Having survived a deployment as an infantryman in Afghanistan, Cody Wilkerson was ready to embark on a new chapter in his life.
The promise of a tuition-free education and a monthly stipend appeared to be the foundation of a successful transition. And at first, it was.
“The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which pays for school after time in the service, gives veterans a general plan of what they are going to do when they get out,” says Wilkerson.
But within a semester of school, Wilkerson, then a 4.0 student at Weber State University, started to slip.
“Soon, I started to struggle with the effects of PTSD and alcoholism,” he says. “And I didn’t take the time to go through out-processing properly, go to therapy or ask for help.”
Current SLCC student and U.S. Army veteran, Fred Bateman, echoes the confusion of returning to civilian life.
“It was a surprise,” says Bateman, a former tank crew-member. “I used the resources available to me, but the transition was still a crazy shock.”
Out-processing is a set of protocols that every service member must undergo when leaving the military.
Much of out-processing is focused on transitioning back into civilian life or returning from deployment, but in many cases, service members are eager to enter the civilian world and neglect heeding some of the protocols and suggestions, says Wilkerson.
Wilkerson, now a member of the Veterans Services team at Salt Lake Community College, says that a multitude of factors play into a successful transition from military to civilian life.
Though a lack of structure and a need for self-sufficiency in the civilian world are often considerable hurdles for newly minted veterans, Wilkerson cites the level of awareness veterans have for resources available to them as the most significant.
“The majority of veterans who try to attend school drop out. But, why is it that someone with free access to education and a stipend wouldn’t finish school? A lack of support and knowing where to find it,” says Wilkerson.
In addition, many veterans are intimidated by the notion of reaching out for help, creating for themselves a seemingly insurmountable concoction of psychological obstacles, adds Wilkerson.
Reflecting on his transition, Wilkerson firmly endorses SLCC’s Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership program. Also known as VITAL, the program focuses on helping veterans with PTSD as they transition into civilian and student life.
“If it wasn’t for SLCC and the VITAL program, I wouldn’t be where I am now. They turned my life around and got me financially back on track,” says Wilkerson.
VITAL also provides veterans interested in pursuing an education at SLCC with a Veterans Affairs doctor working at SLCC’s Taylorsville campus, a disability resource coordinator, free tutoring and other resources students may need.
Wilkerson adds that both VITAL and the Veterans Services at SLCC act as advocates and liaisons between veterans and the federal government, something many veterans are in dire need of. However, knowing where to find support is the most critical element in a smooth transition, according to Wilkerson.
To learn more about the resources available, visit the Veterans Services centers at Taylorsville Redwood Campus and South City Campus.
Photos by Jacob W. Erickson