Bergen Community College Offers Class to Vets About Experiences in War

October 20, 2016 | Education, Health Care

By Erin Delmore

“It says, ‘War makes you dead.’ So, that I found very interesting because it’s not, and I wasn’t thinking the actually dead. I was thinking about coming home mentally dead. Dead to the world,” said Peter James Biddiscombe, a specialist at the U.S. Army Reserves.

Biddiscombe is a nursing major at Bergen Community College but it’s his English class that’s aiding his recovery. He suffered two IED explosions while serving with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.

“I was actually very afraid of coming back to school because I had a brain injury. I had a very hard time remembering things. The reading actually helped me,” he said.

It took six months of recovery for Biddiscombe to even be able to write his own last name. Now, he’s learning to live with trauma through literature.

“The reading was a little difficult, though, honestly,” he said. “It’s interesting to see how literature can really evoke emotions out from you. It got me to think about things I haven’t thought about for years, which is both good and bad. But I think more so good, honestly.”

This class at Bergen Community College uses short stories, poems and film to talk about what it’s like to experience war — something all too real for students like Biddiscombe.

“I think it ends up being a kind of group therapy for the veterans,” said Mark Altschuler, an English professor at Bergen Community College. “I don’t know if that’s the correct word, but what they’ll say is that the literature will bring them to talk about their stories in ways that they never talked about before.”

The class focuses on literature from the Vietnam War, but instructors say it’s not hard to build a bridge between those experiences and the realities faced by men and women returning from overseas conflict today.

“There’s a common kind of ethos and a value system that we all hold and I think we’ve all taken with us from the military so that we do unite and we help one another. It becomes a therapeutic milieu because the student gets to tell their story and now is also acting as a peer educator to other students who have not had the benefit of that experience,” said BCC Professor and Counselor John Giaimo.

“It kind of made me think of what you were talking about like, your first story that you like, got shot at three times, I think that represents it,” said psychology student Laura Fernandez.

Fernandez already took the class. She says she liked how inclusive Altschuler made it feel.

She said, “I showed up with a different idea about the story that he’d ever heard before, and he loved it. Like, he didn’t put it down, even if he doesn’t quite agree — you never know if he does or doesn’t — that’s still, like, awesome. He’s still accepting. He still thinks it’s valid. So I think that’s really valuable.”

The class’ instructors said they hope to show there are more ways to help veterans than through traditional therapy and that reaching students through storytelling is universal.