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Students in military uniforms talk with civilian students

Veterans’ studies courses offer insight into the history and culture of veterans, which students can apply to careers that require interaction with veterans.

Carlos Franco/Getty Images

After two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army, Travis Martin enrolled at Kentucky’s Somerset Community College in 2007. While he was trying to build his future as a civilian, pervasive stereotypes about veterans followed him onto campus.

Some of his classmates asked him if he’d ever killed anyone in combat.

“It’s surprising how many people think it’s OK to ask if you’ve taken someone’s life,” said Martin, co-founder and former director of the Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. “War isn’t a thing veterans want more of. Almost universally, veterans think it’s terrible. Somehow that gets mistranslated.”

Dismantling stereotypes about veterans and bringing nuance and agency to their history and experiences is what motivated Martin to help launch the emerging academic field of veterans’ studies more than a decade ago.

It’s now gaining traction as an academic discipline at a time when colleges and universities are increasingly turning their recruitment efforts toward veterans of the armed services amid a declining population of traditional-age college students. Arizona State University is the latest institution to invest in expanding the field; it created a veterans’ studies certificate program in 2020, which quickly attracted students, and it is scheduled to launch a bachelor’s degree program in applied military and veterans’ studies when the spring semester starts next week.

According to data from Ithaka S+R, a higher education research group, 610,009 veterans used their GI Bill benefits to pay for college in 2021, the most recent year for which data are available.

Many of those student veterans, however, have different perspectives than typical 18-year-olds. This was true for Martin, whose wartime experiences left him with a “mixed bag of skills and scars.” While military life taught him organization and discipline—two skills that translate to academic success—it also earned him a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and other medical issues that made for a difficult transition from soldier to college student.

But he got help healing those scars, graduated with a bachelor’s degree and went on to graduate school. Through his work in veterans’ studies, Martin likes to remind others that although PTSD is commonly associated with veterans, it’s not as prevalent as popular culture suggests—just 7 percent of veterans will have PTSD in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

While in graduate school, Martin got a job teaching a college orientation course for student veterans, and many of them shared similar challenges adjusting to college life and battling preconceived notions about their experiences.

“They had pressing needs. They had lives—marriages and kids and all these things they had to figure out while going to school,” Martin said. “Again and again, they’d talk about the hardships of military service, the traumas they’d been through, why they joined and, most importantly, what they wanted other people to hear.”

The students represented a diverse population, and as such, their experiences varied.

When Martin surveyed the academic landscape, there were disciplines dedicated to the study of numerous other cultures and groups, such as Appalachian studies, Black studies and gender studies, but none that promoted the critical scholarly inquiry of the veteran identity.

Martin co-founded the Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies at EKU in 2010 during a period when a surge of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans was enrolling in college. (He left EKU last year to teach suicide intervention workshops.) It was the first program of its kind where students can earn a certificate or minor in the subject and learn about “the often unique experiences and challenges faced by veterans of military service,” according to its website.

A handful of other institutions, including the University of California, Irvine; the University of Missouri at St. Louis; and St. Leo University in Florida, have since started veterans’ studies programs.

Virginia Tech is also home to the Veterans in Society initiative, which was established a couple of years after EKU’s program. It has hosted numerous conferences and encourages scholarly exploration of veterans’ issues.

James Dubinsky, an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech and co-director of the initiative, said it was created as the result of discussions about the difficulties veterans had transitioning to college after serving in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

“We started talking broadly about what it means to serve in the military and what it means to be a veteran. We realized that the kind of questions we were asking were the same kind of questions people asked in the ’60s about what it means to be an African American or in the ’70s when women were gaining more of their rights and women’s studies started.”

Although the percentage of veterans living in the United States is declining—from 18 percent in 1980 to 6 percent in 2022—Dubinsky, who served in the Army for nearly 30 years, said that’s all the more reason to study veterans as a specific group.

“The lack of understanding of veterans is increasing as the population decreases,” he said. “There is a need to understand us, because we play a role in the history and politics of this country and always have. We are an entity that has significant differences we need to tease out and understand to bridge that gap.”

Not Just for Vets

While other identity-based academic fields have long faced skepticism from academics in other fields and some politicians questioning the political motives of such majors, Martin noticed veterans’ studies hasn’t received the same level of pushback.

“I don’t know why, because a lot of my ideas are brought from gender identity politics. I look at intersectionality and class politics when I think about veterans,” he said, suggesting that the patriotism associated with military service may shield the emerging field from outside criticism.

Veterans’ studies courses are intended for veteran and nonveteran students alike.

“There is a mistaken notion that you have to be a vet to get this degree. We’re trying to get past that,” said Karen Hannel, an assistant professor who helped launch what she believes to be the nation’s first veterans’ studies bachelor’s degree program at St. Leo University in 2021.

Throughout the four-year program, students are exposed to the history and culture of veterans—from ancient wars to modern-day combat—and challenged to think of veterans beyond popular culture’s binary of either a wounded warrior or a hero.

“The whole purpose of this degree is to expand understanding so that workplaces don’t feel they’re doing a veteran a favor by hiring them,” said Hannel, who noted that veterans are some of her strongest students. “This degree, like other identity studies, has the possibility of literally making the world a better place by helping us to understand what’s going on with each other.”

In addition to strengthening research and writing skills, the courses equip students for a variety of civilian jobs that interact with veterans, such as those in the medical field, policymaking and government services. The Department of Defense, for instance, is the federal government’s largest agency and employs approximately 950,000 civilian personnel, according to its website.

Kenneth Klumb is a 61-year-old veteran who is slated to graduate from St. Leo’s veterans’ studies program next fall. But it’s not his first attempt at earning a college degree. He joined the Army before finishing high school and felt isolated when he tried to pursue college in the 1980s after his service.

“One day I was a paratrooper, and then I was on a huge college campus,” he recalled. “It didn’t go very well.”

Klumb left college and re-enlisted in the Army. He served in the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, then as a reservist in the National Guard, which deployed him to Kuwait in 2010, until he retired from the military in 2013.

Klumb then worked as a post service officer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, informing veterans of their benefits and helping them file compensation and disability claims with the VA.

“It’s really rewarding, but I was running into roadblocks,” said Klumb, who wants to inform policy affecting veterans. “I saw people with degrees, and they were the ones being able to change things, while I was the one just helping veterans record their forms.”

That realization pushed him to return to college. When he heard about the new veterans’ studies bachelor’s program at St. Leo, he recognized it as an opportunity to advance his own career while also helping other veterans.

“To go into a career with a veterans’ studies degree is to advocate for veterans, to understand veterans and to communicate the need and find solutions for their issues—drug addiction, suicide and transition out of the military.”

Enhancing professional interactions with veterans is what inspired Samuel Lewis to pursue a certificate and minor in veterans’ studies at EKU along with psychology and mental health counseling degrees. He has not served in the military, but he lives in a region with a sizable veteran population and wants to be prepared to better understand his future patients who have military backgrounds.

“Even history classes covering military subjects really don’t cover them from a human aspect. They talk about it almost as if the soldiers involved are chess pieces being moved across the battlefield,” said Lewis, who also produces Service to Service, a podcast that started out as a class project exploring military and veteran culture, research on veterans, and stories of individual veterans, among other things. “Veterans’ studies lets you zoom in on the chess pieces and understand veterans as a whole.”

The field is small, but it’s steadily gaining momentum as a recognized academic discipline. The peer-reviewed Journal of Veterans Studies published its first article in 2016 and is now supported by the nonprofit Veterans Studies Association, which was founded in 2019 and sponsors the annual Veterans in Society conference.

“A scholarly organization, in addition to a scholarly journal, helps to legitimize something to be an academic field, just like having college programs,” said Mariana Grohowski, founder and editor of the Journal of Veterans Studies, whose research focuses on gender and the military. “My hope for the field is that schools continue to see the need for these classes—majors, minors and certificates.”

Grohowski, who also teaches veterans’ studies courses at UC Irvine, said she’d like to see more students without military connections enroll in veterans’ studies courses.

“Whether we like to admit it or not, civilian society really doesn’t care about the military or veterans very much,” she said. “We live in such a privileged society that we don’t have to. But our veterans and military is something all Americans should care about.”

ASU Launches Degree Program

Arizona State University, which hosted the Veterans in Society conference in 2022, in 2018 used a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to promote dialogue about the military through film screenings and guest speakers. ASU administrators then created the veterans’ studies certificate program, and more than 1,000 students have taken courses in the subject over the past four years.

And this month, ASU will launch its bachelor’s degree program in applied military and veterans’ studies. The majority of the coursework will be offered online, which is an intentional effort to reach more students—especially veterans who may be pursuing higher education from afar.

The university first advertised the new program last November, and so far 125 students are enrolled in introductory veterans’ studies courses this semester. Four have been accepted to the new major, though the program is still taking applications for an academic session that starts in March.

The program emphasizes practical applications of the material and will require students to complete a curated portfolio of courses and experiential learning components based on one of five applied areas. The areas include public leadership service and policy; counseling and counseling psychology for military and veterans; principles of health care for military, veterans and their families; leadership in military and veteran organizations; and military and veterans from a historical perspective.

“There is a social responsibility to prepare those public servants who are serving those who serve,” said Manuel Aviles-Santiago, associate dean of academic programs and curricular innovation at ASU’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, where the veterans’ studies program will be based.

While a disproportionate number of veterans (many with access to GI Bill money) have attended—and sometimes been swindled by—for-profit colleges, William Hubbard, vice president for veterans and military policy at Veterans Education Success, said it’s encouraging that the academic field of veterans’ studies is taking root at reputable public and nonprofit institutions.

“I would not want to see somebody who wants to go into that field and be an advocate or study these issues get sucked into a bad program” at a for-profit, Hubbard said. “Then we would just lose that person, and that would be a shame.”

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