Vets take good, bad with them to college

United States Army veteran Chuck Taylor prepares to

United States Army veteran Chuck Taylor prepares to take a criminal justice exam in room A322 at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood. Taylor is among veterans who are making the transition from the battlefield to the classroom. But because their advanced years, adult responsibilities, more conservative values and sometimes war-related psychological problems makes it hard for them to fit in with college peers fresh out of high school. (March 15, 2011) Photo Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Halfway though a Monday evening forensics class at the Riverhead campus of Suffolk County Community College, a telephone buzzed in the pocket of a former Army staff sergeant with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Chuck Taylor, 28, pressed the phone to his ear, then bolted from the room, scattering a desk in his wake.

His toddler daughter had fallen down a flight of steps and was in a hospital emergency room. Amplifying his anxiety as he sped west toward Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, Taylor would recall later, were memories of the first soldier he had seen shot in Afghanistan.

An AK-47 round had ripped through the soldier's lungs. "And we didn't know what to do but keep taking turns putting our fingers in his chest, trying to keep any more blood from coming out," Taylor said. "I had a little of that helpless feeling as I was trying to get to my daughter." She turned out to be fine.

Taylor is among the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning to Long Island who, though generally older and often burdened with responsibilities not yet encountered by their campus peers, are trying to make the transition from combat warrior to college student.

Many have found that their detour into military life -- and often deadly combat -- has left them with service-related anxieties, along with expanded responsibilities and social attitudes that leave them feeling like campus outcasts.

"My first year, I was too anxious to do anything and it took a lot of calming down," said former Army Spc. Pat Edouard, 26, of Wyandanch, a mother of two who said she received psychotherapy after enrolling at Suffolk Community in 2006. She said she had previously depended on alcohol and prescription drugs to ease memories of nightly mortar attacks during her 2003-04 deployment with the 82nd Airborne at Camp Falcon, Iraq.

"I didn't know anyone on campus," said Edouard, who graduated from Hofstra University last December with an accounting degree. "And I didn't want to be around people."

Several veterans said they have felt judged by students who ask, often within minutes of meeting, "Have you ever killed anyone?"

"It's frustrating," said former Marine Sgt. Bob Cuba, 28, of Copiague, a Suffolk Community business student who eventually left the service because of injuries he sustained after being thrown from a truck in Iraq. "Your first impulse is how about I punch you in the nose and cut out your tongue."

Some find it easier, when not in the classroom, to go off by themselves.

"For the first year I was here, when I didn't have class, I would just go to the parking lot and sit in my car," said Taylor, who said there were details of his multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq that he will not discuss.

"Some things I've been able to make peace with, but other things, I don't have the means to deal with right now," he said.

Encouraged by expanded student aid provided by the Post- 9/11 GI Bill, and deflected from the workplace by high unemployment rates, many of the returning veterans are showing up on community college campuses.

Precise numbers are difficult to come by, as many students do not identify themselves as former troops. But enrollments of students who self-identify as veterans at Nassau Community College rose from 178 in the spring 2009 semester to 286 this spring. There are 117 vets at Hofstra, up from 70 two years ago. At Suffolk County Community College, 444 veterans are enrolled this year, said a spokesman.

Some of the veterans excel, often crediting their military backgrounds with providing the discipline to succeed. Others founder, overwhelmed by various combinations of war-related anxieties and grown-up responsibilities younger students may not have, such as child care or mortgage payments.

"A lot of them have PTSD and pretty crazy stories to tell," said Richard Bailey, 27, of Levittown, a former Navy seaman who is editor of Nassau Community College's Vignette student newspaper. "A lot of them are on pills."

Nearly all of the veterans who were interviewed said they were shaped by a military culture that stresses teamwork.

Having survived firefights or marched for hours with loaded packs, campus veterans say they are mostly dismissive of student excuses for poor academic performance, such as oversleeping.

Navy veteran Pierre Salas, 27, of Huntington, said once when he and a fellow seaman missed bed check, they were forced to perform calisthenics until the room's rising humidity dripped from a metal ceiling.

"They called it 'making it rain,' but things like that changed my whole attitude," said Salas, a second-year student studying business administration at Nassau. "It makes you grow up and realize you can't make excuses. Then you come here, and students have excuses for everything."

The best of Newsday every day in your inbox. Get the Newsday Now newsletter!

You also may be interested in: