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Boots to Books: The Rough Road from Combat to College

New America Media, News Feature, Video, Produced by Mike Siv and Aaron Glantz Posted: Nov 10, 2009

This Veterans Day, let's do more to prevent our troops from taking their own lives. Community colleges can play a pivotal role in the life-saving process.

Eighteen American war veterans kill themselves every day. One thousand former soldiers receiving care from the Department of Veterans Affairs attempt suicide every month. In January of this year, the Army reports, more of our active-duty soldiers killed themselves than died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

It wasn't long ago that T.J. Boyd nearly became one of those statistics.

Boyd doesn't look like a disabled veteran. The 29-year-old former Marine sergeant sports a winning smile and shows no obvious wounds in his muscular 6-foot frame. He even runs his own personal training business out of his home in Sacramento, Calif.

But Boyd suffers from two of the invisible injuries of our wars: post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. And when he returned to his boyhood home in Southern Illinois after his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he nearly took his own life.

"I had a little .45 under my bar and I was just taking Jack Daniels to the head, just trying to drown myself and get some of that liquid courage," he says.

Boyd was pushed to the brink by a combination of combat stress, guilt and isolation that's all too common among soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

What saved his life was the love of a new girlfriend, who urged him to move out to California, and the veterans club at Sierra College near Sacramento, where he was able to share his experiences with other veterans and see that he was not alone.

Community colleges provide an ideal place for veterans to meet up with others just like themselves and process their combat traumas. Already, the VA reports more than 500,000 returning veterans are using their GI Bill to attend college, a number that's expected to swell even higher once the newer, expanded education benefit is fully implemented.

The vast majority of veterans are landing at community colleges like Sierra. In California, for instance, community colleges enrolled more than 15 times as many vets in 2007 as the University of California campuses did.

So it's at these community colleges that outreach efforts are most important. At Sierra College, veterans' counselor Catherine Morris has helped organize pizza parties and whitewater rafting trips. She has done this primarily on her own time and with next to no financial support from the government. But her efforts have nonetheless saved lives.

"Having a place where veterans can meet and greet and have that sense of belonging is so important," Morris explains. "There needs to be a place where they can give each other hope and share stories" -- without anyone around to judge. The sense of camaraderie and the commitment to leave no one behind that exists on the battlefield can be created again in the classroom.

Unfortunately, six years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, programs like the one at Sierra College are few and far between.

To do right by our veterans, we need to increase funding at our community colleges to establish counseling centers and clubs for them. We can make our community colleges a safe home from the hell of war.

This is a matter of life and death.

Related Media:

Ghost of Haditha Haunts American Shooting Spree in Iraq

Filipino War Veterans, Supporters Eye Next Moves

The War Comes Home -Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans

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