Student Spotlight: Mark Stillion

READ THE ENTIRE NOVEMBER 2022 EDITION OF INSIDE EQUAL ACCESS
This article originally appeared in the November 2022 edition of Inside Equal Access.  

Darcy McBrideBy: Darcy McBride


Mark Stillion

In honor of Veterans’ Day, Inside Equal Access interviewed Mark Stillion, a third-semester graduate student in the Clinical Mental Health master’s program, to learn his story and hear about the intersections between being a veteran and having a disability. 

Mark’s Story  

Mark left for boot camp 10 days after he graduated from Sebring McKinley High School.  He served in the Marine Corp from 2006-2010 as a M1A1 Tank Crewman.  He deployed to Iraq twice; the first time to Fallujah and the second to the Syrian border.  Mark identifies his time in Fallujah as where things “took a turn for the worse.” His first deployment was where he experienced combat trauma.   

Mark shared that he chose to contract after his enlistment was over as he felt very out of place at home. He wanted to go back overseas to be back in the combat zone.   When he got out of the Corps and came home, he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Initially the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), to explain the severity of his condition, rated his disability benefits* at 60%, but later raised it to 100%.   

After leaving the Marine Corps, he began working with the Department of Defense as a civilian contractor; he deployed a third time to Baghdad and a fourth time to Afghanistan.  While in Baghdad, he was a guard supervisor at a high-value detainee camp.  He resigned from this job early to go to Afghanistan to be an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) pilot.  This is an unmanned aerial device that flies at about 4000 feet, has cameras and radars on it, looks like a solid white Goodyear Blimp, and is tethered to the ground.  Mark described his job as spying on the enemy and providing surveillance on Army operations, sometimes from miles away.   

Coming Home 

Mark completed his final deployment in December 2012.  Within three or four months, he started to experience symptoms of PTSD.  PTSD symptoms can be different for everyone. Mark experienced hypervigilance, hyperactivity, night terrors, and flashbacks.  He felt like everywhere he went he was always on edge and had to be looking over his shoulder at all times, leading to a fear of being in crowded places.   

Within six months he began experimenting with narcotics to try to numb the emotions he was feeling and get the night terrors to stop.  Prior to this, Mark had never used drugs; this behavior was very out of character for him. He had a spiritual upbringing, including going on mission trips to seven different countries all before graduating high school.  But for the next six years, he lived in Los Angeles as an active substance abuser.   

A series of events led to him getting clean and sober.  He left Los Angeles and went into an inpatient detox facility in Upstate New York.  Upon completion of this program, he flew to Houston, Texas, where he spent a year in inpatient PTSD treatment at the PTSD Foundation of America.  He graduated from this program in December 2019 and moved back to Ohio and resumed his schooling at Kent State. Having completed two years of schooling in California, he was able to pick up where he left off. 

Connecting with CAVS 

Navigating college life can be trying for all students but sometimes more so for a veteran student.  Mark wrote about his experiences in “From Combat to Counseling: A Veteran’s Advocacy Journey.”  He describes himself as being nervous and skeptical as well as having high anxiety about returning to school, but he had made a promise to himself while in treatment in Houston that he would do whatever he could to help other veterans who had gone through the things he did.   

Mark credits the Center for Adult and Veteran Services (CAVS) office for going above and beyond to make him feel as comfortable as possible as an adult learner, a veteran, and a new transfer student. They helped him get his benefits situated, helped him find different programs and classes, and his degree path.  Mark specifically mentioned Josh Rider, Scott Crawford, and Sarah Helmick as being instrumental in going well beyond what they needed to do.   

About six months after coming to Kent State, Mark was asked and immediately accepted an offer to work in the CAVS office.  During his two-years tenure, Mark indicated that he watched this exceptional service happen with all the students who came through CAVS’ doors.   

SAS & Accommodations 

Mark had just as positive of an experience with Student Accessibility Services (SAS).  He learned about SAS while working at CAVS but didn’t pursue academic accommodations until he started grad school.  He found himself struggling more with focus and difficulty while taking tests, like running out of time, due to the coursework in grad school being much more rigorous.   

When asked about why he feels veterans may be hesitant to reach out to offices like SAS, he says that they often don’t want to admit that they have a problem. From his personal experience, it took him nearly a decade to admit he needed assistance. 

While Mark has not needed a great deal of assistance, he said he does need accommodations for testing due to difficultly focusing due to his PTSD.  He described his experience with the SAS department as being very accommodating, helpful, and they were able to listen to him and figure out exactly what he needed to be successful, putting his mind at ease to have the things he needed to be a successful student.    

When asked about why he feels veterans may be hesitant to reach out to offices like SAS, he says that they often don’t want to admit that they have a problem. From his personal experience, it took him nearly a decade to admit he needed assistance.  

To Faculty, Staff, & Students  

What does Mark want Kent State faculty, staff and students to know about veterans and their disabilities?  When a vet comes back to school as an adult learner, they bring with them a lot of experience, sometimes extreme experiences, that most students do not have.  While some of these experiences can be beneficial, there can be others that are triggering.   

To professors, he asks they be aware of veterans in their class. He encourages professors to open the dialogue for veterans and perhaps provide information about resources.  He also asks that professors be mindful of veterans’ needs in the classroom; for example, if they don’t want to sit with their back to the door, understand that.  

He also asks that faculty and students practice patience. Veterans have a lot to contribute, and it may take them some time to feel comfortable enough to bring those things to the surface.  While he has never seen an issue at KSU with people accepting others’ points of view, he encourages understanding of the experiences that the veteran has lived through and how those might contribute to the classroom. 

Resources 

Mark’s life work focuses on helping others get the help they need.  He is living proof that recovery from combat trauma is possible. He highlighted great, sometimes unknown, resources that are free to veterans.  In addition to the PTSD Foundation of America, which is 100% free to any combat veteran, Wild Ops looks for the most at-risk veterans they can find and takes them out into the wilderness to facilitate a faith-based approach to healing.  Each trip, which visits places like mountains in Montana and California, includes eight to ten veterans who open up and share their stories.  Mark is on the leadership team of this organization.   

For the six and half years that he lived in LA, Mark never talked about the military or the things that he did overseas.  He held everything in. Mark believes that the reason he did not talk about his service was while he was overseas he was “required to do things” that he “was not proud of.”  Those things left him with internal scars that will always have, but the difference today is that he does not live in the past.  

Today things from the past do not define who he is.  He feels like other veterans may struggle because the past is still defining them and it’s difficult to admit these things to others, especially those who are not veterans or service members.  Today, due to the work he’s done and the exceptional programs at KSU, Mark is able to talk openly and transparently about his experiences and work toward his life goal of helping other veterans heal from combat trauma. 

*The Veteran Administration assigns you a disability rating based on the severity of your service-connected condition. They use that disability rating to determine how much disability compensation you’ll receive each month, as well as your eligibility for other VA benefits. 

POSTED: Thursday, November 10, 2022 02:45 PM
Updated: Thursday, January 26, 2023 11:31 PM

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