Helping student veterans succeed and survive

First university veterans association in Canada launch initiatives at Concordia

Written by Nathalie Laflamme, Read more (here)

They’re a quiet, isolated student sub-group who you’ve probably never noticed. A group that faces unique issues and struggles, in and out of class. A group of people who are over 88 per cent more likely to drop out than others. Forty-six per cent of them are living with Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. They are, as a group, seven times more likely to commit suicide than other students. These students are veterans. Just a few months ago, there did not exist any veteran associations on Canadian university campuses. The Concordia Veterans Association (CVA) has changed that. Yves Leduc Butterworth, the founder and president of CVA, explained that upon returning from his deployment in Afghanistan, he had a very difficult time readjusting to civilian life. Because of his troubles, he realized that there was a lack of services for veterans who choose to go to university. “When soldiers come back and then they get into university, it’s an alien kind of environment for us,” he said. “We don’t always feel welcome, we don’t like asking for help … Because of that, we isolate, and in the end we have a very high dropout rate,” Leduc Butterworth said. “I knew that I wouldn’t be the only guy with these problems. I wondered how many people were going through my problems and then became another statistic. I decided that I wanted to create a veterans association to try to prevent my story from happening to other veterans.” As of now, the CVA is made up of four executive members. Leduc Butterworth, the founder and president of CVA, was deployed to Afghanistan in the summer of 2009. He has been at Concordia since 2010, and is studying history. Rory Blaisdell is the VP external, who retired from the Navy in 2013, and is currently studying at JMSB. Nicolas Petitot is the VP executive and VP of events. He has been a student at Concordia on-and-off since 2002, and has almost completed his degree in linguistics. He joined the military in 2004, where he did domestic work. Three years ago, he was injured while on a mission in the Arctic. Eric Washburn is CVA’s VP internal, and also did a deployment in Afghanistan. He is currently studying anthropology at Concordia. The association aims to aid student veterans succeed in school with the help of three pillars: peer support, transition assistance, and veteran advocacy, all with a strong emphasis on mental health. Within these three pillars, they will be implementing various projects, many of which are already in the works. Leduc Butterworth explained that peer support is not necessarily needed for those who are currently serving, as in the military and in the reserves, just being surrounded by other soldiers acts as a support group. But once soldiers leave, this changes, and the transition can be very isolating. He explained that, at the University of Arizona, for example, veterans were put in the same class, and that, thanks to this, the dropout rate fell to zero per cent. Blaisdell explained that it can be difficult to adapt because people with military backgrounds think very differently from other students. This, in turn, can be a frustrating experience. For example, a big part of being in the military is being prepared and organized, as this can mean the difference between life and death when on a mission. Therefore, seeing other students sleeping in class, texting, or walking in late can be extremely aggravating. Having a peer support group could help to ease the burden of these annoyances. “It creates a structure for us to rationalize it, for us to talk it out, and work together in a way that we know how to work,” said Blaisdell. The CVA plans on creating a mentorship program for veteran students. By teaming groups of veterans in the same program, students could be advised on what classes and teachers they might prefer, and always have peers in similar situations to speak with. “If I’m keeping tabs on these people, and I realize that one of them didn’t show up to class on Wednesday, I give them a call,” Blaisdell said. “And if I give them a call, and he doesn’t answer, you go knock on his door. It’s picking each other up and carrying on. We’d like to create that structure.” “At the moment veterans come in, they feel a hostile environment, so they lay low,” Leduc Butterworth said. According to Leduc Butterworth, in the military, there is still stigma when it comes to mental health. Because of this, student veterans may feel uncomfortable seeking out help when they are experiencing difficulty. “It takes a lot of courage within the veteran community to say they have problem,” he said. In order to help student veterans adapt to university life and to help them prepare for graduation, the CVA plans on holding conferences and workshops in the near future. These will teach veterans how to use the skills they have learned in the military inside and outside of school, and inform them of companies and organizations that promote veterans in the workplace. Two specific workshops are in the works and are set to take place next winter: one to help veterans transition into university, and one to help them transition out and into the workforce. These will help veterans learn how to market themselves and the skills they have. Leduc Butterworth explained that everything about university life can seem daunting to a veteran, from navigating mental health services to dental insurance. “Even how to talk to professors—we don’t like asking for help, so that is foreign to us,” he said. “So having an engaging relationship with professors is something new. It takes a little bit of time in your career as a student to see that as something that is possible.” The CVA will also be teaming up with the Concordia Undergraduate Psychology Association (CUPA) for events dealing with mental health. “We’d like to have associations working with us so that, as a group, we can change the stigma surrounding mental health in the university,” said Blaisdell. Yves explained that integration can also be difficult because people with military backgrounds have such high standards when it comes to timeliness. For example, missing a deadline because of mental health issues, like PTSD or survivor’s guilt, would be very difficult to deal with. One of the tangible goals that the CVA has is for veterans to receive accreditation from the university, similar to what the university currently does for Aboriginal students. When veterans apply to Concordia, they would check a box saying they are veterans, and that way, the CVA would be able to offer them the help they need, whether that be dealing with PTSD or helping them choose what classes they should take. They plan on eventually approaching the university with these ideas. This accreditation would also make it much easier for veteran students to have an exam deferred if they are having a crisis. As of now, according to Leduc Butterworth, deferrals are dependant on professors. Often, they may demand a medical note. According to Leduc Butterworth, getting a medical note on the day of illness isn’t realistic when it comes to mental health issues. Even getting out of bed can be impossible if someone is experiencing a crisis. Blaisdell pointed out that the processes that are in place at the moment for deferrals are complicated and lengthy. Because of this, veterans will often just drop a class, wasting money and time. “We’d like it to be more accessible, easier for veterans to say ‘look, I have a registered disability, I have an issue, I’ve got PTSD, I couldn’t write my exam.’ It’s an automatic deferral, there’s less questions asked,” said Blaisdell. Mental health conditions are long-term. You didn’t just break your leg and can’t do your exam on Monday. The university asks for proof, a medical note, but often any record of injury is with DND, or another clinic, and its usually a hassle to get the same type of proof as for a broken leg.” “We are fighting for our brothers and sisters in the military. I know that there are people out there that are just suffering like I did, and that gnaws at me,” Leduc Butterworth said. “When you know that you have a brother or a sister at the school that is going through what you did, you want to help them. It drives us. It’s a fire for us … if I can help one veteran, prevent him from making the wrong choice, then in my mind my mission is complete.” Eventually, the CVA does plan on reaching out to other universities. For now though, Concordia is a priority. They hope that the CVA will provide long-term help for veteran students. “We are looking to have something somewhat permanent, because we don’t know what future conflicts are going to be like, and how many of them are going to return to university, or Concordia for that matter, to come back and improve themselves. We’re looking at leaving behind a legacy at Concordia,” Petitot said. “What we want is peer support, transition assistance, veterans advocacy, mental health. That is our focus. Surviving, and succeeding,” said Leduc Butterworth. To find out more about the CVA, visit their Facebook page or their site (which is currently still in construction) conuvets.ca.