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From war zone to safe zone

by Andrew Edwards

Horizon Reporter

A hall fills with people chatting and moving between classrooms, filling the space with noise.  Faces blend together as people weave between each other and pass by.  For the young veteran fresh from Afghanistan the noise and commotion is too much, so he ducks into a nearby office to gather his thoughts and wait for the crowd to clear.

This is just one story of a student utilizing the Veteran Safe Zone program at Whatcom Community College.

Implemented in the fall of 2008, this program consists of staff and faculty members, many of whom are former military personnel, providing their offices as a place where those who have served can go for quiet space and someone to talk to.  While these staff members are not counselors, they are concerned with the well-being of everyone on campus.

“It’s great that they show support,” said Daniel Crisafulli, a student veteran.  It’s reassuring to know that staff at Whatcom are aware of what some students are going through, he said.

Returning home from a dangerous conflict area can be a difficult transition for veterans as they face issues unique to their situation that can be hard to understand for those that have not served in the military.  After living with a close-knit group of people, it can be isolating not having someone to relate to.

“You become so used to a way of life and a camaraderie,” said Sean Dalgarn, a work-study student at Whatcom Community College’s veterans office.

The regular pressure and anxiety experienced by all college students can have an even greater effect on veterans, since “you’re dealing with people who may or may not have been diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress disorder),” Dalgarn said.

“You’re used to getting an adrenaline shot daily,” said Dalgarn.  After living in a hostile environment veterans get used to always being alert, he said, and some stay that way after returning home.

“You’re ready for something to happen that’s just not going to,” said Dalgarn.  “Even if you know there is no danger, something could trigger a response.”

Those who have not served in the military tend to have a hard time relating to this mindset, and this can discourage veterans from talking about problems they may be having, said Jarrid Corbitt, Whatcom’s certifying official and academic advisor at the veterans office.

The members of the program send the message that “we know where you’re coming from and we listen, we’re not going to shut off on you,” Corbitt said.  “Allowing someone to tell their story can be very healing.”

The Safe Zone program “makes veterans feel more at home, less anxious,” said Dalgarn.  “You know that whoever is on the other side of that door, they’ve made a conscious decision to do this on their own.”

“Adult learning says that if you don’t feel safe, you can’t learn,” said Corbitt.

Besides coping with potentially traumatic experiences, there are also less apparent issues faced by those returning from deployment.  After travelling overseas and working in a hostile environment, going back to school can seem like a dull contrast.

Some veterans might think “I went to war and now I’m doing this math homework?  Give me a break,” Dalgarn said.

Because of their prior experiences, it can feel embarrassing for former soldiers to ask about simple things like how to check out a library book or directions around campus, said Corbitt.  Helping these students with these types of issues is just another function of the Safe Zone, Corbitt said.

Having this safety net on campus can make the transition back to civilian life much easier, said Dalgarn.  It makes returning veterans feel that “Whatcom’s not gonna let you fall through the cracks,” Dalgarn said.


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