RICHMOND — Students give many reasons for enrolling at Eastern Kentucky University and continuing their eduction at the Richmond campus or one of the extended campuses.
It’s the academic preparation toward a dream job. It’s the mentoring by faculty and staff. It’s the social opportunities. It’s the support services.
For Benjamin Congleton, it’s all that and much more. “It’s therapy.”
Like many of his some 1,300 fellow military veterans enrolled at Eastern, the former Marine (2004-10) suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) stemming from two eight-month deployments in Iraq with the 3/8 India Company, often in close-quarters combat.
Upon returning to Kentucky, though, the Lexington native found himself “essentially homeless, couch-surfing,” relying on the generosity of friends for food and shelter for a couple of years.
“I was in a real low, low place,” he said.
When friends suggested he consider higher education, Congleton recoiled, initially thinking he “wasn’t smart enough.” Subsequent conversations and therapy sessions with VA counselors, however, raised his confidence and hope, and he enrolled on the Richmond campus in Fall 2012.
After all, with the G.I. Bill covering much of his college expenses, what was there to lose?
“They’re paying me to go to school, so it’s my job right now,” said Congleton, a sophomore wildlife management major and officer in the EKU VETS Club.
Although still struggling occasionally with PTSD, he freely shares his inspirational story in an effort to help others, including a recent presentation at a VAMC conference in Lexington.
Several years and thousands of miles removed now from the battlefield, are there still bad days? Sure.
“But I’m going to school with 1,300 other vets,” Congleton noted, “and if I’m having a bad day, these guys always have my back.”
It’s that support system that has helped EKU earn a No. 1 national ranking two of the past three years from Military Times EDGE Magazine in its “Best for Vets” rankings. Services for veterans and dependents, as part of Operation Veteran Success, include Veterans Bridge to College Success cohort classes, a veterans orientation course, a Vet-2-Vet sponsorship program, an active VETS Club, and a full-time campus-based VA representative to help veterans with their benefits issues, among many other services.
The swap of bullets for books made for quite a transition. “But just being part of a college culture that brings me into an uncomfortable (though entirely different) situation, that’s a good thing,” Congleton said.
“It’s so chill and relaxed here,” he said. “It’s good to see people just enjoying their lives. I’m just focusing on my future and what I want to do.”
Congleton said he is impressed by the empathy shown on campus to him and his fellow veterans as they seek to re-assimilate into campus life and society.
“Every one of my teachers has been awesome,” he said. “They’re great professors and they’re good human beings because they’re sensitive to what I’m going through and how I’m learning.”
Why wildlife management?
“Just because we’re not in the military any more doesn’t mean we have to stop helping people,” Congleton said. “I just like idea of not carrying a gun. I like to be able to get into the woods and help the planet.”