In a recent display I arranged entitled “Soldier to Student,” I sorted through the photographs of student veterans at the college where I teach. Getting veterans to come forward to have their photos made and displayed was not an easy task. I spent three hours on a Sunday afternoon, calling, talking, and leaving messages for student veterans. For my effort, ten veterans showed up.
As I framed their pictures for display, I attempted to imagine their stories. Some looked so tentative, so young, so fragile. Others exuded confidence.
In the days after I did the framing, I read “What It Is Like To Go To War” by Karl Marlantes, a powerful 2011 New York Times bestseller. With that reading, I became more attune to the difficulties inherent in the American psyche of our young soldiers with the dualities that exist for them.
Marlantes is a realist and knows that we will always have a need for a strong military: “As long as there are people who will kill for gain and power, or who are simply insane, we will still need people called warriors who are willing to kill to stop them.”
He also knows that we have a responsibility to these veterans: to prepare them for what they will face during their service as well as the adjustments they will need to make after their service is completed.
In concluding today’s column, I’d like to recount for you one of my experiences with a veteran student. He has never been enrolled in my classes, but I met him in August of 2010 when I was marketing the 2011 study abroad tour of China. He came by my table and wanted to talk, revealing bits and pieces of his military experience. It wasn’t of the “white knight in shining armor comes to rescue the persecuted people of Iraq” variety. After that initial meeting, I saw him in the halls from time to time and always spoke.
At times my greeting were ignored or responded to with a grunt or a short negative. I saw him a week ago, and I noticed a change. He seemed to be more comfortable in his own skin. We actually had a conversation and when I asked him if he would agree to be photographed or interviewed for the Library of Congress project, he said, “Your e-mail is vblevins, right?”
I said, “Yes.” When he smiled, I said, “I’d like to hug you.” That I wanted to hug him seemed to baffle him a bit. We each then went on our way.
Some colleges and universities are actively recruiting veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we have a responsibility to do more than enroll them and take their veterans benefits. We must accept the reality that some will need our help in very special ways as they move forward with their lives. In spite of all our well-intentioned efforts, some won’t be able to return to a sense of normalcy. That is a part of the collateral damage of war.
As Veterans Day arrives and in the days before and after, it’s time to say to the veterans we know, “Thank you for your service.” We know that some will rebuff us while others will graciously say, “You’re welcome” or remain stunned that we even remembered.