A young man walks into a restaurant with his dad. He picks up a menu, browsing the selection. His father sits patiently. But after the server comes to the table and waits for a while, he nudges his son. The son pulls down the menu, revealing tears in his eyes.
He says, “Dad, you don’t understand. Just a few days ago, I killed six Afghans. And here I am now in Tulsa.”
As sponsor of the ORU Chapter of the Veterans Association (VA), Director of Social Work Dr. Lanny Endicott hears stories like this often.
The Veterans Association works to make the university a veteran-friendly campus and helps soldiers integrate into civilian life.
The Department of Veteran Affairs pays for veterans to attend school in their home state. Though finances may not be an obstacle for veterans coming to school, internal issues may.
Endicott spoke of veterans who are relunctant to open up about these issues.
“We want the schools in Oklahoma to be veteranready,” Endicott said. “Veterans will come out if they want to. There are a lot of benefits. Some just aren’t ready [and] have issues that need to be resolved in order to be successful. This is a big deal, and I got ORU involved in it.”
Many veterans may not even know they have issues needing resolution.
“One of the things veterans face is something being dubbed ‘moral injury,’” said Lee Mayhan, freshman and president of the ORU VA Chapter. “A lot of veterans don’t even know they have it. They just know that something’s different. They know how they were before they joined. Something is not the same inside of them.”
Mayhan served in the National Guard as a 13 Delta before coming to ORU.
The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder defines moral injury as, “an act of serious transgression that leads to serious inner conflict because the experience is at odds with core ethical and moral beliefs.”
“You’re raised in a society or a culture of ‘Thou shalt not kill’ or ‘it’s wrong,’” Mayhan said. “It’s something you shouldn’t do. Then you join the military, and you’re taught to do exactly that. Somewhere inside your morality or spiritually, you’re taught to process that.”
Moral injury can inhibit veterans from assimilating back into civilian life.
“[Moral injury] creates a lot of stress,” Endicott said. “The VA was one of the first groups to bring this out. These people need forgiveness. They need to forgive themselves, and [people] need to re-integrate them into the community.”
Mayhan said many soldiers cannot process such feelings until they get out of the military. To help with problems like moral injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues caused by experiences serving, the VA hopes to hire a “go-to person” to act as a resource for veterans.
“If the opportunity became available for veterans to go to a counselor here at school, they may be able to talk about issues and receive healing,” Mayhan said.
Endicott said the resource officer would need an office where veterans could come talk and share. The officer could then offer counseling or refer the veteran to the right place to receive help.
“I think a counselor in that capacity is an absolute must,” Mayhan said. “Someone who can be a face for ‘hey this is the guy you need to talk about your anger or to talk about whatever you’re dealing with.’”
Mayhan said students, faculty and staff educating themselves on moral injury would also help in the integration process.
In addition to moral injury, many veterans face post-traumatic stress, sleep disorders, depression and brain injuries. Endicott said the faculty need to be trained to understand these issues.
Mayhan said people should treat veterans like normal students.
“Don’t treat them different. They were in the service, or they were in Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Mayhan. “They already think that they’re different because of what they’ve gone through.”
Mayhan warned that some veterans may carry confidential information.
“It’s probably best not to pry outside of generic or vague conversations,” Mayhan said. “If they tell you they worked on Apache helicopters, leave it at that.”
For some veterans, the integration process is not as complicated. Freshman multimedia production major Elex Boyd returned from the Air Force this semester.
“Integrating [into] civilian life was like a fresh breath. A new start,” Boyd said. “[There is] a lot to do and a future of your own to work for. It isn’t that different. It’s like getting a new assignment to another base, but an indefinite one.”
A Tulsa native, Boyd returned to a waiting family.
“My favorite part about coming home is I finally get to hold my son. He is the reason I live,” said Boyd.
While he’s happy to be home, Boyd said re-inventing himself will be a challenge.
The Veterans Association in Tulsa received one grant to house 500 homeless veterans and another to train 120 counselors on post-traumatic stress disorder using cognitive processing therapy. They plan on selling bracelets to raise funds for the Quest Whole Person Scholarship Fund.