Veterans in the Classroom

April 2, 2012 at 8:13 pm (Uncategorized) ()

I got out of the Army on terminal leave in 2001, which meant I wasn’t officially discharged until 2002.  Even after I was discharged, I still had what’s called an IRR commitment. That’s Inactive Ready Reserve, meaning that it’s possible to get called back up to active duty if your job is needed. That weighed pretty heavy on the minds of everybody who got discharged with less than eight years of active duty in the wake of 9/11 – in fact, in some cases, soldiers who were due to separate at the end of their terms of service got hit with what is called a “stop loss,” meaning that they couldn’t get out when their original contract said they could get out because there was too much demand for their jobs during a crisis period.

What this meant, in part, is that I found myself on a college campus surrounded by lots of students a lot younger than I was who were (sometimes vociferously) protesting “the war.”  It was hard to avoid these conversations in hallways, classrooms, dining halls, and it was especially frustrating for me when I heard really ill-informed opinions about global politics, about oil, or about those in military service.  But I decided it wasn’t too wise for me to go around expressing my opinion or making a spectacle of myself, since it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that I’d end up called back to active duty – and honestly, I didn’t want to get labeled “that army girl.”  I wanted to finish my degree and get on with my new career plans.  I didn’t want to have to speak on behalf of the military, or on behalf of all soldiers or service members, and whenever the fact of my military service came up, I was often expected to do just that.

It was even worse when I started my PhD at Shiny Private Research School.  During my MA program at a large state school, I had a few veteran classmates and eventually a few veteran students.  I even found one veteran faculty member, when I gave a conference paper in Texas on Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.  He was the first veteran faculty member I’d met to date (that I knew of).  The most heartening thing about the entire experience wasn’t even meeting Tim O’Brien, one of my “writing heroes” — it was meeting that faculty member and hearing him say that my argument made sense to him both as a literature professor and as a Vietnam veteran, that I didn’t cheapen or oversimplify the real, lived experiences of combat veterans by “slapping some theory on it.”  He understood what I didn’t have to say out loud – that an awful lot of people writing about war in the “academy” said some awfully one-dimensional things sometimes.

But at PhD School, I had no veteran professors, no veteran classmates, no veteran students.  I mingled with people writing about warfare or soldiering or chivalry at academic conferences, but the conversation was usually couched in safely theoretical terms.  In a class on trauma, I again found myself being asked to speak for all soldiers everywhere, to give “the military perspective.”  I found myself inspected as a curiosity in a classroom in which not one of my classmates had a friend or immediate family member who had served on active duty.  I had students ask me if I’d killed anybody.  I had others show visible disappointment when I said I did not have PTSD.  I had doctors ask me, while checking my lung capacity after a bout of bronchitis, what I thought about military deserters, or the “poverty draft,” or Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, or some aspect of the “conflict.”  On one level, I was at least glad they were asking somebody.  But on another, I sometimes felt like a bug in a jar.

This has all been on my mind for a while, but I bring this up now partially in response to the April 1, 2012 Chronicle of Higher Education piece on Matthew Reilly, “An Ex-Soldier Finds a New Mission.” (I’m not sure linking to it would work – I think it’s premium content.)  But I’ve had a draft blog post on the back burner for almost a year now, a collection of thoughts and observations.  Some are in response to academic pieces I’ve read in which scholars have claimed, for instance, that a romance — or in some cases, chivalry in general — reduces a knight’s meaning and existence to a puddle of blood. Some are in response to popular portrayals of “military ethos” in shows like The Unit and NCIS.  Some are in response to comments and assumptions I’ve faced from people in academia — or even at the mall — who are fairly out of touch with the realities of modern-day military service.  Some are in response to stories like those of William Miller, who died in North Carolina in January during a shoot-out with police, stories which help some people anticipate that every military veteran they meet is a ticking bomb waiting to explode.  In short, I have a lot to say.

But what prompts this particular post is the fact that we in academia are not going to be able to remain largely ignorant about or unaffected by the realities of modern-day veterans forever.  Soldiers, sailors, marines, and air force personnel are using their GI Bill benefits to go back to school after separation from active duty.  They are in our classrooms now.  There will be more of them in our classrooms soon.  As Matt Reilly explains, they haven’t always had the best possible assistance in transitioning from active military duty – a life that some of us have a hard time picturing – to full- or even part-time college life.  And they are transitioning back to a society that has never, in all its history, been so out of touch with what its military does.  I worry some.  Everyone gives lip service to the “support the troops” routine, but as more and more vets return home and leave active duty over the next few years, I worry that a society largely out of touch with military values, military culture, and military experience will ostracize them and fall prey to suspicions that all you have to do is scratch the surface to find, under every combat veteran’s shell of civility, a damaged psycho waiting to be let loose.  In this country, there aren’t a lot of veterans left with experience of earlier wars on anything resembling the scope of what our armed forces have faced over the last ten years.  Veterans don’t return to a society that, as a whole, understands very much of what their lives have been like, of what the military is for  or what it really does.  Soldiers have to be able to rejoin civilian society when they get home, and with a society that is so out of touch with military service and military life, that can be really difficult.

Admiral Mike Mullen spoke in January of 2011, perhaps not eloquently, but certainly truthfully, about this “divide” between “military culture” and “civilian culture.”  I sort of hate those terms because it somehow implies that service members do not come from “civilian culture” or even society.  They do.  And service members can no more be characterized as a group than can American society in general – any overarching characterization is going to be something of a stereotype. I have often said that the military can bring out the best in people.  I have also said it can in some cases bring out the worst.  Service members are human beings, after all, and we humans are heartbreakingly fragile and fallible.  We are also amazingly resilient and courageous.  We are the sum of our contradictions (which is something I wish more academic criticism on war and chivalry would ponder seriously, but the giant chasm between military and civilian “culture” is partly to blame for that, I think.) [*]  Some service members have more, or less, going for them from the outset, as do some civilians.  But in a society in which fewer than 1 percent serve in the military, in which fewer than 8 percent are veterans, I know that this “divide” exists, and nothing Logan Penza says is going to convince me, Matthew Reilly, Heather Sweeney, or any other veteran or military family member who has faced awkward questions and assumptions, otherwise.  I’m not saying this is anybody’s fault. It isn’t.  I’m not saying that shows of support for “the troops” are awful. They aren’t.  I’m just saying that it’s not all about waving flags at baseball games and writing papers on chivalry; there are real human beings coming back into “civilian culture.”  They will be in our classrooms. They will be our coworkers.  Their life experiences are in some ways quite similar to ours, and in others very, very different.  I feel the need to point this out, not just as a veteran and former non-commissioned officer who still, to this day, checks up on how her former soldiers are doing through facebook and email, writes them letters of rec for scholarships, and reminisces with coworkers from “back in the day,” but also as an academic currently at a Shiny Private PhD Research Institution, who wants her current and future colleagues to know that returning vets are very often not your typical undergrad (assuming there is even such a thing).  And they may be “atypical” in ways you aren’t even aware of until you get to know them.

I have a lot more to say. I’ll doubtless get to some more of it at some point.  In the meantime, kudos to Matt Reilly for being part of the solution.

[*] I think Edward Tick has some valuable words on part of what is at the “heart” of this “divide,” and I think this piece is a fair intro to those. At the same time, I want to resist turning any such conversation into some reductive thing about PTSD, or turn soldiers into de facto victims, any more than I want to encourage thinking of them as de facto psychopaths.

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