ph.D.
“I did what seemed easy and interesting—I got into some drugs,” Mathews said.
Once he began attending college, he found it difficult to relate to other students. They lived on a different planet, existed on a different plane.
“They’re upset when class runs five minutes over,” the professor remembered. “You’re sitting there thinking it’s nice to have a working bathroom and an air condition.”
Mathews has a family member that recently returned home from Iraq. He’s passed along some advice he’s taken comfort in over the years.
“You’re not crazy,” he relays, “you’re having a normal reaction to a very abnormal event.”
Counsel from someone who can relate carries weight. Mathews said he’s glad to see that kind of counsel now available on campus in the form of the resource center.
“The Veterans Resource Center is a big step forward,” the professor said.
Vets Helping Vets
Tucked inside Building 38 on UWF’s campus, the Military and Veterans Resource Center is a cozy collection of cubicles and offices. It’s staffed with veterans, there to offer help to other veterans.
Churchwell, the center’s director, sat behind his desk listening to the hustle outside the open office door. Phones ringing, schedules being hammered out, advice being given. It’s something he’s wanted to see for a while.
“I was working on it about three years to get it open,” Churchwell said.
The director understands that veterans are different from other students. They’re coming from a different place, have different needs.
“Their experience in life is different as opposed to your average 20-year-old student who gets stressed out going to class,” he said. “They’ve been blown up, or seen friends blown up by IEDs.”
The resource center offers veterans a source of information and direction. It connects them with services, as well as helping them navigate the education system.
“They can walk in the door and say, ‘I know I have benefits, but I haven’t got a clue how to use them,’” Churchwell said. “We help them figure out a plan.”
The center also deals with the darker issues confronting veterans. They point them toward the needed services when necessary. They walk them back from the edge.
“We’ve saved a couple,” the director said. “I know for a fact we have. I’ve talked one down myself.”
Outside Churchwell’s office, veterans working at the center are busy taking care of business. Veterans, like Robin Griffiths, have a unique understanding of the issues that are put before them. Griffiths referred to the center as a “one-stop shop for veterans,” and as a general morale booster.
“A lot of times, guys just want to give up,” Griffiths said, explaining that fellow veterans can sometimes help, can sometimes know the right thing to say— “sometimes that might persuade them to continue.”
After a mortar left him with third-degree burns, a fused elbow and nerve damage—“I kept my limbs”—Griffiths got out of the Marines in 2006. A few years later, he enrolled in UWF. The resource center wasn’t yet a reality, and veterans were left to find their own bearings on campus.
“It was almost cold in a sense,” Griffiths recalled. “Now, with the resource center, there’s this sense that you have someone there that’s going to help you out.”
Living With War
College life requires an adjustment from all students. For veterans, it’s an entire mentality shift. A rewiring. A different existence.
One difference is time itself.
“In the military, if you’re ever wondering what to do,” explained Lawrence Robbins, a U.S. Army veteran, “someone will tell you.”
Once out of the service, veterans suddenly determine their own schedule. It’s a big change.
“You’re coming from a highly structured environment—there’s a job to be done, you know when you start and you know when you finish,” Mathews said, describing how veterans must adjust to a less regimented existence. “How to do leisure?”
For some veterans, too much time can be a problem.
“When you’re idle,” said Griffiths, “you’ll focus on regret, instead of focusing on the future.”
The Marine is currently studying political science. He’s looking to get his Ph.D. so that he might teach. It has taken effort to get on that focused track.
“Mentally, I was dealing with a lot,” he said. “I had some survivor’s guilt, some PTSD.”
Griffiths returned to Texas to a new son. He eventually moved to Florida, and enrolled at UWF.
“I would just go to class and come home,” he said. “Just kept to myself.”
After recalibrating for wartime, Griffith explained, it’s difficult for veterans to step back into the normalcy of everyday life—to dial it back.
“They don’t know what to expect,” he said. “They don’t know how to act.”
Mathews knows what today’s veterans are talking about when they speak about this feeling. He understands what PTSD feels like. He knows about having a short fuse, about the nightmares and sleepless nights.
A few years after he began teaching at UWF, Mathews was approached about the issue. His issues had become apparent.
“They set down and said, ‘You know Sam, you might want to think about getting some help,’” he remembered.
The professor has learned to deal with his post-war experience—“for example, I don’t do fireworks”—but war will always be a part of him. He still gets a chill sometimes by the airport.
“Every time one of those Hueys fly over, I know it,” Mathews said. “I recognize it. The hair stands up on the back of my neck.”
And while today’s veterans are receiving a much warmer national homecoming than his generation did, the professor knows that they are grappling with the same issues as the veterans of any war.
“The question I ask is what happens when the parades are over?” Mathews said.
Veterans working at UWF’s resource center are aiming to answer the questions that come after the parades. Griffiths is hoping he can help some of his fellow veterans figure those questions out.
“This generation is very fortunate, I think society has learned how to treat veterans,” he said, before going on to talk about veteran issues that transcend generations and wars. “I think it’s difficult for them, not only for wounded veterans to assimilate to society, but for society to adopt to the veterans.”
Veteran’s wartime experience leaves them changed participants in history. Along with the physical scars and battle-hardened perspective, veterans are also given a taste of certain purpose and a sense of community.
“There’s a thing in combat—I miss it—the simplicity of it,” explained Griffiths. “All those guys are your brothers. They look after you.”
Whereas the war provided a sort of “simplicity”— “this is who you kill, it’s very cut and dry”—the Marine has found student life to be more complicated.
“Here, it’s not as cut and dry,” he said. “It’s almost like you have to be careful who you trust.”
Sitting in a cubicle at the resource center, Lawrence Robbins, a U.S. Army veteran, felt the same way.
“You know the military is going to care for you,” he said. “In the civilian world there’s only one person looking out for you and that’s you.”
Griffiths said working at the Veterans Resource Center has filled some of these voids left upon his return home. It has provided some purpose and connection to others who can relate.
“You feel needed when you’re in combat, a feeling that you are a part of something bigger,” he said. “Work there kind of gives me that sense of feeling needed and camaraderie of being around other veterans.”
Back in his office, Churchwell said that the center’s express purpose is to help veterans transition into this dramatically different existence. He knows they’re facing unique challenges, both on campus and off.
“Coping with just everyday life,” the director explained. “They’re readjusting to family life, which is huge—you’re with the wife and the kids and you’re worried about the washing machine not working. How do you act?”
One of the keys to the resource center—Churchwell calls it “the most powerful thing”—is the veterans working there. They know how to help, and just as importantly, relate. In this way, the center offers the brotherhood that many veterans find lacking in campus life.
“A lot of them support each other,” he said, motioning out into the center. “There’s a couple in this office, right next door, and they’re helping each other.”
Out in the main office, Robbins joked about why he decided to work at the center. He’s kidding, but in another way he’s completely serious.
“The benefits package is great, the retirement is better,” Robbins laughed.
After Every War, Learning
When he finished his tours in Vietnam, Mathews returned home. He returned, in some ways, to a foreign land.
“Where the world is quite different,” the professor said.
Participating in the university’s “Colloquium on the Health and Well-Being of Military Veterans,” Mathews is hoping to help today’s veterans in their transition back from war.
“Hopefully, we’ll have people in the audience that provide services to veterans, but also people who are students that might be going through some of these things themselves.”
The colloquium is Nov. 16, from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. It is being facilitated jointly by UWF’s Center on Aging and the Veterans Resource Center. Events such as this are perhaps among the reasons that G.I. Jobs magazine recently listed UWF as one of the top “military friendly” schools.
“After every war, there’s something along these same lines,” Churchwell said of the efforts taken to usher veterans back into society. “Every war we learn more and more. I think we have grown by leaps and bounds.”
Overseeing the UWF center, its director knows there is more to learn. More growth to be done.
“It’s way better now than it’s ever been,” Churchwell said of America’s newest generation’s homecoming. “Still not great. There are veterans suffering around the country.”
Locally, for veterans attending UWF, some of that suffering is eased at the MVRC.
“I wish I had had a veteran’s resource center in 1972,” Mathews said. “It’d sure been nice.”
Military and Veterans Resource Center
11000 University Parkway
Building 38 Room 147
Hours: 8 a.m.- 5 p.m.
The Military and Veterans Resource Center opened at the University of West Florida in 2011. The center is staffed and run by veterans and serves as a networking hub, offering students help in navigating academia and connecting them with other services when needed. Appointments for transition coaches are encouraged, but not necessary. Walk-ins are always welcome.
Colloquium: Life Issues and Opportunities for Veterans of All Ages
When: 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16
Where: UWF Conference Center, 11000 University Parkway, Building 22
The colloquium includes a panel discussion on Life Issues for Veterans, a presentation from the Mitchell Center on Vietnam-era repatriated POWs, and a discussion about Veterans Affairs. An overview of the university’s services available to returning veterans will also be presented.