SMC — Brad Jones is by all measures highly successful. The 28-year-old business major has an A-minus grade point average, works on campus 25 hours a week and is involved in extracurricular activities.
But the model student is not typical even by Santa Monica College’s diverse student population standards. A U.S. Marine Corps infantry veteran, Jones served two tours of duty in Iraq — the first during the initial invasion in 2003 and again during the bloody operations in Fallujah for seven months in 2004-05. And his wartime experiences have stayed with him.
Jones is one of an estimated 300 to 350 student veterans at SMC, a population that is growing rapidly and which, as a group, has a complex set of challenges and needs. And now they all share one thing in common — a place to call their own.
This semester, the college opened a Veterans Center in a small complex of former faculty offices that SMC officials say will help them serve this special population better.
“Veterans trust other veterans,” said Linda Sinclair, coordinator of the Veterans Center. “Some veterans just want a place to decompress or feel comfortable.”
But the new center goes far beyond providing an oasis of trust and comfort for these students. The facility has a staff — albeit small — that includes a part-time counselor, part-time secretary and part-time student assistant, herself a vet. It has a free textbook-lending library, a meeting room and a computer-tutoring room. And it has an office where representatives from other SMC departments or outside agencies — such as financial aid, disabled students and the Veterans Administration — can come to provide assistance and guidance to the students.
Sinclair has ambitious plans for the center, ranging from establishment of an emergency loan fund to brown bag lunches.
Student veterans’ needs are many and complex. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome or other psychological problems. Some have brain injuries and other disabilities. Some struggle with substance abuse. Some deal with financial difficulties, even with help from the G.I. Bill and other funding sources. Some have a difficult time adjusting to civilian and campus life.
“I honestly couldn’t even deal with people when I came out of the Marine Corps,” said student Adam Lybbert, who served in the military for four years, including seven months with a communications battalion stationed just outside Fallujah. “I was very on edge, so I needed to take a few months off. I know a number of guys who take time off and travel to figure out who they are.”
Though Lybbert says he was “lucky” to remain mostly on base during his Iraq stint, he noted that he was in the area during the bloody battle of Fallujah in late 2004 and that, “I had several experiences with incoming fire and several close calls with that.”
SMC has made great strides in handling veterans’ issues ever since it recognized the need for specialized attention in 2005 and assigned Sinclair, a counselor, to this population, college officials said.
Sinclair — who, before this school year operated as a team of one in a small office — has taken up the cause of her charges with zeal. She teaches a student success seminar specially tailored to veterans.
She volunteers with a post-traumatic stress syndrome program for Vietnam vets. And she worked with the SMC Center for Students with Disabilities on an SMC-VA program to help returning soldiers with brain injuries.
Still, the issues facing veterans on campus and in the classroom are many and come with special challenges. For example, a professor who includes in lectures images of flag-draped coffins can trigger strong emotional reactions among vets.
Some professors or counselors might mean well, she said, but ask questions that are too tough to handle, such as whether a student killed someone in the line of duty.
But Sinclair believes things are changing, and slowly but surely, SMC employees are becoming more sensitive to veterans’ issues. With the rising visibility of the Student Veterans’ Association — which has held campus-wide Veterans Day ceremonies and other observances — and the increasing number of veterans on campus, progress is being made, she says.
Nevertheless, the complex web of issues that comes with this special population continues to pose many challenges.
Sinclair is hopeful that with the new Veterans Center and some additional staffing, she can turn her attention to building up even more services.
On her wish list are establishment of an emergency loan fund for vets.