Skip to content Skip to navigation

Student Populations - Veterans

Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs

Message Number: 

Physical disability creates challenges and changes for a veteran similar to other college students with physical differences; however, mental health disabilities for veterans pose unique challenges for practitioners


The posting below looks at approaches to helping veteran students with disabilities.  It is from Chapter 6, Student Populations in  the book Disability in Higher Education – A Social Justice Approach, by Nancy J. Evans, Ellen M. Broido, Kirsten R. Brown  and Autumn K. Wilke. Published by Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright © 2017 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Gender Diversity Is Linked to Research Diversity, Stanford Historian Says


Tomorrow’s Graduate Students and Postdocs

----------- 1,146 ----------

Student Populations - Veterans


Veterans are unique in their presence on college campuses. Veteran status and disability status are highly correlated; Wurster et al. (2013) found that student veterans with combat exposure were “twice as likely to have a documented disability than their non-veteran student peers” (p. 130). Specifically, 1 out of every 5 veterans who saw combat reported a disability, whereas 1 in 10 nonmilitary students reported a disability (Wurster et al., 2013). Physical disability creates challenges and changes for a veteran similar to other college students with physical differences; however, mental health disabilities for veterans pose unique challenges for practitioners. Almost 250,000 recent war veterans who have returned from service have been diagnosed with mental health issues from their combat duty (Ackerman, DiRamio, & Garza Mitchell, 2009; Hoge, Auchterlonie, & Miliken, 2006; J.W. Madaus, Miller, & Vance, 2009; Murphy, 2011). Many traditional ways of treating veterans with disabilities have not been successful, specifically with invisible disabilities (Wood, 2012).

Many veterans are undiagnosed or do not meet the criteria for disability status established by the military (Mikelson, 2014), yet their symptoms include experiencing memory loss, trembling, seizures, sensitivity to light and noise, headaches, insomnia, nightmares, depression, trigger events, anxiety, and, often, a tendency to seek alcohol or drugs. These reported symptoms can impede the progress of a college student, many of whom may have families to care for, are older in age, and have never experienced any type of disability-related concern. The Veterans Administration (VA) has high standards for determining disability status (Mikelson, 2014; U.S. Department of Education, 2008), and these standards are drastically different from those established in education. Mikelson (2014) stated that a “determination by the military or the VA that a veteran did not have a disability … does not necessarily limit a veteran’s ability to independently document disabilities and receive academic adjustments in a postsecondary setting” (p. 86).

The most pressing issues that veterans face relate to their experiences and the exposure to trauma that they have had in their military work. These experiences can create a sense of loneliness and “otherness” for veterans as students on college campuses. In fact, even campuses with well-developed veteran services find that veterans may not seek any type of accommodation or support for their symptoms (Mikelson, 2014). The military mentality of self-reliance (Mikelson, 2014) can be an impediment for those trying to return to a college classroom and succeed in their intended postwar career choices.

The most typical diagnostic label given to veterans is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This label can be a difficult one for soldiers to deal with, and often traditional approaches, such as psychotherapy, may not reach veterans. In addition to the barriers to seeking assistance that veterans may face on college campuses, Mikelson (2014) found that many veterans with less apparent disabilities such as “psychological issues stemming from PTSD may receive no financial assistance from the federal government” (p. 86).

What can disability resource providers do to reach this important cohort of students who have such critical needs for support, not only in their ability to attend college (secure admission, obtain financial assistance) but in their ability to be retained, referred for support, and connected to the appropriate professionals? A study by Vance and Miller (2009) revealed that most veterans on campus were referred to academic resources, disability resources, therapy (or counseling), and veterans affairs offices; however, not all of them used these resources.

Veterans with disabilities may experience additional barriers in accessing resources not faced by their nonveteran peers. These barriers may include the high standards established by the VA for disability status, social norms related to military culture, and stigma. Mikelson (2014) found that veterans often do not understand their rights under the ADA and mistakenly assume that if the VA does not find them eligible for disability benefits, they also are not eligible for educational accommodations. Military culture also “places a high value on self-reliance” (p. 91), and acknowledgement of a disability “may be viewed as a form of weakness” (p. 86). Disability providers cannot use the traditional “wait for the student to disclose” strategies; rather, they need to take an active approach and work closely with other offices supporting veterans (Vance & Miller, 2009). Vance and Miller (2009) suggested that veteran-serving institutions consider hiring a veteran to work in the DRO or to having a joint position in the veteran support office and disability resources.

Veterans may also experience stigma on campus, including from faculty, that can damage the relationship that students with disabilities often need to develop with their faculty. Elliott, Gonzalez, and Larsen (2011) found that one of the most referenced experiences that led to student veterans feeling alienated on campus was upsetting or offensive interaction with professors. Veterans seeking postsecondary education to gain new skills may wish to continue in their work with the military; hence, they may fear being identified with an office that works with students with disabilities. Overcoming the stigma and gaining the trust of veterans may require stronger partnerships between disability resource staff and student veteran organizations on campus, veteran offices (both institutional and in the community), admissions, and orientation programs for returning veterans.

Burnett and Segoria (2009) suggested three levels of collaboration for reaching veteran students with disabilities: (1) collaborations between disability resources offices and Veterans Service Centers, (2) collaboration within organizational structures of the overall academic institution, and (3) collaboration with the community. They suggested that “financial aid, matriculation, student conduct, student health, disability services, veteran services, or any of the myriad of support services may exist in ‘silos’ disconnected from one another, with diminished ability to achieve truly collaborative support of students, especially students with unique needs” (p. 53). Burnett and Segoria contended that most student affairs or institutional support staff have no idea what military life is like and thus miss opportunities to assist or identify specific support needs.

Support for veteran students with disabilities should be multifaceted. Campuses should develop campuswide committees involving key personnel who may interface with veterans, including a member of the DRO. The charge to such committees should be provided by a high-level institutional leader in order to establish the directive that veterans are an institutional priority. A disability-focused mentoring program is another way to improve success for student veterans (DiRamio & Spires, 2009). Peer-to-peer support can be extremely powerful; disabled student veteran mentors can give back to their colleagues and offer them insight into unique challenges and supports that can affect their success in college. In addition, the development and support of disabled veteran student groups can “support academic and social aspects of campus life and provide peer support” (Mikelson, 2014, p. 93). A final suggestion in creating a learning environment that is conducive to optimal academic success for veterans, particularly those with disabilities, is to establish universally designed instructional materials, as suggested in Chapter 10, which would remove barriers to academic access.


Ackerman, R., DiRamio, D., & Garza Mitchell, R.L. (2009). New directions for transitions: Combat veterans as college students. In R. Ackerman & D. DiRamio (Eds.), Creating a veteran-friendly campus: Strategies for transition success (New Directions for Student Services, no. 126, pp. 5-14). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Burnett, S.E., & Segoria, J. (2009). Collaboration for military transition students from combat to college: It takes a community. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 22(1), 53-58.

DiRamio, D., & Spires, M. (2009). Partnering to assist disabled veterans in transition. In R. Ackerman & D. DiRamio (Eds.), Creating a veteran-friendly campus: Strategies for transition and success (New Directions for Student Services, no. 126, pp. 81-88). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Elliott, M., Gonzalez, C., & Larsen, B. (2011). U.S. military veterans transition to college: Combat, PTSD, and alienation on campus. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 48(3), 279-296.

Hoge, C.W., Auchterlonie, J.L., & Milliken, C.S. (2006). Mental health problems, use of mental health services, and attrition from military service after returning from deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Journal of the American Medical Association, 295, 1023-1032.

Madaus, J.W., Miller, W.K., II, & Vance, M.L. (2009). Veterans with disabilities in postsecondary education. Journal of Postsecondary Education, 22(1), 10-17.

Mikelson, J.D. (2014). Wounded warriors. In M.L. Vance, N.E. Lipsitz, & K. Parks (Eds.), Beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act: Inclusive policy and practice for higher education (pp. 85-96). Washington, DC: NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Murray, C., Lombardi, A., Wren, C.T., & Keys, C. (2009). Associations between prior disability-focused training and disability-related attitudes and perceptions among university faculty. Learning Disability Quarterly, 32, 87-102.

U.S. Department of Education. (2008). So you want to go back to school. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

Vance, M.L., & Miller, W.K. (2009). Serving wounded warriors: Current practices in postsecondary education. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 22(1), 18-35.

Wood, D. (2012). Veterans’ college drop-out rate soars. Retrieved from:

Wurster, K.G., Rinaldi, A.P., Woods, T.S., & Ming Liu, W. (2013). First-generation student veterans: Implications of poverty for psychotherapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(2), 127-137.