CUNY Veteran Helps Other Student Veterans

Posted on 08. Dec, 2009 by in Uncategorized

IMG_0578August Coleman understands the pressures veterans in college face because she’s one of them.

Coleman, 28, is one of four peer advocates for Home Again: Reaching Out, a new program that uses veterans-turned-CUNY-students to provide mental health screening for other student-veterans.

For Reaching Out, August works 10 hours a week, making about 6-10 calls to fellow student-veterans.  She served three years as an Army cook, 8 months of which were in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“I’m getting people to have confidence to get help,” she said, sitting in a break area at Hostos Community College, where she enrolled in a nursing program last January.

Before deployment, Coleman was stationed at Fort Hood, where last Thursday military psychiatrist Nidal Hasan shot and killed 13 soldiers.

When she enlisted, she remembered taking an academic test, but not a mental evaluation.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is one of the biggest concerns veteran students face, she said.  Coleman, who left the Army five years ago, said she still isn’t used to crowds and avoids certain parts of New York City at peak hours.  When she’s reminded of explosions and gunfire in Iraq, Coleman has had her daughter Timia, 5, tell her that nothing’s wrong.

A few veterans she talked to turned to drugs and alcohol to fight PTSD, Coleman said.

It’s important to reach out to fellow veteran students, most who don’t feel connected to the younger students at their college.  Transitioned veterans in school are also frustrated with their military experience, and the anxiety that remains long after, she said.

A RAND report released in April 2008 showed that 300,000, or 20% of military service members returned with symptoms of PTSD.  But only 53% with PTSD or depression sought help in the last year.

Reaching Out, which started in September, is part of the Veterans and Families Initiative, a program of the Jewish Board of Families and Services.  Focusing on mental health, JBFCS serves 180 counties in New York State, and has been serving the state for over a decade.

The initiative helps families specifically in the Bronx and Manhattan, said Director Caroline Peacock.  Peacock, who has an office in the JBFCS building off of Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, uses the mental health clinic to facilitate help for veterans.

“Veteran’s have a difficult time accessing health care because of the stigma,” said Peacock.   She said they were seen as a weak link if they sought help while active.

She said the military has programmed them to withstand anything, which discourages them from accessing mental health services. Reaching Out is unique because it’s not just another veterans-helping-veterans program—it’s student veterans helping each other, she said.

Still adjusting to school, students complain of sleepless nights and flashbacks that make it difficult to do school work, she said.

In the CUNY system, there are an estimated 3,000 veterans and reservists enrolled.

Funded by the McCormick Foundation, the program is part of the “Welcome Back Veterans” initiative.  Recently, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, along with veteran Anthony Odierno, threw the first pitch at a Game 1 of the World Series to promote the campaign.

Although Coleman originally hoped for a long career in the military when she enlisted, to retire early like her mom, she had no desire to re-enlist after her three years were over.

When she returned home to New York, she said the military gave her only one day to fill out paperwork and one day to build her resume.

After coming home, Coleman worked security at the Bronx Psychiatric Hospital.  Earlier this year, she decided to enroll at CUNY because she wanted to get her education in the city.   August is studying to become a registered nurse, and hopes to be a nurse practitioner in the city, she said.

Last week, on her way to study for an exam, August looked forward to her future in medicine.  She hopes that her transition from the military to college is something that other veterans at CUNY can repeat.

Surrounded by a crowd of younger students, she said, “I just have to breathe in and out and relax.”

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