Armstrong Green Zone Supports Veterans On Campus

For many veterans, transitioning from the structured, demanding and sometimes dangerous life of the military to an academically focused college campus can be difficult.

Textbooks, notepads and laptops now fill the duffle bags that once contained life’s necessities during deployment to a combat zone. Some veterans feel out of place on campus, and many are searching for the camaraderie that came so naturally in uniform. Now, thanks to a SPARC (Strategic Planning and Resource Council) grant, veterans at Armstrong Atlantic State University can turn to the Green Zone, a special program designed to provide locations and personnel recognized by veterans as a safe place to aid in their transition from military to university and civilian life.

In 2012, Armstrong Liberty Center director Pete Hoffman had an idea to create a program that would assist veterans in starting a new life as a student. As a retired Army Colonel who dedicated 30 years of his life to his country, Hoffman knew first-hand the challenges civilian life can present.

“If you look at where Armstrong is located, it just makes sense that we would be a center of excellence for military education,” said Hoffman. “There are more than 24,000 active-duty military in our area, and as a state school, we should be a place where they could come, be comfortable, and use their benefits.”

He turned to the Green Zone program at Virginia Commonwealth University for guidance.

“We contacted them and added our own twist to the program,” said Hoffman.

Hoffman recruited consultant and Army Veteran Phil Gore to take Green Zone off the ground at Armstrong, and soon, Gore became the military and veterans program coordinator for the Armstrong Green Zone. Armstrong is now only one of a handful of other schools in the country offering some form of the program.

“We had our first training session for faculty and staff on February 19, and 40 people attended,” said Gore. “We thought that maybe we could get 15 people, and we were overwhelmed with the response.”

With 17 Armstrong faculty and staff members already filling a wait list for another session, the Green Zone’s first round of training was a success.

“Every single person volunteered for this training because they care about our veterans,” said Hoffman. “We have identified them as someone who cares and now, veterans can confidently go to them for help.”

The extensive training is broken out into three phases. The first phase briefs the group on general information about the program, while the second and third phases are more hands-on. In February, the first class of Green Zone volunteers took a field trip to Hunter Army Airfield, where they had one-on-one interaction with soldiers, walked the flight line, looked inside aircrafts and even trained with real weapons with simulated fire.

“They were able to experience a day in the life of a soldier and, through simulation, were able to see soldiers in action in the desert,” said Gore.

At the end of the trip, Green Zone volunteers ate lunch in the dining facility with a large group of soldiers who took the time to share stories of their military experiences.

Green Zone training recently wrapped up with a three-hour block of instruction which included speakers from Veteran’s Heart Georgia, a non-profit organization of veterans and their families, healing professionals and concerned citizens, and Armstrong professor Dr. Jean Neils-Strunjas, who focused on best practices for veterans in the classroom.

“We wanted to make sure that we trained them on the unique differences between veterans and traditional students and help them understand what veterans experience at a university and in civilian life,” explained Gore.

According to Gore, veteran students can come to Armstrong with baggage such as multiple deployments. Some suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), disorders that can often be overlooked without proper training to recognize their signs and symptoms.

“The key is recognizing the signs,” said Green Zone trainee and Armstrong Veteran Affairs coordinator Laura Pallini-Bolton. “For a lot of faculty and staff members, they think the student is just being disruptive.”

For Pallini-Bolton, the training she received from the Green Zone was life changing.

“The field trip to Hunter Army Airfield was the best part because it opened the eyes of our faculty to the training that our veteran students endure,” said Pallini-Bolton. “These veterans come to us with knowledge and expertise that is truly worthy of college credit.”

Along with providing adequate training to faculty and staff, Green Zone also strives to encourage veterans to share their knowledge and experience.

“Having veterans in the classroom makes us a better university,” said Hoffman. “They come to us with experience that we want to capture.”

For Dorothy Kempson, Army Veteran and assistant director of academic support at the Armstrong Liberty Center, this training is beneficial for all staff and faculty in light of the recent shift in deployment frequency.

“More soldiers are deploying at a lower rate, so we have more military who are pursuing education,” explained Kempson. “This is putting more and more military students in our classrooms.”

Since the Green Zone training, Kempson has already helped a military student with PTSD, and thanks to training, she and 39 other Green Zone certified staff and faculty members will be able to provide a safe space -- and lend a sympathetic ear -- for Armstrong’s veteran population.

“There’s a lot of room for growth with this program, and we are already planning on implementing more programs and training,” said Gore. “At the end of the day, we don’t just want to be a military-friendly institution. We want to create a program that can serve as a model to help more veteran students and more institutions across the country.”