Veteran Services at CU

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The hardest thing about war, said Sergeant Adam Nilson, a University of Colorado student and a veteran, is coming back.

"When you're over there it's easy" said Nilson, who served in Afghanistan as an infantryman with the National Guard in 2010. "There's good times, there's bad times. But your mission is pretty clear cut. It's just a day-to-day existence.

"For me, I'd already resigned myself to the fact that I could get killed, so I didn't even think about it."

Nilson, 31, can no longer serve due to injuries. He came to CU to study photography and to start over. He is one of about 1,000 veterans attending CU-Boulder, according to the university's Veteran Services Office.

In 2012, almost 1 million veterans were receiving money from the federal government to go to school, according to U.S. Department of Veteran affairs statistics. Stew Elliot, program manager of the Veteran Services Office, said more are on the way.

"Probably double within the next five years," Elliot said.

For those student veterans, that switch from active duty to academic duties comes with a few challenges.

"The majority of vets, especially who are coming back to school, are contending with transitional issues," said Matthew Tomatz, a counselor at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at CU.

CAPS provides counselors, like Tomatz, for psychological counseling sessions to all CU students. Tomatz also acts as the liaison between CAPS and Veteran Services.

"Part of what we work with is normalizing their experience and finding ways that they can find support here," he said.

But some of those student veterans say their experience in the classroom is anything but normal.

Facing insensitive questions

Nilson doesn't like to tell his classmates he's a veteran.

"It's something I keep close, because other people don't relate to it," he said.

Adam Nilson works in the darkroom in the Visual Arts Complex at the University of Colorado in Boulder in March.
Adam Nilson works in the darkroom in the Visual Arts Complex at the University of Colorado in Boulder in March. (Mark Leffingwell / Daily Camera)

Nilson, who still sports a military-style crew cut, is sitting in the Veteran Services Office on campus. He looks at ease and seems to know everyone in the office.

He continued:

"People just ask insensitive questions like —"

Another veteran using a computer in the Veteran Services Office cuts Nilson off, "You ever killed anybody? Hey I've known you for three fuckin' seconds and I'm gonna ask you if you ever shot anybody before."

"Sorry," said the other veteran, before turning back to his computer.

"Yeah, it's a common experience among vets," Nilson said. "That's one question you shouldn't ask."

Nick Vidulich, a CU political science major and veteran who served with the Marines as an intelligence analyst in Afghanistan, said that someone asked him that question in every class he took last semester.

"That's the go-to question almost always," Vidulich said. "I try and make it a teachable moment. Something where I can sit down and explain some aspect of life they don't understand ... I hate that question. I feel like it's not a fair question, because no matter how we answer, we're somehow fucked up. If we answer that we have killed somebody, then you're a head case. If we answer that you haven't killed anybody, then you weren't doing your job is the automatic implication for people who don't understand...

"And it's just socially rude."

Vidulich said he never answers the question.

"The identity of a veteran is only one identity that veterans have," Tomatz said. "You want to make sure to be inclusive of those personalities and not just see them as a vet. Sometimes people glom onto that, or sometimes people are afraid of veterans or just do not know how to react to them. They might pigeonhole them into a certain identity framework and not relate to them as a whole person."

Crowded campus

Insensitive questions from fellow students aren't the only transition difficulties experienced by Veterans.

University of Colorado student Adam Nilson poses with local Afghan children in Baghlan Province during his one-year tour with the Army National Guard.
University of Colorado student Adam Nilson poses with local Afghan children in Baghlan Province during his one-year tour with the Army National Guard. (Courtesy photo)

Jenifer Wells, 27, a CU student has served in Afghanistan and Iraq as an intelligence analyst for the Air Force and later, for military subcontractors, said that big crowds can present a challenge.

Wells said one of the biggest transitions for her is unlearning her instinct to constantly be on the lookout for threats around her.

"No one's gonna do anything to me, but it's like, hyper-vigilance is always on," said Wells.

This semester, Wells is taking as many online classes as she can, partially to avoid being on campus and in the city.

Wells said that this problem also causes test anxiety. In her anatomy class last semester, having classmates in close proximity during lab exams wasn't easy.

Tomatz said other veterans experience anxiety in crowds and classrooms, too. "They might position themselves to the edge of the classroom, or near an exit. Which is a supported strategy for transitioning to a classroom setting."

Social challenges

Wells, Vindulich and Nilson said that they missed being deployed, and that civilian life is in many ways harder for them.

"Being deployed is easy for the most part," Vindulich said. He and his wife have baby twins, a house to maintain, bills to pay. And, he said, "social situations that I have to participate in, and homework."

"There's so many different ways that real life pulls you."

Nilson said that when deployed, "Day-to-day, you're with guys who you're closer than family with. You miss that brotherhood."

Wells said that the tightly structured routine and tight knit social group offered by military are key things that made deployment easier than civilian life.

"During basic training, you become so close to the people around you, because they're the only reason you're making it through," Wells said. "When you get out, you crave that. "

But there is an upside to being a student veteran, Vindulich said.

"The faculty loves us," he said. "We are more timely, make fewer excuses, and are generally better students.

"Were in college not to find ourselves. I'm here more or less for job training."

Stew Elliot, program manager of veteran services at CU, said

the best way to ease the transition is to provide a welcoming and supportive atmosphere.

Vindulich said that as a liberal town, Boulder has a bad reputation when it comes to how veterans and military personnel are treated. But despite the transition challenges faced by Wells, Vindulich and Nilson, they did not feel that Boulder, nor the CU campus, had been overtly unwelcoming.

"I don't think that rep is deserved," Vindulich said. "It is my impression that the campus bends over backwards to make us feel welcome ... Most people are very positive, if apathetic and unaware."

Contact Jake Kincaid at jacob.kincaid@colorado.edu.