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What Do You Know about Veterans?

By Marshall W. Thomas

Grateful Nation: Student Veterans and the Rise of the Military-Friendly Campus by Ellen Moore. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.

man with camouflage backpack and American flag

I must begin my review of Ellen Moore’s Grateful Nation with a statement about my own bias. Shortly after I received the book, I flipped through it and caught a glimpse of a familiar image on one of its pages. It was a logo that I designed eight years ago and have subsequently presented to more than two thousand participants in the VET NET Ally program. At first, I was disappointed that Moore had attributed the logo not to the institution where the program was created but to a dif­ferent university that also has the program; I became increasingly frustrated as I read her negative comments about the program on the facing page and realized that she didn’t understand the program or why it is valuable.

Further complicating my rela­tionship with Moore’s work was her explanation, in her introduc­tion, of the different names given to those who serve in different branches of the military: soldier, sailor, airman, marine, or coast guardsman. She attributes these differences to the promotion of these titles by the military services but fails to recognize that service members and veterans use the titles to identify themselves as well. These words have meaning. Oddly, after acknowledging the differ­ences, she declares that she will use the term soldier when referring to all those who are serving, claim­ing that it is the more “inclusive” term. Since significantly less than 40 percent of those on active duty are in the army and thus called soldier, this term excludes most of those serving in the military. Any­one familiar with military culture would understand that she should have used service member. Her decision to disregard the terms we veterans use to identify ourselves was further evidence that indeed she did not “get it.” I hadn’t even gotten to chapter 1 yet, and already I was deeply concerned.

Moore’s discussion of basic training describes its primary purpose as the initiation of civil­ians into a military world that contrasts starkly with the civilian world. Unfortunately, the author occasionally cites very old sources and at times relies on what many veterans and service members would regard as embellished tales of their service experience when talking about boot camp. Veterans often view these stories of violent drill sergeants and mistreated recruits, which have been depicted in countless mov­ies, with skepticism and even irritation. Even so, Moore hits key points squarely on the head. Basic training is a loud, disorient­ing, and physically and mentally challenging period designed to refocus individual priorities into group effort and identity. It is intended to separate civilians from the world they know and initiate them into a new culture, the aim of which is selfless service. Each of the military services is very good at accomplishing that goal in its own unique way. It’s also fair to say that the services pay very little attention to reversing that acculturation at the end of service, which is one of the rea­sons, Moore asserts, that military training and culture present the greatest obstacles to veterans suc­ceeding in college. I agree.

Moore describes boot camp and war experiences, but her presenta­tion of the military experiences that lie between these two poles is significantly lacking. Most service members don’t deploy to combat zones. In fact, while Moore claims that the US military presence is growing around the world, we cur­rently have fewer service members stationed overseas than at any time in nearly fifty years. Though it would be difficult to tell from news reports, the greatest numbers of troops are stationed in allied nations like Japan, Germany, and South Korea. In reality, much of military life is spent doing what can seem like any other job, albeit one with more rigid social norms and higher professional standards and expectations than those found in the civilian world. (For example, most civilian occupations don’t inspect uniforms and living quar­ters, or require employees to pass a physical fitness test each year.) Outside of deployments, military work life can be quite tedious and even boring. Benefits are good, time off can be plentiful, and many members start families, raise chil­dren, go on vacation, and live full, rich lives. Yes, people are training for whatever conflict to which they may be called in the future, but while experiences vary by MOS (“military occupational specialty,” military jargon for “job”), military life when service members are not deployed is far less exciting than the dramatic images presented in recruiting commercials.

As I continued my journey through Grateful Nation, I found more common ground with the author. It became clear that the reasons I created the VET NET Ally program, which I knew was to be critiqued later in the book, were on the pages in front of me. So was much of the content I presented in my program. Both Moore and I discuss how the military trains new recruits in the cultural norms of the service they are entering and fails to reverse the acculturation when their service is complete. Adding to the challenge for veterans who become students, few colleges and universities have a first-year seminar to address the goals, norms, and expectations of the academy. Fewer still have versions of these courses specifically designed for veterans. Additionally, most faculty and staff members at colleges and universi­ties have no military experience and don’t understand why a student might have difficulties adapting. After all, if a service member can work within the bloated bureaucracy of the Department of Defense, the campus should be no problem, right? Things are not so simple. Even saying, “Thank you for your service” can be problem­atic, and Moore “got it.”

Moore highlights many areas where student-veterans may find a disconnection between military culture and campus life. The rigid chain of command of the military, made visible by the wearing of rank on uniforms, is not present on college campuses. Veterans may have difficulty understand­ing who is really in charge and who can provide the best answers to whatever questions they have. Fellow students who have less life experience and are perceived as impolite to and disrespectful of professors and other students in the classroom create distrac­tions and irritation for some vets. Veterans miss the camaraderie of service life. They often miss the sense of both adventure and mission. For some, experiencing so much in four or five years in the military leads to the question, “Why does college take so long, anyway?” There must be some­thing more. Moore and I are on the same page. Mostly.

Finally, I arrive at the part of her book that I have been dread­ing. Moore’s criticism of veteran awareness programs generally and VET NET Ally specifically shows a troubling lack of understanding, especially for someone who has otherwise gone to great lengths to learn and write about student vet­erans. While she reports attending an awareness program related to military culture and mental-health effects of combat deployments, she clearly did not attend a VET NET Ally seminar, even though dozens of colleges and universities in California have offered the semi­nar. Instead, she takes the program to task because it was developed using the same framework as Safe Zone LGBT awareness programs. I used the Safe Zone model because it has been so effective at educat­ing people about a cultural group with which many are not familiar. It’s a great model for conducting cultural awareness training. Our campus has added other ally pro­grams, focused on students with autism, students with other physi­cal and learning disabilities, and even sexual violence prevention, using the same framework.

There are other reasons it is a fitting model. Though dismissed in her book as much ado about nothing, plenty of evidence exists that veterans were poorly treated during the Vietnam era. Indeed, I have spoken with Vietnam-veteran faculty members who reported not including their military service on their CVs until they achieved tenure because of the hostile environment of the era. We are certainly grateful that we have not seen those days repeated.

In the present day, veterans, like many in the LGBT com­munity, must decide whether to “out” themselves. Students (myself included) have found that once they tell others that they served in the military, they become the go-to source for information about mili­tary operations and government decisions to engage in military actions and are asked inappropri­ate questions—for example, about whether they have killed anyone. Many have reported encounter­ing hostility from fellow students and professors in the classroom. I have fielded calls from deans of students, campus behavioral intervention teams, and faculty members about a student who wrote an essay about a decision to take a life, a student who carried an army camouflage backpack that frightened a civilian student, and a student who, when “trig­gered” by course content, walked out of the classroom to find his own sense of peace before return­ing to class. Colleagues at other campuses have reported similar experiences. That Moore hasn’t heard these kinds of stories is a testament to the good work student services personnel at colleges and universities do to resolve conflicts and mediate disagreements.

Moore suggests that VET NET and other programs seek to forbid discussion of wars. I want to be clear: no awareness program that I have been a part of (and I have presented both programs Moore references) has forbidden anyone from discuss­ing war in the classroom or on campus. We recommend that, when discussing war is appropri­ate to the curriculum of a course, the discussion be conducted in a manner that is respectful to service members, veterans, and members of their families who may also be in the classroom. I am certain that the widow of a soldier killed in Iraq would have appreciated her professor speak­ing more respectfully than she did one day in a classroom on my campus. One can speak of war without speaking ill of the people we, through our elected represen­tatives, have sent to conduct it.

In spite of Moore’s critiques of awareness programs, I found page after page of evidence that veteran ally programs are an important way to help those without military experience understand the wide range of experiences of those who have served. Those who have attended VET NET Ally have found it a valuable part of their professional development. It’s hard to accept that learning about a student pop­ulation that makes up less than 5 percent of most college campuses could be creating what Moore calls a militarized campus.

Although many of Moore’s conclusions miss the mark, her ability to weave together the narratives of student-veterans is “on point.” While she suggests that critics will point to her small sample size as a weakness, I will not. Given the many hours she spent interviewing and interact­ing with veterans, she has done a remarkable job of highlighting those experiences and attitudes with which we who work with veterans every day are very famil­iar. We often say that if you’ve met a veteran, you’ve met one veteran. We are all different, and we all relate to our military experience differently. We all experience the academy differently, yet we can all benefit when the civilians in our lives take the time to learn about our experiences. In that sense, Moore’s book adds to the impor­tant discussion of how we can best serve those who choose to include our campuses in the pursuit of their life goals.

Marshall W. Thomas is director of ac­tive duty and veterans affairs at the California State University Chancellor’s Office. A six-year veteran of the United States Marine Corps, he serves as an advocate for veterans in higher education and speaks frequently at colleges and universities about military culture and the impact of military service. His email address is [email protected].

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