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The pride and silent disabilities of veterans
Tim Schneidewind separated from the Marine Corps four years ago. He believes he’s the same person he was when he enlisted, but family and friends think he has changed.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve heard ‘What happened to you?’ or ‘What’s wrong with you?’” Schneidewind said. “[I] don’t know what to tell them.”
Hidden injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and hearing and vision loss embed themselves in some veterans’ everyday lives. Many veterans struggle with seeking help for hidden injuries.
Disability and the VA
Schneidewind has yet to go to the Veterans Administration to get a medical evaluation.
“I refuse to go to the VA,” Schneidewind said. “A lot of it comes down to pride. I don’t want people telling me that I’m broken and I can’t do things on my own, ‘cause I can.”
Schneidewind and other veterans with similar situations can’t get a disability rating without going for the medical evaluation. The disability rating is what gets veterans health care but it also allows for veterans to get monetary compensation each month for what they’ve endured.
Tommy Palozola, a 29-year-old Marine veteran who attends Webster University, went to the VA looking for a bare minimum rating so that he could receive health care. He ended up with a higher rating than he expected.
“That kind of worries me,” Palozola said. “They told me that my back … and knees were all messed up. Maybe I don’t deserve that but the doctors said I do.”
For some veterans, rating their disability has an effect on how they form their identity post-service. When a veteran doesn’t fully accept or identify with their rating it can cause frustration and confusion.
Webster University’s Veteran Success on Campus (VSOC) counselor, Jason Blakemore, tries to ease into conversations about the rating system veterans that are college students.
Blakemore believes that the ratings system can be difficult for veterans to grasp.
“Once they have that number … they might be placing a stigma on themselves about what they feel they are in this world,” Blakemore said.
It is self-stigma that causes some obstacles when veterans pursue higher education.
Seeking Higher Education
Veterans are not usually the typical college students according to the American Council on Education. Most are older and can have invisible disabilities already straining their home and daily lives.
Many veterans went straight into the service after graduating high school. For Schneidewind, he wanted to be a Marine since he was 13-years-old.
“I did ROTC (Reserve Officer’s Training Corps) in high school,” Schneidewind said. “Didn’t care about anything else, didn’t study for anything else, didn’t participate in anything else and left straight for boot camp after high school graduation.”
Palozola had a similar experience. His original plan was to get his bachelors and then return to the Marine Corps as an officer. Palozola found out that he wasn’t eligible to return to service while he was studying at Missouri Baptist University.
Palozola was deemed unable to reenlist because of traumatic brain injury. The injury was a result of two convoys Palozola was in hitting improvised explosive devices (IED).
“I had to start changing around what I was thinking about doing,” Palozola said. “Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be either Army or Marines … so that was a big shift in my life.”
Both veterans said they have had trouble adapting to student civilian life.
Schneidewind attends East Central College in Union, Missouri. He said that twice he has gotten in trouble for not being able to contain his anger. Once he found himself yelling at another student in class because he thought her questions were redundant.
For Palozola, finding civilian friends he can relate to has been a struggle. He finds that age and life experience creates a disconnect between himself and other students.
“I don’t think I’ve really made friends with any of the students that I’ve gone to school with that aren’t veterans,” Palozola said.
School is only where the obstacles continue for some veterans, not where they start.
Silent disabilities hinder veterans in many different forms. Palozola, for instance, can’t drive on highways and doesn’t know why. When he drives on highways his heart rate raises and his hands tense up. He avoids them whenever possible.
“The last time I drove long distance I drove from [Webster] to Pacific,” Palozola said. “By the time I got to Pacific my knuckles were just … I could barely hold onto anything.”
Palozola also said he had some social anxiety when he first separated. He would stutter and have trouble talking when meeting strangers.
Other obstacles that are common can be reliving traumatic events, flashbacks, intentionally avoiding situations, difficulty focusing, pain, uncontrollable anger, hyper-vigilance, loneliness or nightmares. This is according to military specialist Amanda Kraus.
Kraus said that some veterans experience more than one of these symptoms.
Schneidewind identifies with multiple symptoms but said that he mostly suffers from nightmares and disrupted sleep. He says he sleeps with his television on when he sleeps at all.
“Waking up terrified, scared to death and you don’t know why,” Schneidewind said. “I can’t even really elaborate on nightmares because I never remember what they are.”
Blakemore encourages any veterans who are having trouble in life or school to seek help.
He said that he’s sees a lot of veterans try and go through the transition alone even though there are resources there for them.
“Don’t be too prideful to ask for help,” Blakemore said. “We’re here to support you but you have to take the next step to get support.”