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CUNY Reaches Out to War Veterans

Monday, April 07, 2008

In the next four years, 10,000 armed service members who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are expected to come back to the New York region.

There is a growing understanding that returning veterans are going to need special attention.

WNYC’s Elaine Rivera has been following a new program, designed to aid veterans re-adjusting to civilian life.

As any service member like Bermudez knows, no one understands war unless they've been there.

BERMUDEZ: Not everything that happens over there is told to the public back home - that was the hardest part.

REPORTER: So it was an adjustment for Bermudez as he returned to civilian life.

BERMUDEZ: I'm a full-time student at John Jay College. I'm a junior...

REPORTER: John Jay College of Criminal Justice has the largest veteran enrollment in the city university system. Educators who themselves had served in Vietnam knew they needed to do something. The consequences of not dealing with members of the armed services who have just witnessed combat could be drastic. Last fall, CUNY launched the initiative PROVE, the Project for Return and Opportunity in Veterans' Education.

ESPARZA: My concern is that we're going to start seeing some of this acting out kind of thing that we read in the literature of people coming back from war soon or sometime in the near future and that's really my concern

John Jay Professor Marcia Esparza is working with Bermudez to help launch a War Veterans Club there to get returning veterans to seek the services available to them. Bermudez knows there will be a need for it.

BERMUDEZ: War affects every soldier differently - so not every soldier is going to come back with problems from over there or sometimes it takes longer for particular soldier to show signs of any particular problem but I think for the most part there is going to be a huge percentage of soldiers who are going to come back with some type of issue from Iraq

REPORTER: To deal with this, CUNY has hired 12 war veteran mentors and five social work graduate school interns to provide advice and counsel. Their goal is to get many veterans involved in the program.

One of the social work interns, Sabrina Mosquera, says on top of all the other issues that veterans grapple with, there is also a sense of isolation veterans feel amidst their civilian classmates.

MOSQUERA: There is a longer engagement process - once you get them to open up to hear about their experience they've had a lot go on within them and that's what makes it so difficult for them to not only engage them with other people but to come home and engage with their family and talk to their family or their friends that they had before they went over there the PROVE purpose is to help them with that transition back in

REPORTER: Another social work intern, Douglas Gordon, describes how the veterans also stand apart.

GORDON: Many veterans have talked about how non-veterans may sit in class texting or talking on their phone or doing something else they tend to sit up toward the front and kind of really pay attention and even get irritated with the professors who don't call out the students who are texting or something because it's like I'm here to learn and this is serious so just because the experience that they've had at war has made them grow up in a different way and just that experience alone widens the gap between them and their peers.

REPORTER: Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has echoed the concern of what might happen when the veterans from the war on terror start returning in large numbers.

Hersh - honored at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund's annual gala two months ago - captivated the crowd that night as he described how he obtained the pictures of tortured Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison.

A mother of one of the soldiers who had returned from the war gave him the computer her daughter had with the disturbing photos.

HERSH: When the child came home in April for the next couple of weeks or three or four months every weekend she would go - a beautiful young woman - as I said she would leave her husband - she would go and get tattooed, dark tattoos - starting on her legs to her trunk to her arms to her neck - and it was as the woman told me it was if she wanted to change her skin - so this is what I posit to you - We are going to see holy hell from our returning men and women in this war that we are going to be faced with untold social consequences that we haven't even begun to see...

REPORTER: It's those consequences that Hunter College professor Roger Sherwood wants to avoid with the newly launched PROVE initiative.

SHERWOOD: It's almost a little like a preventive model that if we can help their transition back it's perhaps will offset some of the effects of them having been in combat and having to deal with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

REPORTER: And with 10,000 armed service members - many who have witnessed the brutality of war - returning to the New York region in the next four years - CUNY officials know they have to be ready. For WNYC, I'm Elaine Rivera

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