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Helping Veterans Succeed in College
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BrainLine Military reconnects with Army vet Timm Lovitt about his work helping veterans like him succeed in college.
Timm Lovitt joined the Army when he was 18. It was a way to pay for college and to get to see the world. From 2003-2004, he deployed to Afghanistan, and then to Iraq from 2005-2006. Soon after his second deployment, Timm separated from the Army. He’d seen enough, been through enough. And he wanted to get back to his wife and help raise his baby son. While he was serving as an infantryman in the 10th Mountain Division, Timm’s body and brain were rocked by multiple blasts, including what he calls the "big one" -- when his humvee was blown up by a suicide car bomb. Timm’s recovery was not without challenges and dark times, but tenacity, patience, and a desire to assist other veterans have helped him revel in the landscape of his life.
Three and a half years ago, with the help of a colleague from VetCorps and through a partnership with the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs and the state’s Department of Social and Health Services, Timm created a small consulting business called Veterans Employment Team. It helps agencies and organizations create or improve programs for veterans, the main focus being higher education.
Most of Timm’s time entails working with the student veterans themselves, the majority of whom have a diagnosed or undiagnosed traumatic brain injury. The rest of his time is devoted to providing education and training to colleges and universities, helping staff and faculty learn how best to provide veterans, especially those with TBI, with the services and accommodations they may need to succeed in school.
BrainLine first spoke to Timm in 2011 (read the article, “A Flashlight Out of the Dark”). As more veterans are heading back to school, we spoke to Timm again and asked him to share some of what he has learned talking to hundreds of veterans as well as university staff on more than 40 campuses across the state of Washington.
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BrainLine Military: Helping someone with a brain injury navigate life on a college campus after being in the military sounds like a tall order. How do you even know where to begin?
Timm Lovitt: The best place to start with anyone, veteran or not, is to listen. With veterans, I often hear about the culture shock of being in an environment where individuality, creativity, and free expression are valued rather than a culture where intense discipline, regimentation, and a strong will are emphasized. What I’ve heard is that a lot of veterans have a hard time relating to other students in their classrooms. This is because they have different life experiences and often feel like they are being judged. And I hear from veterans who say they used to be top students in high school and now can’t retain what they read or they can’t seem to get to the right class in the right building at the right time and have no idea why. I know from my own experience that going to college after being in the military is difficult, especially with the added stress, worry, and confusion from having a brain injury. So listening to what people are going through ― truly listening ― is the first step in getting them the help they need.
BLMil: How do these veterans find you for help?
Timm: Basically, I am an informal case manager. I get referrals from VetCorps or through a college’s veteran services or disability office. Oftentimes, the men and women I meet with don’t know they have a brain injury and don’t connect the dots between their academic and social challenges and the three or 12 blasts they were exposed to in Afghanistan.
BLMil: So how do you start?
Timm: Usually, I’ll meet with a vet and we’ll just talk. I might start by talking about my own story and the troubles I had when I returned to school ― like not being able to remember anything or having to read a paragraph five times over before retaining it. And all of a sudden, a light goes on and the veteran will say, “That’s me!” They might recognize similarities in our experiences and once I have built up some trust ― which usually doesn’t take more than one or two meetings ― I’ll start by acting as a coach or liaison with the VA. Maybe the veteran had gone to the VA a couple of times, got frustrated, didn’t understand that help wasn’t going to manifest over night, then gave up. If the vet has symptoms of TBI, I’ll help him get what diagnoses he needs and in the meantime, I’ll work with his professors and the disabilities office to implement any services or accommodations he needs to succeed in his classes.
BLMil: What are the most common problems that veterans talk about?
Timm: I hear most often about memory issues, problems with concentration, and headaches. Sometimes just educating them about the importance of getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis, not self-medicating, and not drinking in excess will help solve, or at least mitigate, the headache problem.
I also hear about classroom issues, frustration with the instructor or other students. Maybe during a class discussion, the nature of war will come up and someone might say, “War is dumb, it never seems to solve anything.” Well, if you are a veteran sitting there, hearing that, having memories of a buddy killed in combat or a blast that roiled your world, that is going to hurt. Sometimes the veteran will storm out of the lecture hall, or get angry. Sometimes they’ll be brave enough to defend their position. I’ll try to work with that person to come up with some tools to use when cultural insensitivity comes up.
Social issues are another common problem. Even though these young men and women are probably the same age or only a few years older than their civilian peers, their life experience is significantly different. Some veterans I’ve worked with have a very difficult time relating to their non-military peers while others just dive right in, welcoming new friends, new circumstances.