Workshop offers help to transitioning vets



By Hannah Hess

The heavy black combat boots Jessica Sucic laced up each morning during her 12-month tour of duty in Iraq were much more constricting than the gym shoes that she wears to class these days. An altered dress code was only one of the transitions the 24-year-old student in LAS made as she readjusted to life on campus.

“Being back at school, on my own, without the support of my friends in the military on a daily basis has been quite a change and challenge,” said Sucic, who served with an Army unit in Baghdad.

The tough shift from military to student life inspired the Counseling Center’s workshop program ‘Boots to Books.’ Launched this semester, the Veterans’ Services Committee has coordinated three Support and Advice Groups for veterans and one workshop.

Stephenie Austin, a counseling center para-professional, initiated the project during her psychology studies.

“It surprised me to learn that they didn’t have any resources here on campus to focus on coping strategies and the problems that student veterans face in particular,” said Austin, junior in LAS.

Her personal passion for the project comes from her own enlistment in the National Guard. Austin deploys in September for a year of service in Afghanistan. She led the Boots to Books workshop on April 2 while Ted Bonar, a Counseling Center specialist, has been organizing the Support and Advice Groups.

“It is hard for a veteran to come to campus and find other vets. There is not an RSO or Facebook group. They have no central place where they can go so we are trying to create that,” he said.

The group addresses general socializing issues, like transferring from an authoritative military culture to self-initiated, unstructured student life.

Sucic can relate to this, “I have a lot more freedom on campus. I can choose what classes to attend on any particular day, whereas in Iraq there was no option,” she said. “Even if you were sick you pretty much had to be at your 12-hour shift.”

Though she has never attended a Boots to Books event, Sucic does have the desire to connect with other veterans on campus.

Robert Woods, representative for veterans with the Financial Aid Office, said there are 591 students receiving various types of military financial aid benefits on campus. A small fraction of student veterans have attended Boots to Books so far.

“It’s been slow to get a lot of people, but hopefully we will grow and get our name out there,” Bonar said. “We are going to do these regularly next year.”

Woods, who handles veterans’ benefits acts such as the GI Bill, said he sees a desire to socialize among the military students, but it is often a challenge when focusing on civilian jobs, studying and advancing their military careers. One goal for Boots to Books is to build a support community, Bonar said, in addition to making resources available to deal with complicated issues.

“On the other end of the mental health spectrum is severe post-traumatic stress disorder or some kind of mood disorder like depression that can lead to a substance abuse problem as a way to cope,” he said.

Woods said that Boots to Books fits perfectly with the holistic transition programs supported by the Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Defense. The Student Veterans of America coalition was recently established, he said, as a way to advocate for congressional support of permanent veterans’ centers on campuses nationwide.

Austin said she has observed the men and women of the University relating stories of the time they’ve spent foreign combat zones.

“It’s great when they all get together and start to talk. You see that camaraderie,” she said.