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Veterans in a classroom

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I’ll start with a sledgehammer for this annual report on the tiny number of undergraduate veterans at the self-proclaimed top colleges in the nation, in the world. I have shredded drafts in reasonable tones. For 17 years, nothing has worked to persuade these colleges, except Syracuse and Columbia Universities, to look out for the three million other people’s children that we, the people, have sent to war. I mean an effort equal to the college’s standing and endowment.

More than 10 years of writing this annual report have shown me patterns. Again this year, I wrote weeks of drafts trying to take a constructive, mature tone to describe this tragic, tragic, ridiculous, shameful situation. Again, a few days before the deadline, with Inside Higher Ed wondering if I am here at all, I erupt in anger. A rational tone is irresponsible.

This year, I’ll try a new word, “sledgehammer,” to demand that selective colleges, starting with my Williams and Yale, stop making excuses. Fill the dormitories with the other people’s children we have sent to war.

I have rational context for my anger. About two million of the three million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have a disability. According to the Brown (51 undergraduate veterans) Cost of Wars Project, 7,057 U.S. service members have died in post–Sept. 11 war operations. Brown also reports 30,177 deaths by suicide among U.S. service members and veterans of post–Sept. 11 wars. The number of homeless veterans is unstable—say, 33,000. We, the people, sent these men and women on this path to war and home. These wars began 20 years ago.

What’s 189?

The total number of undergraduate veterans this fall at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Williams and Amherst. Compare those five most, most highly selective colleges to Bunker Hill Community College, where I worked with veterans for many years. Bunker Hill has 246 veterans this fall.

Again: Bunker Hill Community College has 246 veterans this fall. Williams has 12.

My unanswered, again, question: How could the self-proclaimed top colleges in the nation, in the world, educate graduates who can solve problems without sending other people’s children to war? I keep asking college presidents. None will reply on this question.

The colleges that respond to this survey (not all of them do—see the table below) focus on the enrollment questions, not my questions about what graduates have learned. “Does anything in the educations these eminent institutions provide consider the effects on the world of endless wars?”

A bunch of misguided Yale alumni unable to evaluate primary sources invaded Iraq on false evidence. Again, from the Brown Costs of War project, that invasion was 20 years and $8 trillion ago. Skip this column. Read the Brown link. How did this happen in a nation with so many educated leaders?

The deficiencies in these most highly selective educations are piling up. It’s a good time to reflect on the outcomes in U.S. higher education over at least the past 75 years.

Coming Next, a Bit of Good News

An invasion of Iraq based on what evidence? Global warming—that we can keep pumping gasoline forever with no consequence. The destruction of the public education systems that sent most of the white baby boomers to these most highly selective colleges. Over 17 years on the undergraduate veterans’ issue, I cannot stir any much reflection by classmates, alumni, presidents or trustees of my platinum-spoon colleges, Williams and Yale.

Among my contemporaries at my schools and elsewhere, my veterans’ work is seen as a joke, as an embarrassment, as a nuisance, as tasks by someone who can’t get a real job in private equity or hedge funds. I am the only one of my peers I know who has met Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I know one Gold Star family. That’s more than anyone I know from my schools.

This is no matter how many times I describe trying (and failing) to help an Iraq-wounded Marine sobbing in my windowless basement office at Bunker Hill Community College. Two more of his buddies from his unit and Iraq and from Walter Reed had died by suicide. This veteran, whom we can’t find now, was 30 years old. Twenty of his buddies had died by suicide. He had lost count of how many had tried to harm themselves. At 30, how many of us knew 20 friends who had died by suicide, by any cause?

More perspective: the colleges surveyed have a total undergraduate enrollment of about 200,000. Total undergraduate veterans these colleges reported this fall? Again, I lose reasonable tones. We the people send three million other people’s children to war; two million are wounded, 7,057 died and 30,177 later died by suicide. Students, faculty, trustees, presidents who know they are among the most privileged in the world can say with straight faces that making room for a few dozen, if any, veterans is sufficient?

I’ll apply the writing credo “Show, don’t tell.” Consider Doonesbury from last summer. Iraq and Afghanistan may be long gone from the news. Not for the veterans. The young man is Toggle, who came home from the wars in 2010 with a traumatic brain injury. Toggle was headed for community college, and Garry Trudeau wrote me to ask what veterans could expect at community college. I enrolled Toggle at Bunker Hill.

Doonesbury comic panel about veterans
Credit: Garry Trudeau

Printed with permission of Garry Trudeau

Toggle did not find his way to the selective colleges surveyed here. An emergency room doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital said late nights through dawn bring in the Toggles of the world and Vietnam veterans, too, whose memories still prevent sleep. “Most just want to talk about what they remember,” my Mass General friend told me.

Skip this column. Read this July 2023 Washington Post column by Trudeau, about the help Toggle and his buddies have a hard time finding.

Visit your Congressional delegation.

What war in Syria? “Show, don’t tell.”

Click here and read about the horrifying wounds to U.S. troops firing thousands of artillery rounds, now, into Syria. Who authorized this?

The story notes that the U.S. troops in Syria only fire the artillery. The troops do not see the explosions, the damage, the death. Imagining the damage haunts these men and women, these troops.

Visit your congressional delegation.

The biggest sledgehammer, “Show, don’t tell,” about thinking before sending other people’s children to war, is the 2013 New York Times story of President Obama and Army Ranger Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg, a soldier severely wounded in Afghanistan. Obama met the healthy Remsburg in 2009 at the 65th anniversary of D-Day at Omaha Beach. Later, Obama was visiting the wounded troops at the National Naval Medical Center. Obama saw on the wall a photo of himself and Remsburg at Omaha Beach. Remsburg was the wounded soldier in the room Obama was visiting.

The third photo is Obama visiting Remsburg, who was using a walker, at home in Phoenix.

“The third time was two weeks ago (2013) in a private visit in Phoenix, where Sergeant Remsburg did something that neither Mr. Obama nor military doctors would once have predicted: he stood up and saluted his commander in chief.

“There was more. Grasping his walker, ‘Cory took a step, then another, and then another,’ Mr. Obama said later, ‘all the way across the room.’”

Back to the sledgehammer, to a hope from this obscure column. Consider Sergeant Remsburg’s wounds, his life since he was a healthy young man greeting President Obama on Omaha Beach. We, the people, sent Sergeant Remsburg to Afghanistan. What did Cory Remsburg’s war solve that was worth these injuries? Are these campuses with so few veterans considering Cory Remsburg or those like him?

Back to the beginning, my failing question: How could the self-proclaimed top colleges in the nation, in the world, educate citizens who can solve problems without sending other people’s children to war?

Amherst College858559131614119
Bowdoin College56
Brown U1211101217172126364151
Bryn Mawr College00004020020
California Inst. of Tech.0
Carleton College0003000
Columbia U School of General Studiesn/a360408375422443477441430313277
Colorado College300000
Cornell U11224273062827572
Dartmouth College14172325363433262011
Duke U11201272233
Georgetown U25745865644142261325
Harvard U43681724495971
Johns Hopkins U231930171825235
Massachusetts Inst. of Tech.201410111211968
Middlebury College0
Mount Holyoke College0242000100
Northwestern U1419111515516
Oberlin College000
Pomona College11135634576
Princeton U11115121823224058
Rice U100000111
Smith College001232101011
Stanford U1016212330263719
Swarthmore College002
Syracuse U124135152169
Trinity College10440039
U of Chicago1533557686
U of Pennsylvania3535141515195
University of Rochester56
Vanderbilt U163287
Vassar College3032343229302221
Washington U in St. Louis20211312610324422
Wellesley College2210211
Wesleyan U211223038393529262422
Williams College0013555471312
Yale U2341112101516253340
Blank cells indicate no response from the institution.

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