Living with PTSD at Virginia Tech: The fictional story of a 31-year-old veteran

Reflecting on my own story… again?

I remember college as if it were yesterday. I was a motivated undergraduate student, who sat in the first-row of every class with an attentive look and hung up on every word spoken by my wise professors. I must admit.. for the first day of every class… I was very annoyed. I wanted to learn, not hear the rules of the university explained to me as if I were a 6 year-old headed for the playground. Do we really need the university’s mission and disability policies at the bottom of our syllabus? If we cared, we could look it up.

Oh, how everything has changed.

After four tours serving the United Stated Army in Iraq, I see things differently now. Literally. My sight and hearing are off.

My first class… as me?

I am back on campus, an unfamiliar campus at Virginia Tech, using the post-911 GI bill to fund my next degree.  I review my class schedule only to find my first “class” is at the Math emporium. I get on a bus, feeling crowded by the other students. I walk in to the “empo” as they call it, but I am flashing back to a vivid memory. The six-person computer pods remind me of our six-person tents, each tent lined up only a few feet from the next. I know efficiency when I see it. Am I right? Yeah, totally confirmed by the professor who explains the “red solo cup phenomenon”. Just do everything by yourself and ask for help when you need it. When your red cup goes up on the computer, it means you need help from a math tutor. Well not me, I am not asking for help from some 22-year-old know-it-all wiz kid.

I am a number… and some?

I am not part of the 1%; I’m part of the 79%. The 79% who lost a close friend in battle when attempting to secure a post. And the 63%, who saw dead bodies in the streets. And the 60% who were ambushed on a regular day. Finally, I am part of the 36% who discharged a weapon. These numbers don’t define me, or us, but they are part of my story.

The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) reports many more disturbing statistics related to my pains and perils. This explains the sounds — the clicking, buzzing, and heavy breathing. That clicking sound from the metal beam contracting inside the frame of every door… it sends me back to the same “click” – the trigger being pulled. I hear this sound with every person exiting through a doorway  – in the residence halls, classroom hallway, stairwell, and dining facility exit. At any time, it can send me back and remind me I’m part of the 36%. I can’t connect the dots differently in my head. I want to hear clicking and think about a door, but it’s not that simple. It’s not just clicking, the lights in Mcbryde  Hall take me back. Some of the light fixtures rival me for years spent in service. Instead of letting me retire after a good run (of say, a tour or two), they pushed me to four. I know how the dim light above my head feels, if it were to feel anything at all. But, I can’t feel connected to the object, it bothers me after all. The buzzing is constant. It’s the slightest of hummmm, but never stops. Nobody else but my comrades have ever heard this distinct sound, but I have. It’s the sound of eight electrical generators running all day and night to keep certain medical supplies and organs cooled before a surgery.


In order to truly put yourself into someone else’s shoes, you must attempt to live as if you were him/her. This is the start of my journey. After reviewing some of the research literature on military veterans and experiencing campus with a new lens, I came to write the story above. I sat in absolute darkness in order to hear every sound, listening for every kind of sound on campus that reminded me of a war movie.

I expect my voice to intersect with age, nationality, class, and disability status. I have been continuously schooled since Kindergarten, which is a stark contrast to someone who has spent four years overseas serving in a war. In short, a veteran has different experiences and a few years on me. Although, we are both Americans, I expect to see things very differently. As a Washington, DC native, I know the beliefs and politics of war, not the scars and pains from being on the ground. I also come from an educated family in Northern VA, which contrasts with the rural and lower SES typically exemplifying the average veteran. Finally, I have never had a mental illness or experiences intense trauma while many veterans do. The PTSD and other related abilities will affect my daily life, but I have more to discover. I am not entirely sure of my “voice” yet, but I am still searching. My point: Shane and a veteran are not and will not be the same.

Course integration: Espoused vs. Theory-In-Use (Learning Paradigm)

If our espoused values at Virginia Tech center around the Principles of Community, then our responsibility is to maintain policies and procedures at the university and individual levels to demonstrate our commitment. Unfortunately, our theory-in-use reflects a rigid and inflexible, one-size-fits all model where each student is treated similarly (i.e., equality over equity). Unless of course, you are an honors student who gets more attention and support than the average student. If you are a marginalized group, do something or keep on waiting , because it can take some time before real changes are made.

Course integration: Environmental redesign (Educating by Design)

Did we ever consider using human-centered design principles to maximize environmental change? Probably not. After 4/16, my opinion is that there was one principle in mind: Prevent doors from being chained again. Instead, we needed to search the possibilities rather than simply reacting to an event. If the “clicking” sound of the door is this troubling to a student, how else could we imagine new handles for doors with a design thinking process that also maximized safety in order to meet more needs? Could we ask all types of students to work with an Industrial Design course to redesign aspects of campus for everyone?

Stay tuned. Over and out. 

~ by shanemccarty on February 11, 2014.

3 Responses to “Living with PTSD at Virginia Tech: The fictional story of a 31-year-old veteran”

  1. Shane this is amazing! You have a really great ability to write. It sounds like you really took time to reflect and think about your new voice. The descriptions were very vivid and I felt like I could be put in the shoes of that individual. I am excited to keep hearing about your experience and to learn from your fantastic way of writing while integrating 🙂

  2. Shane, this is great! This is a population that I too have been interested in exploring more. You have really captured some of the daily struggles/experiences that they are having. I also enjoy how you are moving around the campus with your voice, this really makes it come to life for me.

    As I was reading and reflecting on some of the conversations I have been having on this campus, there are some that feel like there is a disconnect between the Corp of Cadets and the Veterans on our campus. I think that it might be interesting to explore if and why this might be happening. If this is occurring, what message does that send to these Veterans?

    I am also really thinking about your final comments about the environmental redesign. Specifically, the comment about designing for human function and safety. I guess I am really questioning if safety should even be in that equation? Block and the other scholars discuss not acting on reaction to the past or to solve problems, but to come together to focus on the possibilities of the future, much like you are doing with Actively Caring for People. So should we be assembling small groups, that are representative of the community that we want, to rethink/redesign elements of this campus. I do not think that it would take a lot of money or energy to make some little changes that might go a long way in creating an inclusive environment. This is not a fully developed idea but maybe something we can all discuss at our next group meeting.

    I am excited to see where you are going to take us next!


  3. Welcome to VT soldier! I’m sorry but I didn’t catch your name or rank, but no worries – you will fit in fine here as a member of the Hokie nation! Don’t worry, most new students are thrown off by the Math Emporium the first time they use it.

    As you continue your studies here at VT, I hope you will continue to share with us your experiences and how they impact the way you navigate higher education. You’ve seen a lot in your short lifespan and many of your fellow classmates would benefit from your insights on the world.

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