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The Kids Are All Right: Understanding Student Veterans

Perspective of Honor[This is a guest post by Aimee L. Pozorski, an associate professor of English at Central Connecticut State University. The president of the Philip Roth Society, her book on Roth and Trauma is just out with Continuum. Her prior ProfHacker posts focus on responding to criticism and on creativity and academic research. Weirdly, she's not online at all.--@jbj]

The political imperative–absolutely universal in America today–that one “support the troops” has confusing corollaries. First, the requirement to support the troops implies, oddly, that men and women who have risked their lives in unbelievable circumstances might have unusually delicate sensibilities. And second, there’s a fascination with the veteran as traumatized and necessarily wounded, and therefore as either somehow incomplete or as perhaps having a blighted or limited future.

My own work is in contemporary American literature and trauma theory, and I am well aware of representations of the soldier as fractured and prone to nightmares, hallucinations, and flashbacks. It’s not an accident, after all, that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder receives an entry in the DSM in 1980 in response to the psychological effects observed during and after the Vietnam War, and it’s suggestive that Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried has become so universal a touchstone. I am also keenly aware of the needs of my own students who have experienced traumatic events first hand, perhaps unfairly on the lookout for signs of emotional and physiological strain.

But I’m also mindful of the extent to which “the kids are all right” (hat tip to The Who & A.O. Scott’s essay on children in contemporary culture). My own encounters with veterans at school has brought my attention increasingly, not to their stresses and losses only, but also to their remarkable successes. One of our recent graduates, Dario DiBattista has had work featured in the New York Times and on Connecticut Public Radio. The author of a memoir and a book of fiction, he also contributes to Not Alone, an online community for soldiers and their families. A second example, Shane Matthews, who served in the Navy from 2000-2005, was involved in CCSU’s Veterans History Project, which preserves oral histories of soldiers’ experiences.) He graduates from Harvard Law in the spring.

What I’ve been looking for, then, are ways to support veterans that are mindful of the challenges they often face in returning to civilian life that do not reduce them to those challenges. For help, I spoke with Chris Gutierrez, the Veteran’s Affairs Coordinator at my school. He suggested three things:

  • Be considerate about making political statements about the war in class and be mindful of the fact that some students have fought in the war(s) themselves, have lost friends, and have been injured. It is one thing to hold a certain political belief; it is yet another to have been overseas fighting for someone else’s cause.
  • Be flexible, as sometimes student veterans need to go to the VA hospital for routine checks. One thing faculty do not realize is that these regular appointments are set up by the VA Hospital—some are specific meetings to treat PTSD or TBI (traumatic brain injury)—and veterans are required to make those appointments.
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  • Be aware of the fact that some veterans have been on more than one deployment and have seen things and done things that they will never forget. We tend to think about psychological effects of war, but this also has a direct effect on classroom performance. While we are increasingly aware that we need to help soldiers adjust to civilian life, this includes help with adjusting to academic or student life as well.

(Pro tip: Know who your campus’s Veteran’s Affairs Coordinator is! [To be fair, Chris is also a neighbor.])

And, of course, campus is not the only place to find resources. Mashable.com noted last year at this time the ways in which social media can help improve veteran service organizations. The New York Times has also reported a growing outpouring of support for soldiers, revealing that: “The recent outpouring of support, veterans and others said, stems in part from the public embrace of troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of today’s troops return to heroes’ welcomes, often captured by local news media.” To provide one example from my hometown of Green Bay, WI, more than 20,000 attended an event last year at Lambeau Field to show support and gratitude for our troops.

The past decade of war means that former–and current!–members of our military are almost always on campus, sometimes in surprising ways. On Thursday, October 20, my own syllabus allowed me to teach the Benjamin Percy’s short story, “Refresh, Refresh” (2005, 2007). Written by Benjamin Percy, the story considers the effects of the deployment of the Second Battalion, Thirty-fourth Marines in a small town in the northwest. When two boys, whose fathers are also in Iraq, find out that the local bully’s father dies just before Christmas, one leaves a six pack of beer on the boy’s porch with the lament: “Fucking Christmas.” By happy coincidence, on October 21, the New York Times reported Obama’s declaration that the troops in Iraq will be home by Christmas, by the end of the year.

It’s useful to remember, too, that the reasons for veterans’ service varies dramatically. On my campus, Kristina Worley recently wrote movingly that “As a veteran and a former military spouse I can say that the men and women sacrificing their lives for our country do not want war.  … Young men and women, myself included, join the military for a variety of reasons.  For some it’s because they can’t afford college.  Some need to make a living to support their young families.  For some it is a desire to find discipline and direction in their lives.  Some are following a family tradition.  For most there is a sense of duty and a strong desire to serve their country.”

Veterans Day offers us the opportunity to reflect on the diverse experiences of veterans on campus–faculty, staff, students–and those who support their wellbeing, and to thank them for their service; in the case of students who are veterans, it calls us to help them claim the future they have often sacrificed so much to attain.

Photo “Perspective of Honor” by Flickr user Tom Bower / Creative Commons licensed

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