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University Counseling Center

Psychological Well-Being of War Veterans: Transitioning to College

Trauma of War

Many individuals deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been exposed to traumatic events related to combat. These types of trauma might include:

  • Witnessing human suffering on multiple levels
  • Fear of their own death
  • Having to hurt or kill others
  • Exposure to death and dead bodies
  • Seeing suffering refugees and destroyed homes

In addition to the more direct traumas experienced, the living situations for deployed soldiers are also incredibly taxing. Soldiers are away from loved ones and are living with the bare essentials in a harsh environment and even more dangerous situation.

Dealing with traumatic experiences can be difficult when not in such situations. However, being exposed to trauma under the conditions of war and with little time to grieve can make it especially difficult to cope.

Transitioning to Civilian Life and College

Returning to civilian life following a deployment can present many challenges for veterans. It can be difficult to adjust to a more safe and comfortable environment following exposure to war. It may also be difficult to transition from an environment where vigilance and mistrust were crucial to survival, into an environment where openness and trust are essential to full functioning in the community and interpersonal relationships. Veterans may also feel a sense of isolation without the support of their fellow soldiers. They may be reluctant to discuss their experiences with family and friends, and many veterans may avoid talking about their experiences altogether.

Transitioning to college may present additional challenges. For instance, it may be difficult for returning veterans to relate to college students. Not only might it be challenging to relate to other students, but relating to family and friends may also pose new challenges, as veterans may not feel that their loved ones would understand their experiences and their suffering.

Focusing on life and death decisions during war may make it difficult for veterans to feel invested in aspects of the academic lifestyle. Furthermore, upon leaving a structured chain of command, veterans may find it challenging to make many everyday, small decisions. Finally, it may be difficult for returning veterans to feel safe in the school environment, or any environment in general.

Recommendations for Making Transitions Easier

  • Practice self-care: engage in relaxation, exercise, eat well, and get enough sleep. Also limit substance use.
  • Connect with others: friends and family, other veterans, college students and faculty
  • Decide how you would like to share your experiences with others, work on expressing emotions
  • Limit exposure to war-related news
  • Invest yourself in academics and developing successful study habits

Remember: Be patient with and forgiving of yourself. It can take time to readjust to civilian life, and the stressors of school can add to the challenges inherent within this transition.

Reactions to Stress and Trauma

It is normal for veterans who have experienced or witnessed a trauma to experience any of the following symptoms:

Reexperiencing of the event:

  • Recurring or distressing thoughts about the event
  • Distressing dreams or nightmares about the trauma
  • Acting or feeling as if the event is recurring
  • Feelings of distressed when reminded of the situation
  • Experiencing physical reactions to stimuli that resemble aspects of the event


  • Avoidance of thoughts, feelings, conversations about the trauma
  • Avoidance of stimuli reminiscent of the event
  • Not remembering aspects of the trauma
  • Decreased interest in life’s activities
  • Feelings of detachment
  • Changed perceptions of and hopes for the future

Increased arousal:

  • Difficulties sleeping
  • Difficulty controlling anger
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hypervigilance and increased startle response

Experiencing any of the above symptoms is a normal response following a trauma. However, when these symptoms persist for longer than a month and impair functioning or cause the veteran distress, professional help is recommended.

Treatment Options and Resources

Psychotherapy can be effective in helping veterans to deal with their thoughts about their experiences, and to change their behaviors in order to reduce distress and increase levels of functioning. Talking to a therapist or counselor may help to ease the transition to civilian life and college. All full-time university students are entitled to services at the University Counseling Center. To schedule an appointment, call 275-3113.

Medication may also be helpful in alleviating some of the symptoms experienced by individuals following a trauma. Consultations to find out if medication may be helpful are available free of charge at the University Counseling Center (275-3113).

We would like you to be aware of all the resources available to you at the University of Rochester:

University Health Services: (585) 275-2662
University Counseling Center: (585) 275-3113
Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning: (585) 275-9049
Disability Services: (585) 275-9125
Career Services: (585) 275-2366
Interfaith Chapel: 585) 275-4321

Local and National Resources:
United States Department of Veterans Affairs
Health Care: (877) 222-8387
Benefits: (800) 827-1000
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK

Rochester VA Outpatient Clinic
465 Westfall Road
Rochester, NY 14620
Phone: (585) 463-2600

Seamless Transition Home

National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
(802) 296-6300

National Military Family Association
(800) 260-0218

The majority of this information is from the James Madison University Counseling Center