A new study of 20 U.S. veterans who returned home and began attending the University of Oklahoma reveals they had a very difficult time fitting into the social culture of college.

The findings, published in the Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, reveal that despite the veterans being the same age as the other college students, military service had instilled them with vastly different cultural values, which meant they experienced a form of ‘culture shock’ when going from a military environment to a college campus.

These cultural differences led to veterans arguing with other students and becoming increasingly isolated and ostracized from their peers.

“Veterans have been through tougher times, even in basic training alone, than many people may realize, therefore to them complaining about writing a paper is silly when they compare it to their past experiences of facing death,” said William T. Howe Jr., the author of the study from the University of Oklahoma.

As well as being unable to relate to civilians feeling stress over ‘trivial’ matters like exams, ex-military personnel were often upset by the way their classmates dressed and their perceived lack of respect towards authority figures.

“In the military, good hygiene, grooming, and making sure your clothes are clean and professional are of vital importance, so to a veteran, students coming to class not groomed properly, or in clothes that they perceive as being too casual, conflicts with their military values,” said Howe.

“In addition, while lecturers at university often encourage open discussion, this is distinctly different from what veterans experienced in the military, where communication is top-down and upward dissent is discouraged. Veterans often got angry when other students talked during lectures.”

Finally, while most students enjoyed talking about politics, veterans were very uncomfortable and unwilling to do this.

“The United States Military has very conservative and strict rules that individuals must abide by. For example, they are not allowed to criticize the President — doing so could result in forfeiture of pay, dishonorable discharge, and even imprisonment,” said Howe.

The culture clash was often worsened by differences in the language style used by veterans and civilians. For instance, veterans often used military jargon and acronyms when interacting with civilians and would grow frustrated when other students didn’t know what they were talking about.

Veterans also felt that the profanities and dark humor they used were often misinterpreted by civilians and seen as crude and vulgar when, for the veterans, this was a normal way of speaking.

“Another issue was the directness of communication by veterans,” says Howe. “In the army, it is seen as natural to say ‘do this’ and expect others to do it. However, this sort of speech usually resulted in the veterans being disliked by others and ostracized from the group.”

The findings show that veterans responded to this culture clash in three separate ways: trying to see things from the perspective of the other students, verbally lashing out and confronting the person, or remaining silent.

By far the most commonly used strategy was silence: 100% of veterans interviewed said that they often kept quiet or refused to speak their minds in class. The reasons for this varied from not wanting to talk about politics to being afraid of getting in trouble for saying something others would perceive as inappropriate. However, eventually, some veterans erupted and had verbal conflicts with others.

“Many veterans entered a ‘spiral of silence,’ and in doing so continued to feel more and more isolated,” said Howe. “Any prolonged silence about a troubling issue is not good for an individual, and the worry is that this extreme isolation could lead to a feeling that life is not worth living and a decision to permanently silence themselves with suicide.”

According to Howe, more needs to be done to help veterans and civilians understand one another and to reintegrate veterans into society.

“Veterans are one and a half times more likely to commit suicide than civilians, and they’re also at a greater risk of depression, suicide and substance abuse,” said Howe. “The situation is so bad that veteran suicide has been classified as an epidemic, and a national call has gone out to researchers to try to address this issue.”

“The military takes 8-12 weeks to strip military members of their civilian culture and replace it with a military culture. To not spend the same time and effort to reverse the process at the end of a servicemember’s time in uniform is irresponsible.”

The findings held true for both combat and non-combat veterans, suggesting that it is not only combat that makes it difficult for veterans to return to civilian life, but military training and adoption of military culture.

Source: Taylor & Francis Group