On a busy Friday afternoon at Salem State University, fifteen miles north of Boston, students line up at a campus coffee shop between classes, while others type away on laptops or talk to friends.
It’s a typical college scene, but when Phil Lippens arrived here he felt totally out of place. Lippens had just left the military, where he had been a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division. He had two back-to-back deployments to Iraq in 2006 and 2007, and had seen heavy combat.
Lippens came home with a traumatic brain injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. He took medical retirement from the army.
In the fall of 2010, Lippens decided to pursue a psychology degree at Salem State, but the transition wasn’t easy.
“I think the biggest thing was not having anybody next to me like I did when I was in the military, especially in Iraq -- no battle buddies, and I didn’t know anybody here,” Lippens said. “It was really hard to adjust to the routine in a university, as opposed to the routine that I was used to -- different points of views -- and I had been under this military mindset for so long and it kind of took me a while to come around and be a civilian again.”
Being a civilian again was difficult. Lippens often struggled with painful memories of the close friends he’d lost in Iraq.
“Whenever we lost someone we didn’t just pack up and leave the mission, we stayed out there and we made sure that, what we had, we brought the people back,” he said. “It wasn’t just being exposed to the violence and seeing your friends being killed, but having to pick pieces of them up and bring them back with you was even harder.”
Like many war veteran and military students, Lippens has unique challenges. He’s 35 and older than most of his civilian peers. He has a young family to support. And he still struggles with PTSD, especially around the holidays.
“This last holiday season was pretty tough,” he said. “I spent probably just over a month not being able to communicate with anybody, completely isolated, and depressed, just all the symptoms that you would hear about. I had no way of knowing when it was going to end, and I just knew that every day was hell and eventually, it just slowly… you start coming back around.”
Lippens recovered from this recent episode with the help of his family. But not everyone is always so fortunate.
“Over the holiday there was a suicide of a young man that graduated,” said Mary DeChillo, an adjunct professor at Salem State.
“He was a nursing student here at Salem State and he graduated in 2011, and you know it’s a real risk factor, PTSD and traumatic brain injury, and it’s a worry,” she said.
DeChillo teaches in the psychology department, and Lippens is one of her former students.
Together, they’re developing a peer-mentoring program to help student veterans support one another.
Salem State has also been running first year introductory classes that consist only of veterans and reservists, who make up just over 3 percent of the total student population. Currently there are 160 veterans and 20 spouses or other dependents using post- 9/11 G.I. Bill benefits to attend Salem State.
Sam Ohannesian, director of enrollment services and veterans’ affairs at Salem State, said the first year the courses were run they were very effective.
“That fall semester, until the following fall semester, we brought in roughly 25 new freshman veteran students and we retained 90 percent of them, and 12 of them participated in that specific course,” Ohannesian said.
It’s hard to measure the overall success of these kinds of initiatives. There are limited figures on graduation rates for student veterans. But what is clear, is that with more and more military and veteran students coming in, many colleges and universities have stepped up their support.
“The increase in student organizations, campus support groups, or other mentoring program, specifically for this population, has grown from 18 percent in 2009, to 42 percent across the country,” said Meg Mitcham, director of veterans programs at the American Council on Education. “And the result is that coming up with ways to ensure this type of mutual support, that veterans are providing each other with support, with direction, with access to benefits and resources, is becoming a vital part of all of their programs.”
Back at Salem State, Phil Lippens is a success story. After 33 months at the university, he’ll graduate in May. He’s has also just received some more exciting news -- he’s been accepted into Salem State’s Graduate School of Social Work.
He’s as committed as ever to developing his peer mentoring program and finding other ways to help out student veterans. Last semester he met with Salem State’s president and lobbied to allow early registration for veteran students so that they could get their G.I. Bill benefits more quickly. Lippens has also lobbied for a dedicated space for veterans to meet on campus.
For Lippens, it’s simply a continuation of a mission he started in the army.
“In the military, you’ve heard, I’m sure, ‘We all go together, we never leave a fallen comrade, all these things where we’re a group, and we push each other through, we’re a team’” Lippens said. “And I think that in the military, that’s the way it is, but when you get out and come into a college setting, you don’t have that, but this program will bring us back together, so that we don’t leave anybody behind. Still, we’re here now, we’re just in a different setting – academic -- and we’re still helping each other move forward and refusing to leave anybody behind.”
For More Information:
- American Council on Education: Soldier to Student II: Assessing Campus Programs for Veterans and Service Members
- American Council on Education: The Toolkit for Veteran Friendly Institutions
- Salem State University: A Salute to Service
- The Takeaway: The Power of War Letters