Veterans at private colleges that charge more than the new $17,500 tuition cap for benefits would receive funds through graduation, but those paying out-of-state tuition at public institutions would still face higher costs.
Proposal: That Harvard, Yale and Princeton and Williams College (No. 1 liberal arts college in U.S. News) commit to enrolling by next fall as many undergraduate veterans as varsity football players.
Some fall scores -- not football. Undergraduate veteran enrollment at those colleges this fall:
Educational question: With the nation at war, can these institutions possibly provide an education if those who fought in the wars are not in the classrooms, too? Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose critical-thinking skills needed a refresher, is a Princeton man.
Who am I to comment? I found myself teaching these men and women at Bunker Hill Community College. Listening to their stories, I discovered how much I had to learn. Jim Wright, then-president of Dartmouth, a Marine, and a champion of education for veterans, told me to read Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming by Jonathan Shay, M.D., an expert in veterans and combat trauma. I did. Some friends read the books, too. We got to work. That was three years ago.
Request: Go read these books. Today.
I learned that what men and women experience in war is at least 10 times worse than anything I could have imagined. I admit that I had not even come close to taking seriously my responsibility, as a citizen, in sending men and women to war. And I wonder still how my own education taught me so little. Shay makes clear that war is killing and maiming others, being killed or maimed, or watching friends be killed and maimed.
Read Bob Woodward’s new book, and see how war for many leaders is a matter of memos, meetings and Powerpoint. (The book does describe a visit by Obama to Dover Air Force Base to be with families of those killed in the wars.) At community college, war is young men with canes.
The Devil’s Workshop Annual Most Highly SelectiveSurvey of Undergraduate Veteran Enrollment
William & Mary
Bunker Hill Community College
The “0” institutions. At Princeton a press spokeswoman told me that President Shirley Tilghman was traveling on business and unavailable. I appealed – cell phone, e-mail? No. Instead, a “doth protest too much” 381-word reply that even challenged my intelligence: “You may know that the thesis of your e-mail seems based on somewhat flawed reasoning (I don't have a diamond, so therefore I don't like diamonds?).”
Here’s the most troubling statement from Princeton:
“As for admission and enrollment of undergraduates in general, Princeton considers applicants as individuals, and we make admission decisions on a case-by-case basis in our efforts to build a well-rounded class that is diverse by a variety of measures. We seek students of high intellectual achievement who have the potential to be leaders in whatever fields they may pursue after their studies at Princeton.”
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 256,391 individuals are in school on the GI Bill this fall, 2010. I couldn’t find how many are undergraduates. Still, not one worthy of Princeton? Or Williams? Would Princeton or Williams start a year without, say, any quarterbacks?
A policy question: Should institutions that choose to enroll few to no undergraduate veterans still be eligible for federal aid?
As far as I can tell, college presidents and trustees are accountable to no one, certainly not obscure columnists. Who could demand a real answer? What would President Tilghman say to America’s sanest and most rigorous inquisitors, Jon Stewart (graduate of the College of William and Mary, 24 undergraduate veterans) and Stephen Colbert, the character, (Dartmouth, 12 undergraduate veterans)?
Twenty-four? My reporting for a quip in a column found a story. More on William & Mary later.
I tried the other zero, Williams College. (I attended Williams. I have asked trustees about this often.) This time, on the record, I asked Greg Avis, chair of the Williams Board of Trustees, why does Williams continue to ignore veterans?
“We have not 'ignored' the issue. We will be looking at the topic as part of a scheduled overall review of our admissions policies and procedures.
“That said, it is my understanding that Williams, because of location, a student body that is virtually entirely 18-22 years old, our liberal arts focus, and a lack of graduate programs, is not particularly attractive to veterans. We, of course, would welcome qualified, interested veterans to the College.”
Who would think anyone with a Williams education would swallow that one? “It is my understanding” as an analytic framework? The U.S. is a nation at war. The matter of veterans is just a routine admissions question?
In refreshing contrast to Williams’s passivity stands William & Mary. Not a pure liberal arts college, I know, but closer to Williams than to a state university. Brian Whitson, the spokesman, took no swipes at me and was happy to reply. Twenty-four undergraduate veterans. A communications objective of the College, Whitson explained, is “to make sure prospective students who are capable of succeeding here are aware of the opportunities at William & Mary.” Click here for more of the story.
And William & Mary does not stop with undergraduates. On Veteran’s Day, Whitson told me, William & Mary will name the Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic. At the clinic, law students assist veterans with filing claims for disability compensation with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
What’s more, undergraduate veteran enrollment has grown as the number of veterans seeking an education has grown. “The number over the past three years has been 14 in 2008, 26 in 2009, and 24 in 2010. Also, another factor has been the Post 9-11 G.I. benefits. Since that was introduced in fall 2009, the number of overall (including undergraduate and graduate students) veterans has nearly tripled at William & Mary.”
Young men with canes. An update. I’ve reported here before that at a community college young men with canes are often wounded veterans. The one with the brain trauma from an Improvised Explosive Device (I.E.D.) who said he was mugged on the MBTA on the way home from trying to register for classes? I can’t find him. The other I met in the coffee line? An I.E.D. did who-knows-what to his leg. Planned surgery for further repairs went awry last summer, and he’s not back in school this semester.
A colleague and I offered to do independent studies. The new G.I. Bill, a great improvement by any measure, only pays for full-time students. No luck for a wounded part-time student. This young man has family and a place to live. I can see, though, how quick the journey from going to college to homelessness could be. If I’d drafted the new G.I. Bill, I wouldn’t have foreseen this one either. A curious and hardworking student in my class last spring isn’t back, and I can’t find him either. He had wanted a career in the Army. He was a turret gunner in a Humvee. The Humvee hit an I.E.D. and landed on top of him. He always wanted more to read. He loved “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats.
I don’t know a word for the undergraduate situation at Princeton and Williams other than “disgraceful.” The other low numbers aren’t much better. Yale won’t come visit Bunker Hill to recruit students of any sort, let alone veterans. President Rick Levin and the Yale Corporation have ignored my inquiries before. I didn’t bother this time. Harvard I’ll thank for having two BHCC veterans in the Research Experience for Undergraduates program last summer.
Consider this yourself. Read Odysseus in America and Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay. Read Operation Homecoming, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families, an NEA project. No one understands the trial of veterans better than the Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau. Read The Long Road Home and The War Within, about the one-time quarterback, BD, who lost a leg in Iraq. Read Doonesbury’s Signature Wound and Rocking TBI. (Proceeds from these books benefit Fisher House, where families can stay while visiting hospitalized veterans.)
Before Veterans Day 2011, let’s see what we can do for my proposal: that Harvard, Yale and Princeton and Williams College commit to enrolling by next fall as many undergraduate veterans as varsity football players.
One more to read to my students this week, one I recommend to any who think I am exaggerating about Jonathan Shay’s books -- Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen.
Dulce Et Decorum Est
By Wilfred Owen
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 disappointed shells 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 floundering 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.
Three weeks ago, a student, a veteran of two tours in Iraq, a sniper who had already dropped out once a year ago when three of his buddies in Iraq died in one week, handed in an essay that terrified me. “Suicide Prevention,” I discovered right away, is one of the top information requests from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs home page. Before thinking about writing a column about military veterans at community colleges, I made sure the student, whom I’ll call The Student, is OK. He is. The Student gave me permission to tell the story but without his name.
The VA reports that 1.6 million men and women have so far served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly 500,000 veterans of those wars now collect benefits from the current GI Bill. Because veterans may collect different benefits within the GI Bill, the numbers overlap. About half seem to be in community colleges and trade schools. With my own 4-F draft status due to a trivial childhood injury, I dodged and evaded any responsible thought about Vietnam or military service. Sitting in my adequate but small, windowless office at Bunker Hill Community College, where I am an adjunct professor of English with other odd jobs, I have no idea how the world looks to a combat veteran.
I asked for help in assessing The Student’s writings. The help came. From friends, from the veterans’ adviser downstairs, from two officers who responded at once by phone and e-mail from Iraq, from an Afghanistan veteran now a professor, from an ex-Marine who is an Ivy League college president and another ex-Marine at the American Council on Education. A novelist and Grammy Award winning writer; and a friend who is a national advocate against homelessness, where veterans are a growth segment. I found no published advice for what must be thousands of educators in my shoes. My 15 pages of notes and replies will have to become an elegant narrative another day. All affirmed The Student, as a person and as a student and as a writer. I sent the advice to The Student. I’ll cut to what fits in a column.
“Veterans are not victims. The United States has volunteer armed forces. We all chose to join. There are other ways of paying for college,” said Kevin Kit Parker, an Afghanistan veteran, a captain in the Army Reserves, and associate professor of biomedical engineering at Harvard. One senior Harvard spokesman had told me earlier in the day that the admissions and financial aid office did not track veteran status and, therefore, he couldn’t help. Another, though, introduced me to Parker, who seeks out and welcomes veterans to work in his lab.
“The U.S. Army is one of the most highly trained and effective organizations in the world, but less than 1 percent of the population are in the armed services, so most people don’t even know anyone in the services and don’t understand,” Parker said. “These young men and women are put into situations of moral complexity that no human being should ever have to face, let alone a 19- or 20- year-old. We put them there,” Parker said. “Whatever you think of the war, try to understand and respect their pride in having served.”
As a matter of teaching, Parker said, remember that veterans have faced and been through assignments and situations very different from traditional students. Veterans may approach a problem differently. Use their perspectives as part of a discussion. Parker said professors should let the veterans know that their knowledge and experience are worth something. “If there are veterans in your class, just acknowledge that,” Parker said. “When you can, draw them into the discussion. Ask, ‘You have been in some situations very different from the rest of the class. How does this issue look to you?’ ” Best of all, Parker said, “I want to meet your student. I want have lunch with him.” That’s under way.
Here’s a piece of the essay The Student handed in to me:
Often I find myself full of doubt and fear, this new life of choices is not suitable for a soldier. In the military I knew I was among the best and often outshined my peers. Now in a classroom I no longer shine but struggle; in my civilian job as a servant, I no longer lead but take orders and often swallow my pride. I feel beaten and outdone by my lack of intelligence. Most people my age have long finished college and have established careers. A writing professor once told me when he suggested I write for a summer, “you have a choice not to do this, you can tell me to stop any time”; and that is the problem, I have a choice. I have a choice to quit school and become a fireman and or police officer; a safer place in which I will not be challenged by others’ abilities. I have regressed to that little boy running scared in the schoolyard. Except this time, I don’t know how to be strong.
In a rifle range you shoot endless amount of times to perfect your aim. Although it looks simple, there is immense science that accompanies the simple task of “pulling” the trigger. For example, you do not pull the trigger when shooting, you gently squeeze it. The squeezing of the trigger has to be synchronized with your breathing to ensure complete stillness of the body. Other factors like humidity, altitude, distance and type of ammunition come into play as well. College is the rifle range of my new life; except I can’t shoot and miss this time. The cross hairs in my scope are no longer clear and I am too unsure when or even if to take the shot.
There’s room for two replies from Iraq. One came from a friend, Lt. Col. Rich Morales, commander of a tank battalion. Rich was a White House Fellow. He’s on his fifth or sixth tour, including Gulf I.
Wick: It’s 4:10 AM and this response may get better with more coffee…. He is struggling with a range of emotions that everyone who comes back from this mess works through, I do – every time. Its not a lack of self esteem, it’s that this war and any war immerses you. So your senses, your thoughts, your instincts are changed by fight or flight or because it’s just a long time to be on(sic on, not ‘in’?) a place that can best be described as another planet (where people are trying to kill you and you seek to avoid killing someone and living with that scar too)… What I think is that he has these feelings, and perhaps has amplified them because it’s a writing class. He has worked in descriptions, examples that surely would alarm a normal person (the rifle thing is odd, unless you do this for a living and then it’s merely using an example he knows. and if he’s a sniper, he knows it well). Is he worried about keeping up academically, sure… This young man undoubtedly has issues, but I think they are issues of fitting in. We and the teams we build are all about fitting in and being part of something. He needs to understand that he is and that it’s just a bit harder to define in an academic setting. Clearly he wants to be there.
And from a lieutenant I’ve never met. A friend sent my note to him, as he was returning to serve in Iraq. The lieutenant called me twice from Iraq, to make sure my student was all right.
By the way, the writing is good not merely because it is well written, but because it successfully describes exactly what my Soldiers and I feel. We take on responsiblity. We take a stand when no one else will. (Volunteering to go back to Iraq is a case in point). …And Yes, many of them feel that their military cheated them out of a successful life in college. I do tell them that they are incorrect, as the military have given them experience; experience that a typical college grad can't compete with. Still, this writing does capture many of the feelings of many of my Soldiers. --Matt
And one from the novelist and Grammy-winning writer, Tom Piazza –
You don't need to edit this. You need to tell him why it is so f---ing good. That's all. One or two little grammar glitches here or there to fix, but the thing is structured very well, and interestingly, in fact. The reason to ask for the details/facts (in only a sentence or two) is not voyeurism; it is to fulfill a demand that the piece itself is making. He will understand that. It is really pretty f-ing remarkable. Thank you so much for sharing it with me. wow.
A couple of days later, Matt, the lieutenant, put me back on track to just doing my job:
You are asking whether merely supporting those who serve by ensuring their potential is met ... is that merely enough??? I would say absolutely as you are doing more than most people are doing. Merely talking to somewhere and supporting them does go along way in terms of rehabilitation.
Addendum: In helping a Bunker Hill Iraq veteran who will attend Dartmouth College this fall, I had communicated with James Wright, president of Dartmouth. Wright, an ex-Marine, has been visiting wounded veterans in Washington hospitals with James Selbe, another ex-Marine leading veterans’ issues for the American Council on Education. ACE last month had a two-day summit, “Serving Those Who Serve: Higher Education and America’s Veterans (see related essay). Dartmouth has wounded veterans attending. Wright sent me to find Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming by Jonathan Shay, Max Cleland, and John McCain; as well as Shay’s other book, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. Higher education is beginning to reach out to veterans, including announcement this week of the Ohio GI Promise.
The public institutions are in the lead. I rounded up the usual suspects from the privates, to see if any were following Jim Wright’s lead.
From Princeton: “The University has no records of current American students who are veterans of wars. While we have students who receive veterans benefits, they do so as dependents of service members, rather than as service members who served in the military. Our office of financial aid hasn't processed any GI Bill benefits in recent memory (dating back the past two decades approximately).” Yale has not yet replied. Yale president Rick Levin and Joel Podolny, Dean of the School of Management, about a year ago, ignored my several queries asking if Yale was recognizing alumni or students who were veterans. From Williams: “As far as we know, we do not have any veterans of the Iraq war enrolled at Williams. We do have Iraq veterans working on staff -- one who saw three tours of duty.” Harvard began with: “I checked with our undergraduate admissions office and learned that we do not ask about or track applicants' military status, and therefore don't know how many veterans may be enrolled in Harvard College, or may have graduated from here.”
Wick Sloane, who writes The Devil’s Workshop, won a fellowship to write about community colleges from the Hechinger Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. This is the fourth of his reports from that work. He is also the author of the just published “Common Sense,” a pamphlet asking if the bachelor’s degree is obsolete. Download the pamphlet free here.