From Soldier to Student - University helps veterans transition from combat to classroom

University of Iowa student Cate Hartmann can still conjure the smell of burning oil wells and decaying bodies in bombed-out tanks she experienced as she traveled on the Highway to Hell in Iraq during her military service in the first Persian Gulf War.

In the midst of 11 months spent overseas, serving her country as part of Operation Desert Storm, Hartmann, then 36, had to leave her fifth-grade son behind with relatives and underwent a divorce.

Now, after more than two decades out of education and successful careers in agriculture and accounting, Hartmann is pursuing an advanced degree. She arrived on campus in spring 2009—one of an estimated 300 student veterans at Iowa who is making the transition from soldier to student.

And whether they’ve been out of the classroom for two decades or two months, all veterans face challenges in returning to school.

At The University of Iowa, there are two organizations devoted to veterans: a UI Veterans Association, formed in 2005, and a UI Veterans Center created in 2006 and part of the Office of the Registrar. Located on the second floor of the Communication Center, the Veterans Center offers a range of services and resources for student veterans and their family members.

“These services and support have made the transition less daunting,” says Hartmann, who is pursuing a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling in the College of Education and who plans to specialize in working with female veterans, hopefully in a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs setting.

Hartmann is one of 77 female veterans currently on campus, according to Larry Lockwood, assistant provost for enrollment services in the UI Office of the Registrar.

Lockwood, a Vietnam veteran, expects veteran enrollment at the University to spike in the next few years as more veterans tap into the GI Bill.

“We have veterans represented in many different academic programs ranging from educational psychology to pharmacy,” Lockwood says. “The University is an especially attractive place for disabled veterans because we have all kinds of disability services on this campus such as the hearing clinic, a great hospital with UI Health Care, and the VA hospital, where they can receive additional treatment. We have the Bionic Bus system, and we have a student support group at the UI Veterans Center as well as a veteran’s counselor and advisor.”

John Mikelson serves as a full-time advisor with the center, and several other students serve as peer counselors.

The center also houses a veterans’ library, a collection that currently includes an estimated 200 books and DVDs, most of them donated or on loan from veterans. Center staff is working with UI Libraries to make this a special collection.

Mikelson, a December 2008 College of Education graduate with a master’s degree in higher education in the Department of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies, describes the climate for veterans on the UI campus as “very good.”

The center is critical, Mikelson adds, because veterans need a dedicated space that helps them connect to other veterans. The center also makes it easier for veterans to connect with campus and community resources. And the UI Veterans Association plans activities such as a welcome picnic and film screenings.

In fact, the University was recently recognized as one of an estimated 1,000 higher education institutions in the nation to make the G.I. Jobs’ 2010 list of military friendly schools. The list honors the top 15 percent of colleges, universities, and trade schools that are doing the most to embrace America’s veterans as students.

“The majority of the students are able to adapt quickly,” says Mikelson, who spent 26 years in the military, including the last half of his career on active duty with the Iowa Army National Guard. “For the most part, the atmosphere has been welcoming.”

Hartmann works 20-plus hours a week as a counselor with a specialty in helping femaile vets. From firsthand experience Hartmann says she knows how confusing and frustrating it can be for veterans to get their benefits, counseling, health care, and GI funding for higher education.

“Everybody thinks that veterans have it so made and that you get all these benefits,” Hartmann says, “but collecting these benefits is like pulling teeth.”

Women veterans also face special challenges, Hartmann says, adding that part of her inspiration for pursuing a degree at the University stems from dealing with severe pain after serving in the military. It took five years to get a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

“At the time, VA hospitals were much less equipped to deal with female veterans,” says Hartmann, who is now in remission and sometimes rides a motorcycle to classes. “A lot of times, VA staff would not give credence to my health concerns.”

Lockwood says one of the goals of having the UI Veteran’s Center staff is to help all student veterans navigate what could be a complex and confusing process and to let them know they’re not alone.

With a modest budget, Hartmann searches for low- or no-cost activities that help create a sense of community and support for veterans. She designs group activities as well as provides one-on-one counseling.

“For example, we get together and do scrap booking, which is both cathartic and community building,” Hartmann says.

Hartmann says she believes more needs to be done to help veterans who’ve sacrificed so much, leaving behind family, friends, and home and often returning with physical and emotional trauma.

“These people will be forever changed by these experiences,” Hartmann says. “In milk, cream comes to the top. Veterans are the cream, and we need to provide them with all the tools to come to the top.”

Lois J. Gray
with photos by Kirk Murray

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photograph of University of Iowa Veterans Center advisor John Mikelson

University of Iowa Veterans Center advisor John Mikelson chats in September with student veterans at the fall welcome picnic, sponsored by the University of Iowa Veterans Association.


photo of Cate Hartmann, UI Veterans Center counselor

Cate Hartmann, UI Veterans Center counselor, enjoys connecting with other student veterans at the welcome picnic in September. An estimated 30 student veterans and their family members attended the picnic at Willow Creek Park in Iowa City.




© The University of Iowa 2009