University of Vermont

University Communications

Military Counseling Certificate to Bolster Veteran Support

A Veterans Day ceremony last week on campus honored the 6,313 service members who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: Sally McCay)

When Col. (Ret.) Phillip E. Murdock ’85 was asked to teach a course on military culture as part of a new nine-credit military counseling program at UVM, the Iraq War veteran jumped at the chance to help educate the counselors, teachers and social workers preparing to help his fellow veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Having spent three decades in the military including three deployments to Iraq, Murdock knew the challenges they faced.

“I’ve seen the military from every angle, so being able to relate those experiences to caregivers who are going to help this population really excites me and is an honor,” says Murdock, former commander of the 158th Fighter Wing Vermont Air National Guard. “My mission is to help current and future counselors who are going to have military veterans in their offices and need to help them through some very challenging situations.”

The program, a three-course sequence titled “Understanding Support Systems for Returning Military Veterans and Their Families” was designed to help individuals who work in social service and education become familiar with issues and challenges encountered by military personnel and their families. Conceived by Fayneese Miller, dean of the College of Education and Social Services (CESS), the program content and sequencing was developed by Aaron Kindsvatter, assistant professor in counseling, and other CESS faculty in consultation with mental health providers associated with the VA hospital, and military personnel.

The individual courses, offered through Continuing Education, are open to anyone interested in learning more about veterans' issues or who may want to perform volunteer work. “There’s been an appreciation on the part of Dean Fayneese Miller that there is a large population of veterans coming home whose needs will go unmet,” says Kindsvatter. “We’re interested in how education at UVM can prepare and train mental health professionals to meet the needs of this population.”

Lessons in reality

Murdock taught "Military Culture" this summer and introduced the three students in the initial series to the nuances of military culture. Knowing some basic military vernacular and familiarizing students with military mores, courtesies, customs, protocols, military acronyms and terms and chain of command is especially important, he says, for counselors to understand and effectively communicate with veterans from the outset.

The second course in the series, "Transitional Issues for Military Families," will be taught this fall by Tamara Thompson, a licensed clinical social worker who counsels veterans and their families. The course focuses on the familial and practical challenges experienced by military personnel and their families before, during and after deployment.

"Military Deployment: Psychological Issues" will be taught during the spring semester by Gail Isenberg, adjunct professor in counseling and a licensed psychologist who performs assessments for veterans to determine their needs. The course describes mental health concerns commonly associated with deployment including grief, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and substance abuse.

In an effort to reach providers who live in more rural areas, Kindsvatter says the program will also be taught online next year. “Many vets will be returning to rural settings and there’s a lot of concern about them feeling isolated, so we’re trying to figure out the best way to reach providers in all areas of the state.”

“I took the job as dean of the College of Education and Social Services because of a strong belief in the importance of preparing students to address the needs of all members of society,” says Miller. “I was especially interested in making sure that our students understood – and knew how to work with – those who often find themselves on the margins of society. The military certificate program is another way of showing that we have a responsibility to our veterans and their families who have given so much, and deserve to have all their needs met.”

Helping student-veterans on campus

In addition to helping prepare mental health providers to work with veterans, the university has been grappling with how to help the largest number of veterans on campus since the Vietnam War. It’s a national issue for higher education as more than 500,000 veterans have taken advantage of the passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2008, which covers 100 percent of tuition at public schools. There are currently 77 veterans and 75 dependents of veterans attending UVM including 50 undergraduates.

UVM and the State of Vermont have long-standing traditions of supporting the United States during times of war including the War of 1812 when the university was closed and its buildings were used as barracks for troops, which included faculty and students. Murdock points out that Vermont has the highest percentage of residents in the nation who join the military and has sustained the most losses per capita of any state since 9/11. Helping the children and spouses of veterans who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan is also a focus of the certificate program.

Chris Lucier, vice president for enrollment management, has led the effort to increase support services for veterans at UVM by increasing financial aid through the federal-subsidized Yellow Ribbon Program. UVM provides 20 out-of-state undergraduate Yellow Ribbon Scholarships of up to $5,000 and five College of Medicine Yellow Ribbon Scholarships of up to $10,000, which is matched annually by the Veteran's Administration.

Maj. Robert Monette ’86, recruiting operations officer for UVM-ROTC, says veterans often ask him where to find services and that having a central point of contact is critical to their success. “Veterans can be difficult to spot,” says Monnette, who served three tours in Afghanistan as a member of Special Forces. “Some of them just want to be left alone to be a student like everyone else. It’s the ones who are struggling and showing signs of stress that we need to keep an eye out for and help. There are a lot of resources here, but they can be hard to find so connecting them with the right people is extremely important.”

Lucier is hoping that initiatives like the military counseling certificate, the formation of the Veterans Assistance Committee and launching of a support for student veterans website by his office and the support of on-campus veteran groups like the Veterans Collaborative Organization will help make the transition of the veteran-student at UVM a little smoother.  

“We didn’t have a lot support services previously in place, but after the campus community became aware of the issues facing student-veterans a lot of people have joined the cause,” says Lucier, who spent 21 years in the U.S. Army and served as chair of the Officer Education Program at the Army ROTC program at the University of Michigan. “The UVM community is grateful for the service of our veterans and we are committed to providing the best experience possible for those who have served our country and are now enrolled as students.”