Warrior scholars: Transitioning from the battlefield to the classroom

Faculty and administrators need to understand the needs, concerns and issues of U.S. military veterans and how to support their educational goals.

By Eugene V. Gourley III, PhD, and Donna Alexander, PhD

Since combat operations began in Afghanistan in late 2001 and the onset of the invasion of Iraq in early 2003, over two million members of the U.S. military have been deployed to combat theatres. The current period is the longest period of sustained combat operations in the nation’s history and means that a significant number of young men and women will be attempting to re-integrate into civilian life after their military careers as combat veterans. To help the young men and women of the military transition to civilian careers, the U.S. Congress passed the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, commonly known as the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The law significantly expanded benefits for education for members of the military who had served at least three years since Sept. 11, 2001, by funding up to 100 percent of a public four-year education. Senator James Webb introduced the bill with bipartisan support as the bill passed the House of Representatives 416-12 and the Senate 92-6. As a result, a large number of combat veterans are now able to attend colleges and universities, many beginning their college career at community colleges. To help these students achieve success in college, faculty and administrators need to understand the needs, concerns and issues of U.S. military veterans and how to support their educational goals.

America’s veterans, many now college students, are as diverse as any other group of students. Veterans come from all socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities and religions. However, post 9-11 veteran populations differ from those of earlier eras in notable ways. Unlike veterans who served in Vietnam and earlier conflicts, none of the current veterans were drafted. Many of the young men and women who served in the military chose to join the military as a stepping-stone, either to stable and gainful employment or to a funded college education. Another group of formerly active military service members enlisted hoping to make the military their career, but circumstances forced an earlier than expected exit from the military because of physical or psychological injuries. That group of veterans has turned to higher education as an unexpected partner to aid them, too, in finding a path to success in the civilian world. Still others may have served a long military career, successfully retiring in their late 30s or 40s, but discovered that only additional education would gain them entry into the second career they either need or desire.

Another dramatic difference between the current military veteran population and veterans of past conflicts is the higher proportion of women, especially the much higher proportion of women who have been involved in combat operations. About 11 percent of military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have been women. Many roles for women are different than in the past, with women serving in combat operations, flying air missions, participating in ground combat patrols, driving convoys, providing security on bases and in the field and continuing to serve as providers of battlefield health care. As a result, more women are also returning from combat deployments with physical and/or psychological injuries. In many cases, those female veterans are returning, after many months away, to re-unite with their young babies, children and other family members. This is another group now attending, or attempting to attend, college.

A third major difference in the current veteran population reflects the significantly changed role of the National Guard. In the past, the National Guard was used primarily for responses to national disasters or civil unrest and was only expected to play a role in combat in response to a threat to the territorial United States. In the Vietnam era, joining the National Guard was seen widely as a way to avoid serving in combat in Vietnam. Over the last decade, partly because of the lack of a draft and for the first time in U.S. history, the National Guard was heavily utilized to supplement the active duty and reserve forces and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, often for a year or more. In many cases, these citizen-soldiers exited their work or school for deployments to return in a year or more to not only the stress and challenge of re-integrating into college, work and family lives, but also with the awareness that additional deployments were likely. As a result, many National Guard members delayed or interrupted college plans and then returned attempting to re-start college while also attempting to manage post-deployment stress or cope with injury.

The veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are not only different in many ways from prior generations of combat veterans, but they also are different from their peers in college. Even without exposure to combat, military veterans have been taught to exist in a military culture that is quite different from civilian culture. Given that most members of the military join in their late teens or early 20s, almost all of them have developed primary adult identities as members of the military and identify with military values and culture. Military culture necessarily values rules, order, discipline and respect for authority. Free discussion, debate and expression of opinion might not always be encouraged among the enlisted military. Moreover, decisions, once made, must be carried out effectively and often without question. In many ways, academic life encourages some opposing values such as free debate, democratic decision making and distrust of authority. Many of the veterans attempting to attend traditional college classrooms are surprised at perceived disorganization, disrespect of professors and lack of consequences for student behavior that would be seen as disorderly or disrespectful behavior in military settings. In particular, when attending introductory classes with students just out of high school, even younger veterans might complain about students who are “immature,” childish” and “spoiled.” As a result, even without combat stress, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) or other factors, many veterans struggle to adjust to college culture from military culture.

Another significant change for many veterans transitioning from a military to a college culture rests in the renewed freedom to make independent decisions about their future or their day-to-day lives. When joining the military as an enlisted service member, an individual may be presented with some choices about possible military jobs that are open. After the job is chosen, a career path is typically one with relatively few choices and less freedom than civilians expect when crafting a career. One must complete basic training by following all orders and fulfilling requirements. Then, complete specialized training for the specific military job is provided — few individual decisions are needed by the service member. After this, they are told where they will be assigned, when to work and what to do each day. Members of the military, then, often have a clear lock-step path to advancement, and many members of the military remain in the same job for the remainder of their careers but with increasing responsibility over time. At times people can request changes, but permission is always needed, and one cannot just decide to quit, change jobs or move.

For veterans in the civilian world, this newfound freedom can present three challenges. First, some veterans, particularly veterans who did not plan to exit the military, may find it difficult to set their own long-term goals or understand how to choose an academic or career path. Many will be first-generation college students and may not have the guidance of college educated family or friends in making long-term decisions, particularly if they are interested in fields that require some understanding of the field to make wise college and career choices. Second, veterans are often not used to having to structure their own days. Thus, while they may do well with class schedules and being on time, they may not be as equipped with the skills to set up and manage a daily, weekly or monthly schedule that provides time for reading, studying and completing projects and papers by designated deadlines. Third, being in the military provides a sense of financial and vocational security that is not always found in the civilian world. As long as one does his or her job in the military, the service member can expect career security and continue to receive pay and benefits. Many veterans note that civilian jobs come with little or no security or guarantee to future employment or advancement.

Likewise, previously trained to put emphasis on individual and team performance as the critical factor for success and promotion, many veterans observe that future employment or promotion outside of the military organization is dependent on a variety of unpredictable, uncontrollable factors that lie outside of an individual’s performance, such as the overall health of the company or the overall status of the economy. This last factor has been particularly difficult for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) veterans trying to transition to the civilian world during the economic recession that began in 2008. With the peak of the recession greeting many returning service members, finding any work — much less reliable, secure work — has been challenging.

Finally, many combat veterans are coping with a variety of post-deployment issues that are not experienced by the similarly aged peers attending college. Many will be coping with behavioral and cognitive changes related to combat stress, PTSD or concussion that may contribute to difficulty with attention and concentration, both in and out of the classroom setting. Coping with cognitive changes related to PTSD and concussion may make adjusting to college life even more challenging than for other adult learners transitioning to college life after time away from school.

Understanding how veterans, now students, are different from most other individuals entering the college classroom is necessary, but not sufficient for college faculty, staff and administration to help veterans make a successful transition to the classroom. Suggestions for individual faculty to consider that are likely to help veterans include:

  1. Acknowledging veteran issues in the course syllabus or introduction to the course. Without asking veterans to identify themselves in the classroom, simply having a policy that allows for make-up of time missed due to VA appointments or guard/reserve duty helps veterans know that the faculty member has some understanding of their concerns and that students can approach them with military- or veteran-related issues.

  2. Avoiding questions of veteran students about specific military experiences, particularly combat experiences. Many veterans are uncomfortable disclosing this information for a variety of reasons. Respecting their privacy and autonomy is important for maintaining comfort and trust in the classroom. 

  3. Encouraging veterans to connect to other veteran students through veteran service groups, peer mentoring or tutoring programs can help veterans feel less isolated on college campuses. 

  4. Having awareness of counseling, mental health or other resources for veterans. All OIF/OEF/Operation New Dawn (OND) veterans within five years of the end of their active duty status are eligible for VA services for any deployment-related medical or psychological issues. In addition to VA medical centers, community-based outpatient centers (CBOCs) and vet centers (open for counseling to any combat veteran) may be available in the community. An online service for locating any VA health care setting is available through the VA website. If a veteran is outside the “five year window,” the veteran may still be eligible for VA services and can contact the local VA. All VA medical centers have a point of contact for OIF/OEF/OND veterans and should be able to provide assistance.

About the Authors

Eugene V. Gourley III, PhDEugene Gourley graduated from the University of Virginia with a BA in psychology and religious studies from the University of Virginia and an MS and PhD in clinical psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship in neuropsychology at the VCU’s Medical College of Virginia he worked as a neuropsychologist for a privately run forensic unit in Virginia and later as a forensic evaluator for Central State Hospital in Virginia. He began work for the federal government in 2003 working as a neuropsychologist for the Bureau of Prisons before taking a position as a neuropsychologist with McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond, Va. working primarily with OIF/OEF/OND veterans. He also works part-time as an adjunct psychology instructor with John Tyler Community College.


Avis Donna Alexander, PhDAvis Donna Alexander, professor of psychology and vice president of instruction and student development at Rappahannock College, graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a BA in english, and an MS and PhD in psychology. Starting with adjunct faculty appointments and then moving to full-time faculty status, Alexander has taught at both community colleges, as well as colleges and universities. During her years as a graduate student, Alexander worked part-time for Virginia Commonwealth University as an academic and career counselor, ESL instructor, adult education tutor and researcher. Alexander is married with four children. The youngest is eight and the three older children are now young adults.