Cane. Short haircut. Young. Here in a community college, that means “Veteran. Wounded.” I always introduce myself to see what help they need at school. Or perhaps what help I need, because I am so ashamed of what I, the people, have put these veterans through with little result or purpose.
One cane I’ll call Tony I’ve lost altogether. He wasn’t thirty years old. An improvised explosive devise, an IED, in Iraq had caused his wounds, he told me. Brain trauma, which showed in his speech and thinking. The limp was because the IED had broken his neck. In the fog of war, no one had discovered the fracture until he was in a hospital in Germany. Just the effort of walking left him sweating in the lobby. He had his veterans benefits paperwork. A colleague and I made sure he had what he needed and knew the right lines to register. I looked two days later. Tony wasn’t registered. I telephoned. He’d been mugged on the subway. I talked with his father. I offered to drive over and pick Tony up. We couldn’t get Tony back to school. He only wanted to go to community college for job training. Another cane is still in school.
For the sake of these canes, and the coffins, too, how about an assignment for us all this week? Let’s distribute at every meeting and every class we attend this week copies of Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est.” (Click to download, or see below.) Ask two questions. Did Owen write this to train English majors? How can we prevent these scenes from ever happening again?
What is war but the petulant refusal to solve a problem by other means? Who’s accountable for a citizenry able to solve impossible problems? Colleges and universities? My teaching self keeps asking. Any gathering of one or more U.S. academic leaders is quick to proclaim that the U.S. has the finest higher education system in the world. Are we failing in classrooms if our graduates create a world of so many canes and coffins?
Fine to stop here if you’ll agree to read and assign to every student and friend in sight either Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming or Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character,both by Jonathan Shay. A MacArthur Prize winner, Shay is a psychiatrist who works with combat veterans. My clumsy paraphrase of Shay’s argument: Combat is exponentially worse than anyone who hasn’t been there can imagine. We’d have to be crazy to think a society can train and send young people to kill and then expect those same young people to return to civilian life and live happily ever after.
With a trivial yet-4F childhood injury in my already charmed life, I absolved myself of any thought of war or military service when my turn came, in Vietnam. Through circumstance in recent years, I’ve met these Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in my classes and my office every day. Three friends have been at war. Two in Iraq. One in Afghanistan. I just never knew if the three would reply to the next e-mail. Those were friends. I cannot imagine what a family endures.
What little I really know of war I’ve learned over the past three years. Each semester, I’ve had at least one Iraq or Afghanistan veteran in a class or looking for help to apply to a four-year college. I wish, I wish Tony’s story were the exception. Twice I’ve been to events where the Kennedy School and Harvard Business School honor students who are veterans or in uniform. Sitting with these students, twice, I could only wonder why we, the people, were sending these thoughtful, intelligent and dedicated human beings to war. Ever. As a group, these were finer people than I’ve ever encountered in any job I’ve ever had. I can’t imagine any of them making the mistakes that are routine on Wall Street.
I’ve tried asking veterans if they feel that we, the people, truly understand our role in sending troops to war. The soldiers are not the ones to ask. They went because, in the U.S. system of government, we sent them through our representatives in Congress. Those against a war are as responsible as those in favor.
I turned instead to two friends in higher education, Jim Wright, a Marine who just retired as president of Dartmouth, and Linda Bilmes, a Kennedy School professor who is co-author of The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.Wright and James Selbe of the American Council on Education have for years been visiting military hospitals, to help wounded troops go on to college.
“We need to recognize the full costs of war when we agree to take on a war. And caring for the men and women who have served is a part of the cost,” Wright said. He was back from his 19th visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “This is our legacy and our responsibility.”
The Devil's Workshop Highly Selective Veterans Day Survey
Current Undergraduate Veteran Enrollment
Bunker Hill Community College
(c)Inside Higher Ed
Bilmes focused on where colleges and universities may have succeeded in research but failed in education, in teaching future leaders to analyze and to think through a problem. “Before the Iraq war we were told that it could cost $60 billion. The economics adviser, Lawrence Lindsay, was fired for suggesting that the cost could be as high as $200 billion,” Bilmes said. “We now know the war has already cost us $1 trillion and the long-term costs -- once you take veterans health care and disability compensation and economic costs into account -- will exceed $3 trillion. Why wasn't there any discussion of this beforehand?” As reported here in 2007, Bilmes herself suffered for trying to discuss the true costs ahead.
Back to Owen and the “blood shod,” the lame and the blind, “Drunk with fatigue” and the “the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.” The traditional press may agonize over publishing images of the dead and wounded we, the people, sent to war. The Web is ahead of traditional media. In Google Images search “Iraq, wounded” to see the people Wright and Selbe champion. Wilfred Owen would recognize the scenes.
Even with the generous new (It’s about time) G.I. Bill, veterans struggle. I know the enlisted men and women, not the officers from the Kennedy School and HBS, whose readjustment is difficult enough. I wrote here about a former sniper, struggling to stay in school. He is okay for now. Barely. Enrollment in a third-tier state university by a veteran with Ivy League ability is survival, not victory.
IHE has also written about John Around Him, an Oglala Sioux who drove a tank in the Iraq war. John is beginning his second year at Dartmouth. With what I know now about enlisted veterans and the obstacles they face, a miracle is the only explanation I have for John’s success.
Another, wounded in Iraq but no cane, has vanished. He writes better than I do. Juggling school and family and work and slim finances was too much. Something always disrupted our agreement to visit the (heroic) Boston Veterans Center Friday afternoons. Part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Vet Centers, championed by Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury, focus on combat veterans. (See Trudeau’s citations here.) Remember that most enlisted men and women started out in poverty and then return, carrying the trauma of war, to that same struggle. Poverty is difficult enough without PTSD.
Let’s hand out Owen’s poem this week and see what we can discover.
DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind. Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime ... Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.
War is with us in community college. Students from Eritrea. Ethiopia. Lebanon. The Sudan. Somalia. The drug wars in Colombia. The Congo. Afghanistan. Iraq. Bunker Hill Community College this semester had 388 U.S. military veterans. The unofficial counts I’ve seen make that the most of any institution in Massachusetts – including the universities and all their graduate schools. BHCC Veterans of all Nations is the name of the student organization. All who have lived through war may join, and members include students from every African conflict, all sides in the Middle East and the Colombian drug wars.
One afternoon in March, I was visiting a seminar pulled together this semester to address the many needs of these men and women. That afternoon, we were taking an inventory of what was missing so far in the college’s offerings for them, services and courses. Algebra review. More about transferring to four-year colleges. More help with Veterans Affairs’ red tape. Careers beyond law enforcement and corrections.
"Do you think Tim O’Brien would come visit?” one student asked. The class had read a few chapters from The Things They Carried, by the Vietnam veteran/author.
I’d try, I said. This was on a Wednesday. I explained that such authors usually had complex schedules. A visit probably couldn’t happen this semester. Then, at home that evening, my e-mail inbox had an announcement from the Harvard Book Store. Tim O’Brien was coming in three weeks on the 20th anniversary tour of The Things They Carried. I set off smiling, dialing, Googling, e-mailing. By Sunday, O’Brien had agreed, gladly, to visit the BHCC veterans while in town.
The Devil's Workshop Highly Selective Veterans' Day Survey
Current Undergraduate Veteran Enrollment
Bunker Hill Community College
With 388 veterans eager to see an author of so many books revered by faculty and students anyway, the scene at the reading was a mob. I heard that a Vietnamese student had spoken with O'Brien afterward and that she and O'Brien had ended up embracing, both in tears. I tracked down the student. She didn't have enough money to buy one of O'Brien's books, I learned. Tim O'Brien sent a copy, signed to her.
In the meantime, Mount Holyoke College put this student on the waiting list. I suggested that she write up her experience with O'Brien and that we send that to Mount Holyoke, to keep the persistence on. Mount Holyoke did accept the student. Her essay is below (reprinted with her permission). All I'll say as a teaser is that her grandfather, who recently died, was a Viet Cong general.
Reflection by Tam Nguyen May 10, 2010
The author Tim O’Brien came to Bunker Hill on March 25th for an event hosted by the Veterans Club. The event drew so many people that the A Lounge, where it took place, became overcrowded. People were standing wherever they could find a spot -- at tables, near the podium, and they even filled the hallway leading to the lounge. Despite the mass of people, the audience was silent. As I came into the room, I was drawn into an invisible circle that trapped me, and the force drawing the audience and me in was Tim O’Brien. He was casually dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and his favorite baseball cap. He spoke slowly without too much volume. Every word he uttered was clear, concise, factual, and devoid of excess emotion. Each word, however, trapped the audience in an emotion, and besides me, I saw a few others shedding tears from his presentation.
I joined the audience in the middle of the event, after finishing up at work. When I came, O’Brien was discussing “The Man I Killed,” one of the most famous stories in his novel The Things They Carried. “The Man I Killed” describes O’Brien’s reaction when he looked at the dead body of an enemy he just killed. O’Brien looked at the man’s wounds and imagined different stories about him. He was a young boy with a typical life who wished every day that the Americans would leave, so he would not have to join the war. The story, at every moment it was discussed, evoked many personal feelings and memories from me.
It’s commonly said that war distorts all the values of humanity. War only allows action, which is that a man kills another man, so he will not be killed himself. But, to learn this deconstruction of humanity from a soldier who was put in a situation where it was either kill or be killed, brings the cruelty of war to a new dimension. This extreme situation pushes a human into a dead-end; it traps him or her in a corner where the only choice is either to give up on conscience, or to die. How come this type of situation dominates war, when people all across the world are taught not to kill? We understand that when a soldier kills another human, he has a good reason to do so: he is trying to protect himself and survive.
However, war causes combatants to lose sight of the value of humanity. The act of killing another human crosses a line which devalues the life of another human being. Once the line is crossed, what the soldiers see and feel becomes the hidden part of war that only a soldier, not an outsider, can tell. And I think the most of this hidden part has been covered in the darkness of war trauma, which Vietnamese and American soldiers all experienced. At least, that is what I found out from my family members and friends.
My family has many members who were devoted to the war. They fought and killed to survive and contribute to a Vietnamese victory. They were honored and received many medals and rewards which they should be proud of. Yet, besides their accomplishments, I have never heard a specific war story vividly describing a battle.
For example, my uncle often used words like “we fought,” “we won,” and “we lost.” He never told stories about what actually happened: who he met, how he fought, or what he thought about the war. In fact, my uncle and the millions of participants, real people, are hidden behind characters. There is a key emotion that is always missing from history texts, novels, and movies, seemingly because no one really knows the truth or they just never tell. I wanted to get the answer from my uncle, but he usually stayed quiet and immersed himself in deep thought whenever I asked him about the battles he participated in. He would never tell me anything, and I could feel that the war created a secret circle around him which would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Another person that the war will bother for eternity is my friend Arthur. He is an American Vietnam veteran, who is devoted to obtaining an education and helping his fellow veterans. After leaving the war, he suffered for many years. In spite of the trauma plaguing Arthur, he fights the pain with optimism, which has gotten him through all his days.
One day, I asked him about his time in Vietnam. He smiled and joked about the “lousy” food he ate and the deep forests he had been through. But just like my uncle, he would not talk about the enemies he faced and how he fought. Again, the war remains hidden! How amazing it is that two individuals from two opposite cultures, who fought on opposing sides in a horrible war, share the same feelings?
Throughout the event, these experiences and connections were running through my head, and the stories were capturing me in the invisible circle. I wondered why, when Tim O’Brien was speaking about his own experiences, I couldn’t get away from the similarities to my own experiences. The presentation came to an end, and I decided to stay afterward. I joined the line, which was meant for Tim O’Brien to sign his books, even though I didn’t have one of his books and couldn’t buy one, either. I just thought that I had to talk to him.
While I was waiting in line, memories again encircled me, and many thoughts came into my mind. I kept thinking about my grandfather who passed away. He was a General in the American War, and if all the soldiers I know keep the war hidden, my grandfather -- who had more war stories than anyone in my family -- also had more secrets as well. Then my mind wandered to my high school literature teacher who lost her whole family in the war, and was disabled by a bomb in 1972. I also recalled a taxi driver whom I met last year, who was laughing when he told me that the Vietnam War cost him his two brothers. And right before I got to Tim O’Brien, I thought about my friend Arthur, who came back with a hidden part of his life which he barely shares with others. I wanted to tell Tim O’Brien all I knew and to express to him all my emotions. But, once I came up to him all I could say was my name and that with all that I have heard, we, both Vietnamese and Americans, share the same feelings. The moment was unforgettable. We hugged each other, and just like the shared emotions, we both cried.
I was drawn to Tim O’Brien by an invisible circle of war experiences and memories, probably because I somehow felt its existence by my own experiences and memories. He was the first one to open up and share such intensive stories of the war, and gave me the emotions that I have been searching for. I cried and cried as I felt connected to O’Brien and the soldiers on both sides. But above all, it was the greater understanding of my uncle, my grandfather and Arthur that I appreciated the most. We know that nothing can be changed about the war. Time can never be turned back. There are wounds to be healed and others that won’t disappear. However, we move on and find peace of mind by knowing that we at least share the same feelings with someone, somewhere.
This fall, colleges and universities will welcome an increasing number of veterans to campus, thanks in part to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Among other provisions, the bill created the Yellow Ribbon Program, which provides dollar-for-dollar matching funds to private institutions offering tuition scholarships to veterans who have served at least 36 months of active duty since September 10, 2001. To date, the benefits have supported more than 300,000 veterans with more than $2 billion in funding, and some 1,100 colleges and universities have elected to participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program.
Why participate? There are many reasons, but here are two that were at the forefront of our thinking at George Washington University when we were in the first wave of institutions to sign up for the Yellow Ribbon Program. First and most obvious, all American institutions have a responsibility to ensure that those who have risked all for the common good have an opportunity to develop their talents and contribute to civilian life at the highest levels they can attain. What may be less fully appreciated is the degree to which veterans carry with them skills and experiences, as well as a level of maturity and a clarity of purpose, that can immeasurably enrich our campuses and the communities around them.
We at George Washington are not alone in counting veterans among our most distinguished alumni. Colleges and universities all stand to benefit from the presence on their campuses of individuals with a proven capacity to lead and inspire others, sometimes in situations of extreme complexity and dire emergency. For that reason, the influx of active-duty veterans made possible by the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides an opportunity unprecedented in recent decades.
But then the question arises: how does a college or university manage that influx – and not just accommodate it, but do so in a way that will bring the greatest benefits to the veterans and the institution alike? At George Washington, we have had to answer those questions in real time. We supported 161 veterans under the Yellow Ribbon Program this past academic year and anticipate supporting more than 230 in 2010-11. In the process, we have discovered that integrating student veterans successfully into college life requires a good deal more than tuition assistance. Here is some of what we have learned, to a large extent by listening carefully to veterans themselves:
First, admissions. A crucial starting point is the recognition that most veterans apply while still on active duty, which means that, among other challenges, they are subject to deployment and other kinds of relocation during the application process and the period between applying and matriculating. The first requirement of a serious approach to recruiting veterans, consequently, is to make sure that a member of the admissions staff, preferably with military experience, is dedicated to this effort and can help these applicants negotiate the challenges as they arise. For example, dedicated admissions staff can translate military jargon, calculate credit hours from military training that can transfer to a student veteran’s degree program, and help complete the application process if a prospective student veteran is stationed abroad.
Nor do the challenges cease with matriculation. Most veterans arrive nowadays with credits from courses they have taken online while still in the services; as a result, many arrive not as freshmen but as sophomores or juniors. But, unlike students who have transferred from other residential colleges or universities, many lack the familiarity with collegiate life that traditional transfer students are expected to have. Even those who enroll as freshmen bring with them a different frame of reference from that of their younger peers, most of whom come straight from high school. Hence the value of a special orientation program that addresses veterans’ particular transitional needs, such as financial guidance and counseling and disability services.
The structure of their benefits under the new GI Bill, generous as those are, further complicates the transition of veterans from military service to college. They frequently have to work through complex eligibility requirements, and, because of a lag between when their bills come due and when they receive their benefits, they may need bridge funding to cover housing and other expenses at the start of their college experience.
Guided, once again, by advice from student veterans themselves, we have developed a number of dedicated resources to meet their needs. Driving our efforts is a campuswide advisory committee, which includes an elected student veteran representative and ensures that administrators across the university are aware of what is happening in the veteran community, that these students’ needs are addressed, and that efforts are not duplicated. We have created the GW Student Veteran Services Office, led by a full-time coordinator who, among other roles, helps student veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder receive the assistance they need to minimize the impact of those conditions on their studies. And we have established a veteran services website that provides benefits checklists, news updates, and lists of relevant resources.
But there is another dimension to the presence of veterans on campus. In addition to their unique skills and life experiences, many veterans bring with them a strong desire to “continue the mission” by engaging in various forms of public service, including outreach to fellow veterans both within and beyond the walls of their college or university. At George Washington, veterans have created their own student organization; GW Vets not only organizes community service activities but engages in advocacy on behalf of veterans both locally and nationally. In fact, it was thanks to the advocacy of GW Vets that we joined the Yellow Ribbon program as strongly and early as we did. This September 11, student veterans will play a key role in our Freshman Day of Service, leading non-veteran students in the renovation of a veterans' retirement home. That is just one example of the many opportunities traditional students will have this academic year to learn from their veteran peers.
One of the best ways, in short, in which an institution can help integrate veterans into campus life is by supporting their aspirations to serve and lead, drawing on them for the best advice on how to do so.
Steven Knapp is president of George Washington University.
Despite a veto threat from President Bush and with the presumptive Republican candidate to replace him in absentia, the U.S. Senate on Thursday approved legislation that would dramatically enhance educational benefits for veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it did so, supporters of the measure were quick to note, by a margin (75-22) that could comfortably override the president's veto. The legislation will now go back to the House, which passed a parallel bill last month but failed to muster a similar veto-proof margin.