SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Robert Thomas remembers feeling overwhelmed when he attended college registration in a large gymnasium at the University of South Carolina as a student veteran.
From 1979 to 1983, Thomas served on active duty, then he joined the Army Reserves and decided to go to college. In that crowded gym in 1983, he sought out ROTC members, who assisted him with registration.
"They told me where to start," said Thomas, now director of media services at USC Upstate. "There wasn't a whole lot of resources for us (veterans on campus) then."
On Monday, Thomas participated in "green zone" training at USC Upstate. Faculty, staff and students were encouraged to attend one of three training sessions, which focused on issues facing student veterans, such as deployment, transitioning to college after serving in the field, post-traumatic stress disorder and combat-related injuries.
"Since I was a veteran, I was interested in attending this," said Thomas, who was deployed stateside for Operation Desert Storm and again after the Sept. 11 attacks for Operation Noble Eagle. "I remembered what I went through and thought maybe other students are having the same experience I did. Finding a place where I fit in was a little difficult."
A green zone is designated as a safe place for student veterans to speak openly on campus. Participants in Monday's training received certificates of completion they may display in their classrooms or offices and green zone stickers they may place on office or classroom windows, designating those as safe places for veterans.
"We're definitely seeing more veterans," Thomas said. "If we can help them transition from military service to academics, that's the least we can do."
Monday's training was sponsored by USC Upstate's Office of Training and Staff Development, the Office of Student Life and AmeriCorps Vista. USC graduate student Phil Hardy presented the training. He discussed ways faculty and staff could ease a veteran's transition from deployment or multiple deployments back to the classroom. These students may feel alienated because they are typically older than most college students, live off campus, may miss the camaraderie of their fellow troops or feel like they're being attacked by other students during discussions about combat or military conflicts.
Other student veterans may experience depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It can be really difficult adjusting back to life as a civilian," Hardy said.
Student veterans may need assistance processing their benefits from the GI Bill or deciding on new careers after life in the military.
At the same time, Hardy pointed out, these students also may be very focused and demonstrate good time management and leadership skills in the classroom.
"Their work ethic is very strong," Hardy said.
To ease a student veteran's transition to college life, faculty and staff can encourage open dialogue. Professors may ask about a student's deployment, how long they served, discuss career goals or refer students to services and resources on campus that may be helpful.
"Be a listening ear," Hardy said. "Let them engage you. Remember that each student is unique in their experiences and that no two veterans are alike."
A student veteran may see the green zone sticker on a professor's office window and come in to talk, Hardy said.
Robin Hollis, veterans affairs coordinator for USC Upstate, said the university recently had as many as 327 student veterans attending classes. They now number 270, but Hollis said she's received inquiries from 25 prospective students who are veterans and may enroll in sessions this summer. She hopes the student group, Upstate Student Veterans, can be revived to add to the support system for veterans at USC Upstate.
Hollis, who assists students in getting their military education benefits processed, said she frequently sees students exhibiting some of the stresses of transitioning from life in the military. She's assisted several by referring them to counseling services or other resources on campus.
"Sometimes they just want to come by and talk, to have someone listen," Hollis said.