We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barracks, most remarkable like you.
--“Tommy,” Rudyard Kipling, 1892
Picture it: Marine Corps boot camp, Parris Island, summer, circa 1965.
Five weeks into the program, two Marine recruits find themselves on mess duty, assigned to the pot shack, a small detached building out behind the mess hall proper. For the first time since arriving on the island, these two are out from under the watchful eyes of drill instructors and able to talk freely to one another. Up until then, a strict code of silence had been enforced, with recruits allowed to speak only to their drill instructors, and even then, only when spoken to.
As they dutifully scrub a never-ending series of pots large enough to cook missionaries in, they take advantage of their new-found freedom to compare notes about how they are enjoying their stay in this semi-tropical paradise.
“I’m glad I’m going to be out of here next week!” one of the recruits remarks, his voice echoing out from the bottom of the pot he was leaning into.
“Whadaya mean?” the other asks, reminding his comrade in suds that they had three weeks to go until graduation.
“I know, but I’m only 16, and I turned myself in last week. “ [The minimum enlistment age has always been 17, with a parent’s consent; 18-year-olds can enlist with or without a parent’s blessing.]
“They said they’d have me out within a couple weeks,” he adds, “in time to begin my senior year back at my old high school.” “I got in so much trouble and was generally such a pain in the ass,” he explains, “that my mother finally offered to lie about my age and sign the papers if I would go in the service. “So that’s what I did.”
“You know,” he admits, “I used to think school was the worst thing that ever happened to me. But when I get back in that classroom, they’re going to have to beat me out with a stick!”
I was the other recruit, the one who was of age and who had no Get-Out-of-Parris-Island-Free card. I’ve often wished I had made a note of that underage recruit’s name and hometown. He was almost a high school drop-out, and I would bet that he went on to become a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or some other sort of professional.
I too would emerge from the Marine Corps reborn as a serious student, but my road to Damascus lasted about four years and included a side trip to Vietnam. As one who has spent a good bit of his subsequent life in academic circles, I have often wished that we could treat many of today’s high-school juniors to summer camp at Parris Island. If nothing else, these campers would certainly come back with the material for wondrous essays on how they spent their summer vacations. But, like my young friend in the pot shack, many would come back with a new-found appreciation for the opportunity to get an education.
Would that it were possible! But the good news is that today’s colleges and universities are soon to enjoy a great influx of academically born-again, highly motivated students. War, as I can personally attest, has a way of reordering ones priorities and values, and today’s veterans will soon have access to the best education benefits available since the World War II GI Bill. This new GI Bill, in fact, is even more generous than its “Good War” predecessor. Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as any veteran who just manages to get discharged honorably, will not only get tuition, fees, books, and a living allowance. They will also be able to transfer their educational benefits to their spouses or children. Either way, we in academe stand to gain. The question is, are we really ready to welcome today’s veterans into our midst?
We do, in fact, have an unfortunate history to overcome. Not everyone in America’s ivory towers was eager to roll out the red carpet for that first wave of government subsidized veterans. The prevailing fear was that the democratization of higher education would inevitably result in the debasement of higher education. Academic standards have indeed slipped since World War II but for a whole host of cultural and societal reasons and not simply as a result of our efforts to accommodate returning GI's.
By the time I started college in the late ‘60s, the snobbery of the late ‘40s seemed to have been largely forgotten, but some older professors still seemed to feel the need to apologize for their predecessors. My own adviser, for instance, upon learning that I had been in Vietnam, hastened to assure me that he had been very much in favor of welcoming veterans to campus and that he felt we had “a lot to contribute.” His reassurance seemed gratuitous at the time. Vietnam veterans were facing a very different sort of suspicion. We were being repeatedly portrayed in the media as psychologically maimed and socially debilitated and, therefore, potentially dangerous. I cannot say that I directly and knowingly suffered from this stigma, but then again, I stopped volunteering the information that I had been in Vietnam.
Of course, popular support for the military is much stronger now than it was then, and today’s veterans need not fear being viewed as objects of suspicion on campus. Or do they?
I have been concerned recently in finding promotional literature on upcoming symposia that seem to link the need for “Threat Assessment” or “Behavior Intervention” teams with “serving” or “integrating” returning veterans. What next?
Should we expect to hear administrators sounding the alarm? “The veterans are coming, the veterans are coming! Lock up the women and the livestock!” Frankly, I worry that this is how certain right-wing critics of academe are going to interpret the linkage of threat assessment and veterans.
In all fairness, I have no doubt that these symposia are worthwhile, and I will take it on faith that the organizers are not viewing a potential influx of veterans as a threat to campus safety and simply want to be prepared to offer non-academic psychological counseling to any veteran who may need and want it. Most faculty and administrators, I would hope, realize that, of all the horrific campus shootings we have heard about in recent years, not one of the perpetrators was a military veteran.
This is not to dispute the need itself. In light of recent events, any campus that does not have an appropriately qualified team poised to intervene in cases of troubling or threatening behavior is putting itself at great risk. But to connect this need to the anticipated influx of veterans could prove to be a public relations nightmare and could actually provoke some of the very behavior we seek to avoid. One of the paradoxes of military history is that countries that have prepared for war have generally gotten it. Individual human nature can be equally paradoxical. People who are unjustly treated as objects of suspicion, out of anger and resentment, sometimes act out in ways that justify that suspicion. But that is the worst case scenario. Rambo was only a figment of novelist David Morrell’s imagination. The great majority of veteran students who feel mistrusted and misjudged will not act our violently; they will simply drop out.
This is likewise not to deny that many of today’s combat veterans suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or that campuses should not make counseling and other support services available to them. I can personally attest that a little combat goes a long way. But, again, the great majority of PTSD sufferers are not disruptive or violent and should not be viewed as such until or unless they provide reasonable cause. As for offering counseling, the advice of many a wise piano teacher regarding when to start children on lessons would seem to apply here as well: “when they ask for them.”
How then should we view and treat today’s returning veterans? A little sensitivity training may be in order. I am not a psychologist or a counselor myself, but as a veteran, I think I can I can offer five pieces of common sense advice that would go a long way toward striking the right tone as a veteran-friendly school.
First, treat veterans as you would any other student. Do not single them out for special attention. Individualized mailings or special meetings to explain the V.A.’s policies and the school’s certification requirements may be in order, but guard against any suggestion that veterans will need any more special attention than any of today’s students who may or may not be academically or culturally prepared for college. Remember that the average veteran has proven his or her ability to adapt to strange surroundings and to navigate his or her way through a more complicated bureaucracy than the average academic could endure.
Second, do not thank veterans you don’t know for their service. Most people who have served had mixed motives for enlisting in the first place and complicated feelings about the experience of having served, especially in combat. If my own post-Vietnam experience is any indication -- and I think it is -- it takes many veterans a long time to sort out how they feel about what they’ve been through and whether it was worthwhile -- especially if the country remains divided about whether the cause was noble and the war necessary. To thank a veteran you don’t know for his or her service is to put that veteran on the spot. It assumes an ideological and political kinship that may or may not exist. I know it makes me uncomfortable. Keep in mind as well that some will doubt your sincerity, wondering if what you’re really saying is, “I’m glad you went so that I [or my son or daughter] didn’t have to go.” Wait until you know a veteran well -- including how he or she really feels about having served -- before deciding to offer your thanks.
Third, do not shy away from any political or social issues appropriate to your class. While they may have conformed to military discipline long enough and well enough to earn honorable discharges, veterans are not monolithic in their attitudes, ideals, and values. Expect them to be just as open-minded and diverse in their opinions and viewpoints as any other group of today’s students. Conversely, expect them to resent unfounded assumptions about their politics and personal beliefs.
By the same token, if you have never been in the military, do not assume that you really know what it is like and what it is all about. Even more important, reserve judgment about whether academe really is the superior institution. Having been both a military officer and an academic, I have learned two things: First, academics are no more open-minded than anyone else; they are just better at articulating and defending their prejudices. Second, I have known Marine colonels who are more collegial and collaborative than commanding, and I have known college presidents who are more commanding than collegial and collaborative. Do not approach today’s veterans as “people who were lost and now are found.”
Fourth, when it comes to what they did in the war, don’t ask; wait for them to decide if and when they want to tell. The experience of combat is largely ineffable. It cannot be adequately expressed or shared with people who have not experienced it, and most who have are conflicted about it. If they do choose to share, do not judge. Remember that those who have not been there do not share the same frame of reference. Hemingway had a phrase for it: “a way you’ll never be.” Remember as well that a pretentious moral empathy can be just as infuriating as an uninformed disapproval. In general, veterans prefer to let other veterans do the listening. They know they’ll understand.
Finally, expect veterans to do well. Just as the expectation that someone will behave badly can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, greeting someone with the expectation that he or she will excel can achieve the desired result. That same undergraduate adviser who puzzled me with his patronizing comment about supporting the first G.I. Bill more than redeemed himself later by soliciting my comments in class when we were discussing a story set in a World War II training camp, Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith.” I was able to clarify some of the military practices and customs on which the story turns, and my professor stoked my self-confidence by telling the class that “he speaks from an interesting perspective; he was in the military himself.”
Such made-to-order opportunities to bring a particular student in, admittedly, do not come along every day. And, with older students in general, instructors always need to guard against appearing to be patronizing or condescending. But, in general, we should expect veterans to be as highly motivated and appreciative of getting a second chance at an education as was that underage Marine back in the pot shack.
Edward F. Palm, a Vietnam veteran and a retired Marine officer, is dean of social sciences and humanities at Olympic College, in Bremerton, Washington.