From Combat to Campus

An art professor creates a sound installation of the voices of veterans.
By Margaret Bellafiore

Soldiers are returning from war to college. For several years I did not even notice them. That seems to be the way they like it. The 336 veterans who are now students on the Bridgewater State University campus in Massachusetts are almost invisible. By my calculation, the number of veterans at BSU has increased by 65 percent since 2009–10.

The number of veterans enrolled nationally is hard to find. Data from the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics identify nearly 924,000 veterans as “total education program beneficiaries” for 2011. These statistics combine many categories, including dependents and survivors. The US Department of Veterans Affairs notes that veterans often use their benefits in more than one state, making it difficult to get a sum total of state statistics.

The veterans are in my art classes, however. I wanted to know what they had to say.

I had to reorient myself with society again. I felt like I was an outcast.—Greg R.

It definitely was an intense experience to go from being in a combat situation to being in a classroom. You go from being surrounded by people in your platoon to people in a classroom, and I think the biggest thing that really hit me was . . . that it felt like nobody knew or acted as if there was a war going on. There are so [many] things going on overseas, there are so many soldiers [who] are dying, becoming injured, and there are more statistics with veterans with PTSD and suicide. And these things [are] going on every day.—Mike A.

Teaching studio art courses has an advantage when it comes to revealing what is important to each student: personal expression is part of their work. After 2003, I began to notice a change in the subject matter of student drawings. For example, one self-portrait had a hand grenade placed prominently in an open mouth. Another self-portrait was a photo collage in the shape of a large teardrop made of images of charred Iraqi bodies glued onto the drawing of the student’s face. The student veteran who made this self-portrait had taken the photos herself while driving a truck convoy into Baghdad.

About two months after I was here, the emergency sirens went off, the weather sirens. After being in Iraq and hearing those same ones, it took everything that I could possibly do not to, number one, fall on the ground or run into a building! Other than that, it was fine.Michele F.

I was on edge when I came back . . . take it down a step. I was so used to going one hundred miles per hour. Everyone was out to stab you in the back. Take a couple of months to calm down.—Andrew C.

As an artist, I had done many oral-history-centered mixed-media exhibitions with sound in the past. I had asked people questions about a variety of topics and recorded their answers. I like recording what people think. It is a way for me to explore topics about which I am curious. I wanted to address the changing demographics of my campus in the wake of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. I wanted to find out what it was like for a student at BSU to make the transition from recent deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan to a college environment. I would later develop a large-scale sound installation for exhibition using these recordings.

I served as a combat medic for eighteen months and everything there was to throw at me, they threw at me. I came home and I expected to be better than I was, and I was not. I lived on the bottom of a bottle. Taking shingles off a roof is a far cry from the glory of patching bullet wounds and taking care of all your men. I thrived with these guys. I slept next to them. I ate all my meals next to them. I lived and breathed this sort of thing. . . . My wife stuck around for me being drunk all the time, losing my job, almost getting arrested, getting into fights with family, losing our apartment, moving in with her parents. And I couldn’t see straight and went through probably about a handle of alcohol a day. That is when she took my son and left. And said, if you want us in your life, you have got to get out of the military, you have to get yourself some help and you have to get this stuff over with. Not a real option there. My kids are everything.—David D.

I didn’t know anything about the military—I come from a family of schoolteachers—but I found myself wondering what kinds of experiences these students had been through. I had many questions. Some I developed with the help of a Marine in my class. His pragmatic advice and my own self-censorship led me to avoid many topics. For example: Is there any way young men and women can intensely bond outside of a war situation? What about the finding of the 9/11 Commission that Saddam Hussein was not involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks? Does that affect how you view your decision to enlist? Did you kill anyone? Is violence enjoyable? I didn’t ask those questions. I did receive permission from the campus institutional review board to ask the following:

  • What were your first days on campus like after returning from deployment?
  • What do you know now that you wished you had known then?
  • What strategies would you recommend to other students returning from Iraq or Afghanistan?
  • What is the hardest part of being a college student?
  • Do you participate in college activities? Why or why not?
  • Are you still in the military? Why or why not?
  • What do you miss most about the military?
  • What are you studying?
  • What are your plans for the future?

Some guy in my class came up to me and told me he really supports the troops and thank you for your service. I was just back and I was in one of those moods. So, I said, oh yeah, so what do you do to support the troops? He kind of looked at me . . . that attitude . . . they are kind of stumped and stare at you. Do you buy a bumper sticker? Do you join a Facebook group? I was upset with the whole thing. You know, hearing about my people killing themselves. One of my friends killed himself, you know. Just hearing these people say they support the troops—when they don’t do anything, actually.— Mike A.

The Office of Veterans Affairs at BSU sent an e-mail call to all the veterans on campus to volunteer to participate in my project. Twelve students responded and were willing to be recorded.

The GI Bill has been such a convoluted process. In my case, things were misplaced. I have an awkward hold on my claim. It is a bureaucratic system. No one is sure what needs to be done.—Thomas S. G.

I got back from Iraq in October 2005 and did the spring semester. I was surprised when I got sent back in June 2009 for Iraq again. I was pulled to a different unit. They are supposed to give you a five-year break between deployments.—Caroline E. O.

I felt a tension in interviewing these student soldiers because I don’t approve of war. But listening to them tell their stories of what kinds of sacrifices they made as soldiers, of their dedication and service, made me keep my mouth shut.

I miss the deployments. I was part of Second Scout Platoon, an infantry team of twenty-four. . . . I developed closer relationships there than I have back home. . . . These are the kind of people you can call any time of day or night and they will answer. . . . I miss that a lot.—Matthew C

I was torn about whether to express my own politics in the piece or at any other point in the process. I have a large body of antiwar work (prints, collages, and performance pieces) going back to Desert Storm. I had curated an exhibition in a Boston gallery using Yoko Ono’s title War Is Over (If You Want It) from the Vietnam era. I did not reveal this work to the students. I wondered what they would think of me. And I did care what they thought. I feel that we are in a society that is divided by war, and I feared I would be labeled as unpatriotic, unsupportive, and even disrespectful. I had broken through my own preconceived judgments of soldiers; I did not want them to stereotype me either.

I added Middle East studies as a minor because while I was in the military I got to learn Arabic fluently. And I love it! I love the culture. I fell in love with the culture and just everything about the people and that area of the world. I really would like to go into a career where I could work in that area of the world.—Sara S.

Somehow the stories from these student veterans did not seem political. Were they beyond political? Their experiences were so strong and so personal that I felt I did not have the right to comment on them. These contradictions haunted me. My internal conflict was complex. I thought I was going to do extensive editing of the recordings. Surprisingly, I did not edit out one single word. Everything they said was important, and I wanted everyone to hear it. I decided not to include any of my opinions after they spoke on the recording.

Make it known to your adviser that just because you are older as a freshman, like twenty-five, twenty-six, thirty, thirty-one, thirty-five even, that school is different. You are not automatically going to know what you need. You need just as much advising and advice as the younger students.—Wilfred R.

You hear people complaining about stupid things. You just want to say something but you don’t. You just keep your mouth shut just so you don’t get in trouble. —Wilfred R.

When I heard of one amazingly eloquent student veteran who had gone into the military at age seventeen, and learned that his parents had to grant permission for his enlistment, I thought, no, no, no! As a mother myself, I just don’t know what I would have done if one of my children had wanted to go into the military, especially during a time of war. I have a new admiration for the courage of these veterans and their families.

The camaraderie. Basically, it is another family, like another family away from home. Any of these guys, I still talk to. Some of them live down in Florida, some live in Oklahoma. On the drop of a dime, they would come to see me if I need them. The drop [of] a dime, I would go see them if they need me. It is just one of those things. . . . If you are deployed together, basically their life was in your hands, your life was in theirs. It is a special bond that every service member just realizes.— Brian O.

When it came time for me finally to present the sound installation on Veterans Day 2010, I did not add my own point of view. It was an artistic piece, and I could have added my own voice. I decided I wanted the voices of the veterans to stand alone. I had learned to listen.

Not having to think too much. It depends on what you are talking about. Always situational. Always being told what to do, where to go. I used to hate it. And it grows on you. And now, I am in the civilian world again and what do I do? Somebody tell me what to do! Signing up for classes was horrific. Orchestrating your schedule—how? I just tell the lady, can you just do it for me? No! I don’t know, I guess, the structure. Derek P.

My sound installation was titled Combat to Campus, the Voices of Veterans and exhibited at the Mobius Gallery in Boston and also at the Bridgewater Campus Center. I used the same audio material for both installations but had very different presentations. For the Boston gallery space, I rented several high-tech “audio domes.” Members of the audience would stand under a clear plastic umbrella-like structure set atop an eight-foot pole and hear the voices of the veterans being broadcast within the circular space. At BSU, I created listening posts in a campus lounge area using headsets next to comfortable seating. The wiring was hidden in lunch bags and school backpacks, the space manipulated to look like an “ordinary” student environment. Both exhibits displayed poster-sized color photos that I took of each student veteran who participated in the recorded interviews. These photos were evidence of their invisibility on campus: they didn’t look like soldiers to me.

I would take some time off. It is a really hard transition. I was lucky to come back to people who knew where I was coming from. Only military people understand. And the professors do not understand either. I would suggest [for] them to wait, especially if they have seen combat.—Michele F.

Student veterans met one another for the first time when they came to the receptions for both exhibitions. I loved watching them greet fellow students with whom they shared so much military experience. They were amazed when they listened to the recordings of others, for many of them answered the same questions in the very same way. The exhibition brought them together. For once, I think they felt less isolated on campus.

I just got back from Iraq, three months out. Some of us have seen things. Some of us have issues. It would be nice if they had some kind of groups here. I think that would be a good thing.—Matthew C.

Colleges need to be responsive to the needs of returning veterans. If they are not, student veterans may drop out or take their GI Bill benefits somewhere else. The Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges Consortium maintains a list of colleges that have “vet-friendly” practices. If more institutions followed the model of Eastern Kentucky University, which has received awards for its best practices for student veterans, they could help improve veterans’ enrollment and graduation rates.

We know what it is to work hard . . . we’re used to one-hundred- and-twenty-plus hours of P.T. and then running all over hell and back because our government told us to. We don’t ask you to say thank you. The only thing we ask in return is for you to teach us. We’re not here to get a pass. We’re not here so you can hand us the piece of paper . . . we’ll rise to whatever expectations you put in front of us . . . give us the tools.—David D.

These student veterans spoke to me from their hearts. They were willing to let me, someone they did not even know, record their personal experiences and make them public. I respect that. But how can I approve and, at the same time, also disapprove? A paradox. After this experience, “prowar” and “antiwar” no longer seem clear-cut categories for me. Many soldiers themselves have the same conflict. These students taught me something about being committed to doing a job as well as one can under extremely difficult circumstances. Many of them did it again and again with multiple deployments. What motivated these student soldiers were the ideals of loyalty, honor, and love of country.

Have I changed my views? Not to the point where I see the war as justified, no. There has been a change in my understanding of what it means to be in the military. But this understanding comes with a deep sadness from hearing of the loss and damage done to these students because of war. These student veterans are no longer invisible to me.

Margaret Bellafiore is an adjunct professor at Bridgewater State University, where she teaches art. She is a member of Mobius, Boston’s artist-run organization for experimental art in all media. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

An earlier version of this article appeared in the June 2012 issue of the Bridgewater Review.