Helping Veterans Succeed in College

Timm Lovitt

BrainLine reconnects with Army vet Timm Lovitt about his work helping veterans like him succeed in college.

Timm Lovitt joined the Army when he was 18. It was a way to pay for college and to get to see the world. From 2003-2004, he deployed to Afghanistan, and then to Iraq from 2005-2006. Soon after his second deployment, Timm separated from the Army. He’d seen enough, been through enough. And he wanted to get back to his wife and help raise his baby son. While he was serving as an infantryman in the 10th Mountain Division, Timm’s body and brain were rocked by multiple blasts, including what he calls the "big one" -- when his humvee was blown up by a suicide car bomb. Timm’s recovery was not without challenges and dark times, but tenacity, patience, and a desire to assist other veterans have helped him revel in the landscape of his life.

Three and a half years ago, with the help of a colleague from VetCorps and through a partnership with the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs and the state’s Department of Social and Health Services, Timm created a small consulting business called Veterans Employment Team. It helps agencies and organizations create or improve programs for veterans, the main focus being higher education.

Most of Timm’s time entails working with the student veterans themselves, the majority of whom have a diagnosed or undiagnosed traumatic brain injury. The rest of his time is devoted to providing education and training to colleges and universities, helping staff and faculty learn how best to provide veterans, especially those with TBI, with the services and accommodations they may need to succeed in school.

BrainLine first spoke to Timm in 2011 (read the article, "A Flashlight Out of the Dark"). As more veterans are heading back to school, we spoke to Timm again and asked him to share some of what he has learned talking to hundreds of veterans as well as university staff on more than 40 campuses across the state of Washington.

Helping someone with a brain injury navigate life on a college campus after being in the military sounds like a tall order. How do you even know where to begin?

The best place to start with anyone, veteran or not, is to listen. With veterans, I often hear about the culture shock of being in an environment where individuality, creativity, and free expression are valued rather than a culture where intense discipline, regimentation, and a strong will are emphasized. What I’ve heard is that a lot of veterans have a hard time relating to other students in their classrooms. This is because they have different life experiences and often feel like they are being judged. And I hear from veterans who say they used to be top students in high school and now can’t retain what they read or they can’t seem to get to the right class in the right building at the right time and have no idea why. I know from my own experience that going to college after being in the military is difficult, especially with the added stress, worry, and confusion from having a brain injury. So listening to what people are going through "truly listening" is the first step in getting them the help they need.

How do these veterans find you for help?

Basically, I am an informal case manager. I get referrals from VetCorps or through a college’s veteran services or disability office. Oftentimes, the men and women I meet with don’t know they have a brain injury and don’t connect the dots between their academic and social challenges and the three or 12 blasts they were exposed to in Afghanistan.

So how do you start?

Usually, I’ll meet with a vet and we’ll just talk. I might start by talking about my own story and the troubles I had when I returned to school "like not being able to remember anything or having to read a paragraph five times over before retaining it. And all of a sudden, a light goes on and the veteran will say, "That’s me!" They might recognize similarities in our experiences and once I have built up some trust "which usually doesn’t take more than one or two meetings "I’ll start by acting as a coach or liaison with the VA. Maybe the veteran had gone to the VA a couple of times, got frustrated, didn’t understand that help wasn’t going to manifest over night, then gave up. If the vet has symptoms of TBI, I’ll help him get what diagnoses he needs and in the meantime, I’ll work with his professors and the disabilities office to implement any services or accommodations he needs to succeed in his classes.

What are the most common problems that veterans talk about?

I hear most often about memory issues, problems with concentration, and headaches. Sometimes just educating them about the importance of getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis, not self-medicating, and not drinking in excess will help solve, or at least mitigate, the headache problem.

I also hear about classroom issues, frustration with the instructor or other students. Maybe during a class discussion, the nature of war will come up and someone might say, "War is dumb, it never seems to solve anything." Well, if you are a veteran sitting there, hearing that, having memories of a buddy killed in combat or a blast that roiled your world, that is going to hurt. Sometimes the veteran will storm out of the lecture hall, or get angry. Sometimes they’ll be brave enough to defend their position. I’ll try to work with that person to come up with some tools to use when cultural insensitivity comes up.

Social issues are another common problem. Even though these young men and women are probably the same age or only a few years older than their civilian peers, their life experience is significantly different. Some veterans I’ve worked with have a very difficult time relating to their non-military peers while others just dive right in, welcoming new friends, new circumstances.

Is there a stigma to ask for help?

In my experience, veterans are more apt to ask for help if there is a physical reason for whatever the problem is. Knowing that there are reasons why they are not retaining what they read, why they can’t remember anything from a class they had that morning, or why they flunked a test for which they’d studied intensely really helps. It’s a relief, frankly. Instead of thinking you’re dumb or a failure, you realize that these issues are because your brain was injured. It’s physiological.

That said, I think that TBI is drastically under diagnosed. Not the moderate to severe TBIs, but the ones where men and women were exposed to multiple blasts, hit a couple of times in training, or both. Maybe they never lost consciousness, maybe these "mild" TBIs were brushed under the rug, but when you get back stateside, back to school or work and life, and suddenly you can’t do what used to come so easily, you start to wonder what happened to your brain.

Are there military peer groups for veterans on campuses so they don’t feel like the odd man "or woman" out?

I’m glad you asked that. I refer heavily to peer groups, vet groups. When I talk to veterans and share my story, they start to open up and ask me lots of questions. I get it, and they know that I get it. That helps them feel okay to talk and confide. They also hear about my struggles and see that now I am living a full and productive life and that lessens their stress.

So, an extension of their relating to me is their relating to their military peers. Being able to have a safe, military-only place to go is a comfort for a lot of veterans on college campuses. There, they can share ideas, get help. Being with people who understand them helps them normalize what they are going through. Many veterans go from feeling totally untethered to getting involved in a campus vet group and becoming a peer mentor themselves. Being able to help others is very empowering.

What issues are particular to women?

Most of the folks that I’ve worked with have been male veterans, but I have seen several women veterans. I have found that they are less apt to join a veteran group; we need to work harder to get women more involved. To date, it seems as if women veterans are more self-isolating and also feel more left out. I mean, when people think of a soldier, they picture a male. Women vets often feel minimized … they have a hard time relating to civilian students and yet people don’t acknowledge that they are veterans and should be treated as equals to their male counterparts. Our country needs to change that.

It is exciting to see more women veteran groups popping up on college campuses, albeit somewhat slowly. Both men and women veterans need others whom they can trust and confide in. When a veteran of either sex experiences some form of military sexual trauma it becomes difficult for them to regain trust in their fellow veterans.

What do you hear from vets about dealing with post-traumatic stress?

Veterans still feel the stigma of suffering from PTS as if they are a "wuss" for experiencing the emotional reverberations from combat trauma. My take is that there would be something wrong, something inhuman, for a person to go through a traumatic experience and not have some sort of reaction or symptoms. Anxiety is a natural reaction to a situation that presents itself to us. Humans have used anxiety as part of their way to survive for thousands of years. We know to avoid the things that cause us pain. If you burn your hand, you don’t put it in the fire again. Fear and anxiety, especially in the combat setting, are survival strategies. Post-traumatic stress should not be looked at as a disorder.

The first step is to acknowledge the issues you are having from PTS then get help and live life as best you can from there. Get the help you need.

I was referred to a veteran who was medically discharged from the military because of a moderate TBI. He also had severe PTS. He’d lived in a big city on the East Coast and had moved back to Seattle to be near family and to be in a smaller city. He was storming out of whatever doctor appointments he had and he was isolating from his family. I met his wife and him and over a few meetings and I established a trustful relationship. I put him in touch with a top physician through the VA who spent more than three hours with him and his wife, talking and reviewed all his medications and symptoms. The doctor changed up the vet’s meds and almost immediately, his lethargy and lack of motivation disappeared, he kept his appointments, he started spending more time with his family, and now he and his wife are regular speakers on some of the big panels I hold educating schools and other organizations about TBI and PTS.

He is a success story. It goes to show you that people just want someone to listen, to care. A personal connection can do that.

Do you work directly with the staff at college disability offices to get your veterans the help they need?

Yes. If I have a veteran with a lot of academic issues, I will to go to the disabilities office and tell them that I am working with this person and am helping him get a formal diagnosis for TBI through the VA, but in the meantime, what can they do to help? Most times, the staff is more than willing to help; they want their veteran students to succeed. We might help arrange for the veteran to have more time for test taking and in a quieter and less stressful environment. Maybe the vet can’t take notes so we’ll provide a recorder for him to audiotape lectures, or maybe we’ll work with individual professors to provide their notes to the veteran. We also use assistive technologies like Dragon Speech Recognition Software, which plugs into a computer and basically writes down what you say to it. It helps veterans who may get distracted easily; it’s like having a scribe. Then once their draft is there, they can go back and make revisions. It has helped a lot of veterans who have memory and attention issues.

How do veterans balance school with part-time or full-time jobs they have as well as the doctor appointments they may continue to have?

Veterans are considered non-traditional students since many of them do have to work at the same time as being in college. And as you mentioned, a lot of them have regular therapies like PT [physical therapy] or OT [occupational therapy]. Having to work full-time or even part-time while in school is very stressful for anyone, especially if you are a veteran with TBI and/or PTS. One good thing about the new GI Bill is that it offers a stipend for students. It’s not enough to not have to work, but it covers the bills. That said, I often tell veterans who may be feeling very stressed or emotionally drained that there is nothing wrong with taking a quarter off from school if needed, or to consider going to school part-time if they have to work full-time. I also encourage them to carve out a little time to find a hobby, something that brings them joy whether it’s playing the guitar, drawing in a sketchpad, or training for a road race.

What trends do you see with colleges in terms of helping veterans succeed in school?

Overwhelmingly, across the board, I see administrations and faculties trying to support veterans. Through education, awareness, and the creation of special veteran programs and centers, they are really trying to step up. More schools are seeing the power of peer organizations. They see that most veterans are eager to get involved in military peer groups; they need that bond.

At the particularly vet-friendly colleges, I have seen veteran programs with a fully designated director; vet-only areas where veterans can study and socialize; peer social events; and efforts to raise money for "break pay scholarship funds" since during school breaks, veterans do not get the financial stipend that the GI Bill offers. I think if more colleges created programs and centers like these, the graduation rates would rise significantly. Currently, the drop-out rate for veterans in their first year back to school is 58 percent. We can change that. We need to change that!

What strategies worked for you when you were in college?

A couple things come to mind. One was keeping a journal. It helped me keep track of any patterns I saw in my work or behavior. If you can recognize trends in yourself, you can prepare for them. For example, I found that I got significantly more stressed out during exam periods so making sure I scheduled extra time for myself at the gym made a big difference. I also used a Google calendar. That was a life-saver! I don’t need that level of help so much now, but back when I was in school I totally relied upon the reminders I set up, the daily to-do attachments I created, and the text messages I could send to myself to remind me of appointments and classes. It’s a great tool for anyone who has short-term memory issues.

If you could offer advice to college administrators, staff, and professors to educate them on how to help veterans better succeed in school, what would it be?

I would tell them to focus on establishing a relationship with each veteran, one of trust and open communication. Letting your student veterans know you are there to go the extra mile for them will make an enormous difference in whether they succeed or not.

Knowing what you know from being a student veteran with a TBI as well as from working with hundreds of veterans going back to school, what nugget of advice would you offer someone starting out?

I would say get out and explore the different resources and services available to you at your university. Find veteran centers, find peer support groups. And don’t get caught up in the word "disability" … the disability office has some fantastic resources that can help you" and help your professors help you. There are many, many resources and services out there that can make your life so much easier. It’s crazy not to!

Read BrainLine's original story with Timm, "A Flashlight Out of the Dark."

Posted on BrainLine April 12, 2013.