Young Veterans Discuss Difficulties Of Returning to Civilian Life

This Veterans Day, in Stars and Stripes, young veterans described a more subtle challenge than coping with combat trauma or wounds: the difficulty of returning to civilian life in a society that generally appreciates their service -- but doesn't always understand it.

Half a century ago, most of the nation's young men had served during World War II, and the United States maintained a draft that drew broadly from the country for the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. However, military service members are now a shrinking minority of Americans: less than 1 percent of the U.S. population has been to war.

"It's not necessarily a bad thing," says Patrick Young, 29, a former Marine who deployed twice to Iraq. "It's just the reality. ... Where in World War II you had a majority of people who had gone through some of the same experiences, or at least was forced to put their lives on hold for an effort that everybody thought was righteous, now you come back, and [some people] who haven't served assume you're crazy or think you have some sort of mental disorder."

The reactions of civilians aren't the only challenges that await returning veterans. Several speak of the difficulty adjusting to the freedom of civilian life, after the discipline and structure of the military. A number of veterans feel isolated and alone; thus, a number of schools have opened centers for their students who have served. The Veterans Center at Towson University, which opened two years ago, helps connect veterans with their GI Bill benefits, with programs on campus, and with each other.

The center is especially helpful for students who are often older than their classmates and have survived experiences that other students-- and even professors-- can't understand.

"Everyone feels like children," says Joshua Bortell, 28, a former Marine from Essex now studying computer science at Towson. "Some of it might be the age difference, but I don't think all of it. Everyone feels less mature.

"That's not necessarily a bad thing. They're just out of high school."

Joseph Bathgate, a former Marine Corps machine gunner, says the discipline he learned in the service is serving him in school.

"Instead of just giving up and saying I'll just drop the class or withdraw, no matter how stressed-out or no matter how overwhelmed I get, the determination just to keep studying, to keep going, that doesn't stop."

Having survived two deployments to Iraq, he says, "almost makes me feel invincible."

"That was pretty bad," he says. "This homework is nothing."