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Veterans Day 2010

Veterans Day 2010

November 9, 2010

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:

Princeton: 0
Yale: 2
Harvard: 2
Williams: 0

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

Princeton 0
Williams 0
Wellesley No reply
Brown No reply
Yale 2
Harvard 2
Amherst 3
Smith 3
Mount Holyoke 3
Dartmouth 12
Stanford 21
William & Mary 24
Bunker Hill Community College 367

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.

 

 

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