There is an instant connection when one vet meets another. It is a connection that transcends differences in age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and pretty much every other index used to describe the human condition. Combat veterans have a certain credibility with each other that is impossible to duplicate without that shared experience.

In order to make a positive difference in the lives of our veterans, Northwest Vista College has established a Vet-to-Vet Program that aspires to facilitate interactions between every student veteran and at least one veteran who works as a member of the staff, faculty, or administration. In order to capitalize on the natural connection between veterans, two additional components are vital: caring and listening.

Here are two examples of how the connect-care-listen approach works. These stories are about students’ extraordinary efforts to succeed under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

I am an elderly white guy who is no longer struggling with life. In contrast, one of my former students is a young Hispanic female who has major issues with finances and health. But both of us are disabled veterans, which established our instant connection. All that remained was to show her I cared and wanted to listen.

A week before the first test, she came to my office. She was visibly shaken and absolutely terrified. Sadly, math does that to a lot of people. In her case, the combination of math phobia and PTSD was absolutely debilitating. To make matters worse, she contracted MS while on active duty and her medications were interfering with her ability to focus on her work. She proceeded to tell me about the last few years of her life.

Forty-five minutes later, she stopped and said, “Wow, I feel much better. What happened?”

I told her that, although I am not a substitute for a mental health professional, I do know that simply connecting with, caring about, and listening to someone who is troubled can be extremely powerful. It also helps if there is some distance between the two, which imbues the listener with a certain gravitas in the eyes of the talker. In this case, I was someone who survived Vietnam and eventually managed to have a great life. Isn’t that what all of us want?

The next day, she made an A on that first test, and eventually got an A in the course.  Here is the note she turned in with her final exam.

A not from one of Edward Giese's students.
A note from one of Dennis Gittinger’s students. Credit: Courtesy / Dennis Gittinger

She graduated from Northwest Vista College last May and is about to earn her four-year degree.

She recently wrote, “I wish they had a Vet-to-Vet Program at UTSA. There are many veterans who are failing and dropping out.  I have hung in there because I owe it to myself but I also owe it to you, sir! If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have gotten this far nor would I still be in school. Thank you and I know that I can never repay what you have done for me:  the talks, the advice, and the keep-it-up motivation. I can only keep going and make you proud for actually making me realize that we as vets do matter and that there is a rainbow at the end of the storm.”

A few weeks ago, I asked the veterans in my class to stick around for a minute or two after class. I told them that if they or a fellow vet wanted to talk about school, life, PTSD, or anything else, I would love to chat with them.

One veteran took me up on that offer. For an hour, the young man described events that no one should have to experience. Although he still suffers from PTSD, two days after our talk the difference in his demeanor was miraculous. Clearly, this veteran, like many others, is suffering but is exactly where he needs to be: in school.

Here is his response to our talk:

“I just wanted to say thank you again for taking the time to talk with me after class, I can’t accurately express just how much that meant and it speaks volumes to not only your character but integrity as another human being. Knowing that there’s someone around who’s willing to listen and, moreover, understand what’s being said is an incredible reprieve from nearly every other experience I’ve had with any professors in the past.

“Not many, if any, would take the time to listen to another especially when they’re going through a crisis of their own. You showed me a great kindness the other day; not only did you allot me a grandiose amount of your time –every minute of which was appreciated –but you actually listened. You’ve provided insight into my life, future, and how to go about looking at the past in a light that’s anything but dim.”

He included the following poem:

Pain is often seen and heard,
But on occasion what lies beneath transcends the absurd,
Only with a kind ear and open heart,
Can the wounds mend and the healing begin to start.

You showed me that strangers can connect,
A lifetime of friendship isn’t a requirement for being direct,
Human to human, soul to soul,
The only thing that divides us is geography like the once grassy knoll.

Kindness and understanding is where the solution lies,
Never more will conflict decide who lives and dies,
You listened, cared, and offered advice,
Unbeknownst to the world that your help came without a price.

For this I’m thankful, my faith in humanity restored,
For you showed me what it means to be selfless and inwards my soul poured,
Into the graduated cylinder to neither be judged nor weighed,
The value of which is inconsequential to the feeling of dismay.

Empirical fact to the curb,
You showed me the value of admitting the absurd,
As we continue to stand upon the shoulders of giants, Atlas would understand,
Just what it means to find a mentor and take their hand,

Outreached and extended I’m grasping at straws,
But along came a professor who showed neither fangs nor claws,
Just a helping hand and a sympathetic tone,
Everything necessary to remove my burden right down to the bone,

Life feels lighter and for that I thank you,
You’ve given my ship a course and I know the bearing remains true.

-T.D.

Dennis Gittinger

Dennis Gittinger is now in his 45th year with Alamo Colleges. He is a Vietnam veteran, a grandfather of five, and has published mathematics and poetry.