Editor’s note: This is part three of a three-part series on the Green Zone, a program offered by Armstrong State University that helps educators understand the challenges faced by military-affiliated students transitioning to life in the classroom.
John Richards knows about mental illness.
As a retired master sergeant who served three tours in Vietnam, he has personally dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder. As a father to a son with chronic schizophrenia, he has seen firsthand the struggles associated with mental-health disorders. As a husband to wife diagnosed with depression, he knows the depths those afflicted with the disease can reach.
Richards also knows about loss.
His younger son was killed while serving in the U.S. Air Force; his older son eventually succumbed to co-occurring illnesses related to his schizophrenia. His wife died from a combination of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, multiple-organ failure and depression.
“You are looking at the last of the Mohicans,” he told a group of Armstrong State University faculty and staff Oct. 31. “I don’t have any other family members.”
Richards, who resides in Shellman Bluff, serves as president of the Savannah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness — a position he is well-qualified for.
Richards said that NAMI is a nonprofit organization with chapters in all 50 states. According to its website, the organization “advocates for access to services, treatment, supports and research and is steadfast in its commitment to raise awareness and build a community for hope for all of those in need.”
NAMI offers nine “signature education programs” that aim to inform communities of the realities of mental illness. Richards offered one such program, titled “In Our Own Voice,” to the Armstrong Green Zone participants.
“There’s nothing more impactful than someone standing in front of you who has experience in a particular subject area and presenting it in their own voice,” he said.
Richards also emphasized another NAMI initiative called Crisis Intervention Team training. He said that the program is designed to teach law-enforcement officers how to respond to citizens suffering from a mental illness-related crisis.
“Under an earlier atmosphere in our society, they would be put in handcuffs, thrown in the back of a car and put in jail,” he said.
Richards said that NAMI also teaches family members to call for a CIT-trained officer if they are involved in a crisis situation. He then cited examples of veterans who have been jailed by law officers who were not trained in crisis intervention, saying that parents often had to intercede and alert authorities that their child had a mental illness.
During the final phase of the three-part Green Zone training, Armstrong employees also heard from Dr. Jean Neils-Strunjas, a professor of communication sciences and disorders. Neils-Strunjas gave a presentation on best practices for veterans in the classroom.
The presentation covered various aspects of military-affiliated students’ educational experiences, including how to broach topics like war in a classroom with veterans. She also discussed why it’s not a good idea to ask a veteran questions such as, “How many people did you kill?”
“Not all veterans are alike,” Neils-Strunjas said, noting that veterans who were engaged in combat often have difficulties dealing with those experiences. She also advised against putting a veteran on the spot in a classroom discussion. While some vets are open to talking about their experiences, she said, others are not.
Green Zone participants also heard from a panel of Armstrong student veterans. Erick Bunch, Michael Leger and Kelly Al-Dhalaan spoke about their experiences transitioning from the military to college life.
Bunch, who served nine years and saw multiple deployments, said his biggest challenge in transitioning has been navigating the benefits system.
“I still don’t have medical through the VA because they’ve lost my paperwork three times, so I’ve given up on it,” he said. “I should have been at almost 80 percent disability from wounds sustained.”
Bunch said he’s also experienced difficulty receiving his GI Bill funds.
“Last year, my grades dropped from a 3.0 to a 2.3, because I didn’t get paid for almost three months. I’ve lost my truck, I lost my motorcycle to repossession because I didn’t get paid,” he said.
Al-Dhalaan expressed frustration with receiving credits for her military training. She said she was the equivalent of a licensed practical nurse in the Army, and is now pursuing a bachelor’s of science in nursing at Armstrong. But, she said none of her military training translated into college credit.
Al-Dhalaan also shed some light on the Army’s transitioning process. Although her husband still is an active-duty soldier at Fort Stewart, she said that when she out-processed from her last duty station in Hawaii, the Army would only pay to move her back to her home-of-record in Texas. Although her husband already was at Fort Stewart awaiting her arrival, she had to move herself and their five-month-old daughter from Texas to Georgia at her own expense.
“I didn’t have that support system that I would have loved to have,” she said.
Following the student-veterans’ panel, program participants were awarded their Green Zone stickers. Faculty and staff members who have completed the program post the stickers on their office doors, designating it a “military-friendly area of operation.”
“I feel like I just have this sense of pride now, and just like I’m connected with the military, with our students,” said Dr. Rebecca Wells, assistant professor of science education. “I’m just so thankful to be able to go through this program, because I do have a veteran in my class who is suffering from an injury he’s being treated for.
“It just gives me a different perspective,” she continued. “We need to hear (student veterans’) side of things.”