Tuesday, October 19, 2021

MSU student veterans adjust to campus life, complicated by COVID-19

March 22, 2021
David Versin, 24, is a student veteran studying international relations through James Madison. Versin wants more students to get involved with the program and holds the Vice President position of Michigan State's chapter. Shot on Mar. 19, 2021.
David Versin, 24, is a student veteran studying international relations through James Madison. Versin wants more students to get involved with the program and holds the Vice President position of Michigan State's chapter. Shot on Mar. 19, 2021. —
Photo by Lauren DeMay | The State News

Michigan State international relations junior David Versin enlisted in the military June 23, 2014, and spent five and a half years in service as a heavy equipment operator and a Marines security guard. After being  stationed in Mali, Switzerland and Saudi Arabia, he left on Dec. 22, 2019, ready to move on to higher education. 

“I started up my degree at MSU that following January,” Versin, who is the vice president of MSU’s chapter for Student Veterans of America, said. “And then COVID.” 

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Student veterans face a different set of challenges compared to the average college student, born out of the transition from military to civilian life and entering college. The pandemic has only made this more difficult, according to Suzanne Gordon, senior policy fellow at the Veterans’ Health Care Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank. 

There are two aspects to the difficulties veterans face: health issues and readjustment into society. 

“I think the vast majority of people who leave the military, leave with some sort of problematic health condition that will often worsen with age,” Gordon said.

Gordon said these conditions can include musculoskeletal issues, hearing loss and mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the National Center for PTSD, 11 to 20% of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. According to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, nearly 414,000 traumatic brain injuries were reported between 2000 and late 2019. 

Gordon said that while often Veterans Affairs will provide healthcare, about 1 million veterans are excluded from collecting these benefits or GI Bill benefits because of the type of discharge they receive when leaving the military, which Gordon said can be “punishing.”

 According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, this discharge must be under “other than dishonorable conditions.” 

When it comes to readjusting to civilian life, Gordon said the extreme thinking the military promotes is often not conducive to the shades of grey encouraged in higher education and can be difficult.

“Military indoctrination deliberately functions to separate you from the civilian world that you came from,” Gordon said. “It’s about de-adjustment."

Versin was discharged honorably and receives benefits for his service, including covering his tuition and providing a stipend for housing. 

He said the adjustment to college was hard, and he still struggles with it. 

“I’ve been the oldest in all my classes,” Versin said, who’s 24. “So, trying to fit in is really hard with a younger group of people.”

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Versin said he was lucky enough to figure out what he wanted to do post-military. Many veterans struggle with that. 

“I do know that that's a really big thing that veterans do struggle with, is finding that passion,” Versain said. “Or I guess getting a drive to go for something that they love to do.”

Since the pandemic started, the federal government has taken measures in an attempt to protect veterans. Special rules were put in place that allowed student veterans to still receive their housing stipends even while their classes were fully online. The COVID-19 stimulus package President Joe Biden signed into law on March 11 included allocating $14.5 billion to the VA for healthcare programs, including COVID-19 vaccination distribution. 

Gordon said that while the stimulus package benefits will help veterans, including student veterans, the federal government should provide more funding for the Veterans Health Administration and Benefits Administration so it can help more student veterans. 

“Student veterans should be aware of the funding challenges of the department that specifically addresses their needs,” Gordon said. “And if they have problems with that department, rather than being angry at the government, they should ask for more resources.”

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Gordon said students should take advantage of the Veteran Resource Center that most large campuses, including MSU, have. 

Versin said that his biggest piece of advice for student veterans is not to get complacent. 

“It is a struggle, and it's a huge transition,” Versin said. “But you're not alone. We're not alone. Reach out, get as much help as you can, look for any resources that you can and then just don't get complacent.”

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