Understanding Student Veterans

Understanding Student Veterans           

Chances are you have one in a class you’re taking.  They are a little older, but not too much older; you wouldn’t confuse them with a retiree auditing a class. They are in good shape; not as lean as they used to be, but they’re still pretty fit.  They might have tattoos; some wear metal bracelets with small font that you can never quite read, and others have wedding bands.  About half of them have a beard and long hair, and the other half have close cropped hair and fresh shaves.  They are never late for class and are usually the first one in the door for class, sometimes ridiculously early.  When they address their professors, they use terms like “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” “Yes, ma’am,” and “No, ma’am.”  You might have even seen some of them get visibly angry when they feel like their professors are not getting the respect they deserve because students are talking, texting, or facebooking in class, and most likely they let the offenders know it.  Some of their backpacks are green, brown, or camouflage.  If you see one of these tell-tale signs, odds are you have a veteran in your class.

In my short college career, I have noticed many veterans in my classes.  I find it interesting how veterans interact with other students and I wonder how other students see them.  I don’t know what a traditional student thinks of veterans, but I can give some insight to how veterans see other students and how they come across to them.  I base this on my experiences as a veteran and my talks with other veterans; whether in formal interviews or informal conversations with other veterans.  I did these interviews in person and via email.  The veterans I talked to are from the current and late wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, and one professor who is a veteran of Vietnam.*

Based on my interviews and experiences there are two kinds of veterans in school.  There are the ones who look like all the other students with the only visible difference being their age, and the others are ones even a person with no knowledge about the military would know were service members.  They may look different, but one thing they have in common is they come to class prepared and are serious about their studies.  They treat school like a job and are not there to experience college like a traditional college student; they get very frustrated when they see other students come to class late and unprepared, doze off in class, and show generally poor attitudes.  To them, this is like someone slacking off at work and it drives them up the wall.  Veterans want to get done with school as fast as they can and move on with their lives.

You might have a friend who is a veteran but if you hang out with them outside of class, consider yourself an exception to the rule.  There are two main reasons for this: age and motivation.  The veterans are usually older than the traditional students, so there is a generational difference between them and they don’t have much in common with each other.  While a traditional student was living it up over summer vacation, a veteran was facing the summer fighting season in Afghanistan where people were trying to kill him every day, and he was looking to do the same to them.  There is not much in common between them, and what they do have in common is so little that there isn’t much to start a friendship over.

Another reason there isn’t much commonality between the traditional students and veterans is they have different motivations to get them through school.  Many of their goals are the same; they want to get a degree and move on to whatever job or career they hope to pursue.  What motivates them is what really makes them different.  I’d imagine traditional students are looking to get good grades – among other reasons – because their parents are paying for school and they don’t want to let them down; that is great motivation, and there is nothing wrong with that.  Veterans’ motivations are usually a little more personal.  Veterans will usually have families, with a spouse and children to support; they are in school to better their quality of life.  Another common motivation I found among veterans was the desire to honor the memory of friends that they lost in the service; veterans don’t want their friends’ sacrifice to be in vain, so they do their best to live a life that would make their friends proud.  The friends they lost will never have the opportunity they have now to live the life of a college student.  They know the fragility of life and realize we are not immortal.

I asked many veterans if they shared their experiences from their time in the service with other students or in class time discussions.  Most said they don’t volunteer too much; they will contribute to conversations in class if it is pertinent to the subject or the professor asks them specifically, but they don’t go out of the way to tell other students about what they saw, did, and experienced in the service.  You can hardly blame a veteran for this; many veterans don’t want to dredge up painful memories especially if they think that people will not give it the respect it deserves.

So now that you have gotten a small look into how veterans think and act and what motivates them, I’m going to aim this essay at veterans.   I don’t think veterans and traditional students are ever going to be best of friends. That’s not to say there is any animosity between them; in fact that’s the opposite.  All the veterans I talked to said they never experienced any animosity from other students or professors for their service.  I’ve read how veterans returning from Vietnam were not treated well by people who disagreed with that war.  None of the veterans I talked to had an experience like this and the Vietnam veteran only had it happen to him once.  Interestingly, his experience in college sounded a lot like veterans of today.  Veterans throughout time really aren’t all that different.  The student veterans I talked to reported they received more thank yous from traditional students and professors for their service than anything.  Even with the disagreement over the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan in our country, it is encouraging to say that overwhelmingly people support veterans.

Still, we veterans should make more of an effort to engage with and talk to traditional students.  I understand if veterans would like to leave behind their time in the service, and not talk about it – that was another life in many ways, and they have moved on, but for one reason,  I urge you to have more interaction with traditional students.  Let them know about the sacrifices that were made by our brothers and how war is an awful and ugly thing.  I had a student ask me once if being in the Marines was like the video game Call of Duty, and he was serious.  Veterans know it isn’t like a video game at all and we need to let other students know what it is really like lest they think war is a video game.  Don’t be the weird, loner veteran in your class; when asked about your service be proud of what you did, but don’t hold back when you tell them how it really is.

Like it or not,  students are not in the cafeteria reading the New York Times or Washington Post and looking at the latest casualty reports to come back from overseas; were you when you were their age?  No, you weren’t.  Even if they are aware of the sacrifices that were made, having someone who was there and experienced what veterans experience is invaluable.  You don’t have to go out and start telling war stories to college kids, but make yourself available and approachable to questions about your service, and be prepared to answer their questions.  Make sure our brother’s sacrifices are not forgotten[1].

With the information in this essay, I hope that student veterans and traditional students will interact more with each other.  The traditional students will learn more about the sacrifices of our service members and our veterans will use school as a way to reintegrate into civilian life while honoring the sacrifices of the service members who will never go to school.  College is used to broaden and challenge people’s minds and to become more well-rounded people.  Student veterans and traditional students, let’s both take advantage of this great opportunity we have in college and get to work together.

– J. D. Hodges, 2nd Place in Essay

[1] As of 13 March 2013 6,630 service members have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Of those, 146 were females.  None of the veterans I talked to were females or served with females in combat.