Mark Combs is an acting student at West Virginia University.
He is also one of nearly 800 students at the school who is a veteran. After serving as a specialist and earning the honorary rank of sergeant in the United States Army, this Sophia, W.Va. native decided to go to college, but Combs says the first year of transition was far from easy.
"I think it’s fairly common knowledge that veterans have a hard time readjusting themselves out of the military and into the civilian world. Especially combat veterans, who have seen the horrors of war and suffer from post-traumatic stress," Combs said.
"When you get back, and being thrown into an environment such as college that’s so social, the drama can be overwhelming. You’re just so used to, I mean I’m not saying that combat is simple, but it’s a simpler form of life. There’s not many layers to it. It’s eat, sleep, drink water, make sure you have enough ammo, that’s it."
At WVU, Veterans Advocate Jerry McCarthy works with those student veterans, to address those transition issues. A veteran himself, McCarthy says the problems experienced by veterans come down to VA issues, and academics.
"In many instances they have lost the people they have served with, they have lost their team; they have lost their home, per se, and they are coming to campus for the first time, unaware of what to expect--typically, feeling a bit alone, confused and nervous when they step onto campus. So that transition is very important for the first year," McCarthy said.
Mark Combs says while his initial transition is over, times are still very difficult for him.
He says he’s been frustrated with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, because of inconsistent GI Bill payments that have left him wondering how he can make ends meet each month.
"Really I think for me, my biggest resources when it came through getting day to day was probably other vets, myself and other vets, we are probably our biggest resource. It is each other," Combs said.
"It’s 'Oh, the VA is late with my pay this month; I don’t know how I am going to get groceries.' Half of your friends will step up and say, 'hey man, come over to my house and eat.' It’s easier to talk to the people that have been through the same things, than it is, just a face at a bureaucratic, establishment."
And Combs says he’s not an exception. Around him, he’s seeing other veterans struggle too.
He says many of his friends, fellow veterans, aren’t staying in school through graduation. Several are dropping out.
"There’s a point in most vets that I know, where they come back to college, and their hearts are so into it, and they’re just fighting through that first year, and then that second year rolls around, and they are like, yeah, I’m just ready to give up," he said.
"The guys just tend to become a victim of their own problems."
There are slightly more than 170,000 veterans in West Virginia, ranging from the youngest like Combs, to seniors who served during World War II 70 years ago.
They all have different needs and issues, and the West Virginia Legislature is trying to hear from all of them through a statewide survey.
The questions include asking veterans about their health, employment, education and other topics.
Monongalia County Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, who serves as the co-chair of the House-Senate interim select committee on Veteran’s Affairs, is one of the major advocates of the project.
"We’re trying to see what the needs are, and if necessary we may invest things a bit differently, we might find a need for legislation, so we are looking for ideas," she said.
"We are very proud of our veterans and the sacrifices they have made. We have worked very hard to think of ways that we could streamline things and we have passed several pieces of legislation that we hope have made a difference," she said, "we have mandated that our campuses be veteran friendly. The Department of Veterans Affairs is now cabinet level, and they have hired four social workers because of the information we got on our last survey that said so many of our veterans had symptoms of depression and, or PTSD."
Mark Combs says he will definitely participate.
He says he appreciates how hard the state has worked for veterans in the past, and would like to see a state program to help support student veterans with school payments.
He says he would also like to see a veteran’s lounge at West Virginia University and more substance abuse programs.
"I myself have recently quit drinking because I realized I had a problem. There are things out there for vets, but I don’t think they are visual enough; people don’t get to see them," Combs said.
"I think that would be a key thing to put into a veteran’s lounge, every program that you have, have a brochure for it in the veteran’s lounge, and have it highly visible. Hey, you’re having a problem with depression, there’s somebody to come and talk to. You’re having a problem with substance abuse, there’s somebody to come and talk to."
Veterans will be able to call a toll-free number to participate in the survey, and can choose to remain anonymous. The survey can also be completed online.
Atlas Research, as well as two WVU psychology professors worked on creating the project.
Fleischauer says a report will be compiled with the survey results and sent to her legislative committee.
"We’re hoping, if there are things there that need attention, that we’ll have a little bit of time to think about that and if there is a response that would be appropriate," she said.
A similar survey was done in 2008, but that one was geared mostly toward younger veterans.
The regular legislative session begins in February.
To see the survey, and participate, click here.