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.
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Day in the Life, April 18
“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.”
To be fair, at Harvard the Kennedy School and Harvard Business School joined in an event for their veterans and student in uniform, Leadership: Lessons from the Front Lines, Veterans Share their Stories.
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.