Conditions Have Worsened, Frustration is Rising. Will the Administration Step Up?

It’s been nearly six months since former Special Forces soldier and current UCSB biology student Paul Malone embarked on his most recent mission to improve and expand the limited services offered to veterans on campus. His plight has been an uphill battle.

As president of the Student Veteran Organization, Malone assists veterans in their transition from soldier to student and addresses the various issues facing the student veteran community, which is armed with meager resources. While university administration has promised forthcoming improvements, Malone said he has seen a stark contrast between what has been promised and what has been delivered.

The challenges facing veterans were worsened when Jon Parra, a 20-year veteran of the military and the director of the independently funded Veteran Resource Team, resigned at the end of March. Malone attempted to explain some of the causes behind Parra’s departure, which eliminated UCSB’s last full-time staff position devoted entirely to veterans.

“He wasn’t finding himself effective here, and the infrastructure, I suppose, isn’t in place for him to do the things that need to be done for him to start and maintain a successful veterans program,” Malone said. “Now there is no one dedicated full-time to veterans as there used to be.”

Frustration at UCSB’s climate for veterans is not an isolated phenomenon. Ph.D. student and naval veteran Delores Mondragon described her experiences at UCSB as “intolerable” and said she “faced assault and harassment for being a veteran.”

Here at UCSB, Mondragon studies Military Sexual Trauma, a term that references experiences of sexual assault or harassment in the military, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, a debilitating anxiety disorder that follows an experience or witness of a terrifying, traumatic or tragic event, as defined by the American Psychology Association. When she reported an incident of being attacked and threatened, however, her fellow students mocked her, implying that her report was merely indication that she suffered from the very disorder she studied. Even when she approached the Title IX office at UCSB, she did not receive much consolation.

“It was hinted by fellow students that my reporting of harassment was a condition of me possibly suffering from PTSD. I reported the incident to Title IX and they could not do anything even though I was grabbed, cussed at and threatened with future retaliation,” Mondragon said. “But this was seen as an exaggeration, and when I reported it to the dean, I was ostracized because I took it outside of the department — I was told things get handled in-house.”

Mondragon said she was only seeking the most basic level of courtesy and equal treatment for veterans.

“We just want to be treated as human beings,” she said.

This past week, the issue reached a critical point when Malone and another student veteran, Aaron Barruga, personally delivered a detailed and extensive list of grievances from the veteran community to the office of Chancellor Henry T. Yang. The letter described “cultural, administrative and resource failures that have hampered the integration and success of our student veterans,” and outlined specific action that the university should take to correct these failures.

The recommended actions included implementing a digital tracking and record-keeping system for enrolled student veterans, hiring a new, full-time Coordinator of Veteran and Military Services and establishing mandatory veteran awareness training for faculty and staff, which is similar to training provided for awareness of other minority groups.

The most urgent element of the letter regarded the appalling national rate of veteran suicide, which stands at about 22 people every day, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs. In other words, a veteran takes his or her own life every 65 minutes.

Barruga, a former member of the military’s elite Joint Special Operations Command and current first-year economics major, explained the potentially deadly risks that are associated with not providing proper resources to “an entire demographic of students who are predisposed to testing positive” for PTSD.

“It’s such a pertinent issue because, if we were a Filipino culture club or whatever, the end state may be limited to, say, [the fact that] people would not appreciate our culture the way we wanted them to,” Barruga said. “Our end state is [that] a veteran is not going to feel socially accepted because he has PTSD. The culture here is going to unconsciously create distress for him and he’s going to go home and blow his fucking brains out. So our end state is very costly if we choose not to act.”

Clinical psychologist Kirsten Olson said it is essential for the university to provide additional services to student veterans, who she said are considered “non-traditional students” for a number of reasons.

“They are older, they are more likely to have families and they are more likely to have other sorts of problems that our traditional college students don’t have,” Olson said. “They are also more likely to have lots of strengths and life experience that other traditional students don’t have.”

Olson, who specializes in addressing PTSD issues in combat veterans, expressed support for Malone’s continued efforts for improvement, saying “there’s always more that can be done.”

“I think that’s why Paul’s leadership has been so great, because he’s acknowledging, ‘Right, UCSB has done a lot, but there’s more to be done,’” Olson said. “He’s trying to raise that awareness — that these are the next steps that need to be done.”

Malone, members of the administration and the Veteran Resource Team have been working relentlessly to relocate the Veteran Resource Center from its current 10-foot-by-10-foot room to a larger area, specifically Building 434, a structure located near Counseling Services that has remained vacant for over six months for unspecified maintenance reasons. Their efforts finally paid off yesterday, with the university informing veterans that the building would be allocated to them. The new space is, according to Associate Dean of Student Life and Activities Katya Armistead, more than twice the size of the current VRC, and could prove more accommodating to the population of more than 100 veterans and 350 veteran dependents on campus that it caters to.

A key concern raised by the letter was the amount of student veterans that have dropped out of UCSB since last year, which the letter stated was a quarter of the total student veteran population. In light of this number, the letter also stated that not enough efforts have been made to service student veterans.

“We have failed to educate, protect, and empower student veterans, as a university,” the letter stated.

With such high drop-out rates, Malone said there is a lack of concern for retaining student vets, which he said would not be such an issue for many other underrepresented students.

“There are a lot of communities where it would be simply unacceptable to lose a quarter of the population — that’s huge,” Malone said.

Armistead disputed the accuracy of the statistic by referring to veterans who delivered “statements of intent to register, but then did not enroll.”

“I believe that there was a misunderstanding on the numbers that the students were working with,” she said.

Even with her disagreement on the figures, Armistead said UCSB still needs to provide more to veterans on campus.

“I do believe that we need to do a better job supporting veteran students,” she said. “The goal is to hire a coordinator that focuses on supporting veterans. I believe this focus will help with improving retention.”

Several instances of potentially offensive and thoughtless language from university faculty was the final grievance expressed in the letter to the chancellor. In one instance mentioned in the letter, a tenured professor said of concerns surrounding student veterans and efforts to assist them, “What’s the worst that could happen? Suicide?”

The remark was made in the presence of a student vet, and Olson said such a statement runs contrary to the accepting and welcoming environment the university is supposed to hold for all students.

“We talk about having a climate of respect on campus and appreciating diversity, having respect for all different points of view,” she said. “But, making derogatory comments or dismissive comments about suicide — that wouldn’t be okay to say … in the Greek community in terms of fraternities or sororities. So why would it be okay to make dismissive comments about the veteran community?”

Additionally, the prevalence of suicide in the vet community is as concerning for vets, and should be treated as delicately, as it would be for any other student community, Olson said.

“You wouldn’t say ‘Who cares?’ if a queer person kills themselves, so why is it okay to say ‘Who cares?’ if a veteran kills themselves? It wouldn’t be okay to say that about any of our valued community members.”

Like Olson, Barruga said he found the comments unproductive and careless.

“When you start saying stuff that paints this picture that veterans are damaged goods — they come from lower class, they’re uneducated, just shit like that — it doesn’t help,” Barruga said.

Despite the long list of grievances, Olson provided insight regarding the progress that UCSB administrators have made toward veterans’ issues in the recent past. For example, Olson said Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Michael Young has demonstrated consistent support for student veterans. Similarly, Executive Assistant to Chancellor Yang Diane O’Brien said members of the administration have, in fact, been working diligently to improve the state of affairs for veterans.

“I’m not trying to make any excuses. We’ve been working really hard with Student Affairs to help solve some of their issues,” O’Brien said.

Whether administration officials are indeed striving to improve the state of veteran affairs on campus or are engaged in conscious or unconscious negligence, a significant portion of the veteran segment in the student population continues to face a unique set of challenges. Speaking with many of them, it becomes apparent that some are dissatisfied with their treatment and experiences at UCSB. Still, according to Mondragon, they remain “skilled, responsible and prepared,” with a determination to work for a more equal system on behalf of their fellow veterans.


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Photos Courtesy of Paul Malone

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, April 10 edition of the Daily Nexus.