West Virginia University, which has about 900 students using VA benefits, offers veterans courses in history, public speaking and on transitioning from military to student life. Cleveland State University offers a veterans-only section of Introduction to University Life, a required freshman class. Collin College in Texas has provided various veterans oriented classes, including a history class that teaches students how to do an oral history project and that is open to general education students too.
A University of Iowa class, limited to veterans and service members who have previously deployed, requires students to interview service members from a different era and covers everything from college study skills and reading comprehension to drug addiction and healthy sleep habits.
‘‘You have the ability to speak your mind about things that normal people aren’t really going to understand. They may see a movie or something, but there’s no substitute for being there,’’ said Gene Rovang, a 46-year-old veteran enrolled in the Iowa class. ‘‘As a veteran, when you talk about your experiences, it’s just very easy to communicate to a roomful of veterans compared to a roomful of civilians. Most people don’t have a job where your job is to kill people.’’
At Wright State University in Ohio, a psychology class frames discussions of behavior and leadership around the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and Guantanamo Bay, said Larry James, a retired Army colonel who teaches it.
‘‘I can talk their language,’’ said James, the former psychology department chair at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. ‘‘Many of them, the posts and bases they've served on in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, I've been there too.’’
Still, the results have been uneven. Some classes, failing to generate enough interest from veterans, are no longer offered. Some have been opened to civilian students.
The University of Michigan-Flint ran veterans courses on philosophy and the natural sciences in 2009 and 2010, but stopped offering them in part because they weren’t drawing enough students. Stevens Wandmacher, a Navy veteran who taught a veterans’ course in philosophy, said his students — who ranged from combat veterans to those who served stateside — didn’t all have the same needs or experiences that could be satisfied through a single course.
‘‘I think there are better ways of meeting the needs of the student-veterans and getting them into the life of the university on a large scale,’’ Wandmacher said. ‘‘That was some of the criticism when this was set up: ‘Why are you isolating them and keeping them away from everybody else?’ To some degree, I think there was a little bit of merit in that criticism.’’
The GW writing seminar is taught by Ron Capps, a professional writer and 25-year veteran who says he turned to writing to deal with personal trauma. The seminar, taught to roughly 15 veterans from different wars and generations, is a two-day cram session on writing basics framed around famous war and military literature.
The importance of scene setting and vivid detail is illustrated with an excerpt from ‘‘A Farewell to Arms’’ in which Ernest Hemingway describes a protagonist’s leather boots ‘‘shiny with oil,’’ ‘'gas mask in an oblong tin can’’ and Austrian sniper rifle with the ‘‘blued octagon barrel.’’ Capps uses James Bond movies to illustrate character archetypes. A clip from the war movie ‘‘The Thin Red Line’’ gets the class talking about capturing the anxiety of combat. He reminds them that they’re part of a proud legacy of veterans to nurture literary ambitions.
Details matter, Capps tells the class, but don’t suffocate the reader with military lingo and acronyms. Students who need psychological help should go get it, he advises matter-of-factly, and not expect it to come from writing alone.
‘‘We’re not therapists. We’re not medical people at all,’’ he explained in an interview ahead of the class. ‘‘We’re writers. Writers and others have known the healing power of arts.’’
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This story is the latest installment in a joint initiative by The Associated Press and Associated Press Media Editors taking a closer look at this latest generation of war veterans as they return to civilian life, and the effect this is having on them, their families and American society.