For Las Positas College professor Jim Ott, it’s also a time to wrap up his third annual class on expressive writing designed specifically for veterans to help them transition to civilian life. College president Barry Russell is very supportive of this program, which this year has enrolled 28 veterans. It’s helped distinguish Las Positas as an innovative institution of higher learning.
Ott, a banker for 30 years until 2010 and a Pleasanton school board member from 2005 – 2010, was hired full time at the college in 2013. He conceived the veterans’ course curriculum during research for his doctoral degree at Saint Mary's College. In the three years it’s been available, the course has been especially helpful to veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress, or PTSD.
In fact, it’s post-traumatic stress that gives Ott and these veterans their biggest challenge in the course. Veterans often don’t want to write or talk about PTSD for fear that dredging up those war-time memories will make the condition worse.
Ott talked about that challenge last year in Chicago at a national conference of community colleges, where he encouraged other schools to adopt the Las Positas curriculum. He recalled that four years earlier, on the first day of a freshman English class he teaches at Las Positas, he had asked students to write a story about their lives. One student, who said he’d been in the Army and was now working toward a college degree, was reluctant.
Although he’d been home for two years, in many ways the war was not over for him. Every day he carried with him brutal images that seemed to control his thoughts that he’d never shared with anyone—not with his family, not even with his wife. He was clearly suffering from PTSD.
A few days later, with Ott’s encouragement, the freshman veteran reconsidered. It might actually be good for him, he told Ott, to write about his experiences, to get them onto paper and out in the open. And so he did. It wasn’t easy, but after he did, he felt relief because he’d put the details of those traumatic experiences into a story that he could step back and observe.
Ott says that almost all veterans struggle in their transition from military to civilian life. At least one in three post-911 veterans suffer from some level of post-traumatic stress. Each day an average of 22 veterans commit suicide.
Ott has also found in his research and now in his classroom work that many veterans, like some of his students, believe that most Americans aren’t interested in what takes place in the Afghanistan and the Middle East. After all, these conflicts happen “over there.”
But that shouldn’t be surprising, Ott adds, because the gap between veterans and civilians is wider now than it’s ever been. Less than one-half of one percent of the American population serves in the military — compared with 12% in World War II. So, while we honor veterans, few of us know how to connect with these men and women who chose to serve our country, who made sacrifices, deferred their higher education and careers, and in many cases experienced a warrior life so different from our own.
So how can we begin to bridge that gap? Ott asked that question in his classroom. Here’s what they said:
Despite their transition difficulties when leaving the military, they don’t want us to feel sorry for them. They appreciate being thanked, but sometimes the phrase Thank you for your service doesn’t feel genuine. They also said it’s never appropriate to ask a veteran if they killed anyone. This is a deeply personal question. They also don’t want to be put on a pedestal and they don’t want to be stereotyped as wounded warriors.
“So I said to my class, now wait, you don’t want us to feel sorry for you, you don’t want to asked if you killed anyone, you don’t want to be called a hero or treated like a wounded warrior, so, how can a civilian have a conversation with you?
The students put their heads together and came up with three questions that civilians could ask to begin a conversation:
“What branch of the military did you serve in? Where did you serve? What was your job in the military?”
With those questions, a lot of veterans will appreciate the opportunity to share their stories, the students said.
For more Las Positas College veterans’ stories, sign on to www.LPCvet stories.com
To contact Jim Ott for more information about the Las Positas veterans programs, sign on to www. jott@las positas college.edu