Our Greatest Asset: Student Veterans

Posted: January 26, 2015 by Kristin Kelly

There is no substitute for life experience. The older we professors get, the more we know this statement is true. So it is helpful to remember that walking amongst us and sitting in our classes every day are men and women who may have lived, as one student veteran put it, "what seems like several lifetimes" before they even darken the door of our English 1101 classes. In my observation, student veterans are our greatest university asset. Our veterans bring to all four campuses tremendous life experience, discipline, candor, and character. They have used diverse talents to achieve a common goal. They remind us of what sacrifice means: they have already met goals that reach beyond mere self-gratification.

Recently, I asked some student vets if they would like to comment anonymously on the question "What do you wish your professors knew about student veterans?" Male and female vets responded quickly and decisively, with many of the early responders indicating that they really didn't want to be treated any differently than other students, certainly not "coddled" or singled out. But as the number of responses mounted, so did another sentiment that is helpful for any teacher but especially for teachers of combat veterans: Know that you do not know. As much as Hollywood would like to make civilians think that we occasional movie-goers have a pretty good understanding of what goes on in soldiers' heads, unless we have fought in a combat zone, we will not ultimately understand their fog of war. And that's okay. Soldiers often indicate that they fight so that we do not need to have a daily, intimate understanding of the machinations of war.

One student simply asked that we check our judgment at the classroom door:

Professors should mostly try initially to forget about or relinquish all thought of judgment or predisposition of the military. What I mean is that just because I have served does not make me an alcoholic or a heavy smoker or a drug addict or any other addict Hollywood and media portrays. We're not mindless zombies doing what we are told we can and do think often too much. We are not baby killers or brutes looking to fight at every corner (in fact most are rather docile). We are not all conservative republicans who hate the Islamic nation in fact we are generally accepting of others. We are citizens who signed a contract in hopes of preserving peace to those who chose not to or can't become soldiers themselves and nothing more. What bothers me the most is judgment. People often think that as a soldier we are crazy and deluded sometimes even brainwashed but I assure you we are not. We are not less intelligent than others and that's not why we joined the military (because we were too dumb to go to college). As you see most of the issues deal with already preconceived notions and judgment.

This student vet's advice is simple to abide by: remember that those who serve in the military are above all individuals. Their philosophies are not monolithic. Just as we see our civilian students as individuals with complex ideologies and histories, we should see our military students as similarly complex individuals. One Marine told me recently that he joined for his own personal reasons—not necessarily the ones we might assume such as overwhelming patriotism or deep concern about terrorism. Thus, as in most aspects of life, quick assumptions may be detrimental. We will make more progress as students and professors without resorting to narrow media portrayals of the men and women who defend us.

However, in the midst of veterans' voices suggesting that professors not make "a big deal" about their service, some sent in reminders that many costs of war will remain hidden in the classroom. One veteran wrote in to let professors know that hearing loss often accompanies military service. This veteran wrote that at first he did not want anyone to know about his hearing problem; it was only after the repeated urging of his wife that he sought help. Another vet mentioned the extensive nerve damage she sustained in country. None of her injuries are visible.

Although our contemporary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in a high number of amputations and other highly visible injuries as the result of IED (Improvised Explosive Device) attacks, many "invisible" wounds such as nerve damage and severe back pain, TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) persist as well. It is only through the conduit of a solid, respectful relationship that student veterans will feel comfortable addressing their specific concerns with professors. One student wrote in that many veterans have learned what their triggers of high distress are and, consequently, how to avoid them in the midst of the school day. This veteran added that sometimes, when a student does experience a trigger, the accompanying intense emotions may not be revealed in the classroom, for the veteran has been trained to control his or her stress response. The intense emotions may be saved up for later when the veteran is home.
If a professor and student have built a solid relationship, both parties may offer the other a heads-up communication: the professor may indicate that some footage from a particular documentary (images of dead bodies, especially those of children) may be highly distressing, and/or a student may let a professor know that he or she may wish to avoid certain images. On the other hand, some student veterans may seek out classes wholly dedicated to the discussion and communal witness of war. The crucial part of the equation is that student veterans have some control over this processing and witnessing if they choose.

In essence, the student veteran transitioning from the war zone to the classroom is experiencing a change in culture. The military culture does not value group discussion and speaking out of turn in country: it can't—the stakes are too high. The college classroom, however, is full of opportunities to speak one's mind and question existing power structures. Moving seamlessly from one culture to the other can be challenging. One student wrote on behalf of her brother that he was used to keeping his head down and not being "pegged" for any reason. He found it challenging to move to a culture in which professors valued those who spoke out as the true "class participants." Another student wrote in to say that group work with students half his age could cause discomfort because he didn't really understand what the students wanted from him. At the same time, a student wrote in to say that he had noticed that university students seemed to be "trending older," and that trend was welcome.

Much of the advice from student vets boils down to one simple premise: maintain mutual respect. These students may not want to be singled out to discuss the "Army's view" on Afghanistan or the "military view" of Congressional races. Many of the military veterans I know are not highly political. They signed a contract to protect Americans from threats both foreign and domestic, and that is what they did. In the course of their service, they have learned about our world in so many direct and powerful ways. They bring the world to our campus. Student veterans are the greatest asset of the University of North Georgia.

UNG Resources & Further Reading

Establishing Connection...