The struggle of veterans to reintegrate into society after service has been well documented in the past. From the Obama administration’s Team Rubicon initiative to articles in major publications, the trials of veterans to reintegrate are well known. However, student veterans face some special challenges, as they find themselves “disconnected” from their younger counterparts.
These problems are only amplified in a place like the UW because historically, liberal West Coast universities were hostile to returning veterans. The term “baby killer” was often tossed around at returning student veterans after the Vietnam War. But even ignoring the epithets, there is a gulf between student veterans and civilians.
“On deployment, there are some decisions you have to make that adversely affect civilians and/or other service members,” said Brian Crist, an infantryman who was deployed to Afghanistan and Djibouti and is currently serving as a staffer at UW Student Veteran Life. “People who know about it, and people who were there and witnessed it are far more likely to band together.”
In understanding what veterans undergo without prematurely judging them, it would perhaps do civilians well to actually talk to one. Since most students get their news online in disconnected chunks, it can be easy to think that the stories they get are all that exist.
“Most of the population don’t know veterans,” said Brittany Pederson, a former health care specialist in the Army who is currently doing a work study at the Everett Vet Center. “It’s easy [for civilians] to say ‘there’s a war going on in Iraq,’ but not really be related to it.”
Compounding this issue is the difference in age between them and their peers that student veterans have to deal with. They tend to be older than civilian students because they have served in the military before they rejoin society.
“It can feel very isolating to see all these people around you and they’re all so much younger than you are,” Pederson said.
It’s not hard to imagine how the difference in life experience can lead to disparity. In some ways, veteran life gives you a lot of discipline, but it’s also highly regulated. All of a soldier’s basic needs are catered to by the military, leaving them to make only the most critical decisions in combat. Once they come back, there is a high likelihood of them facing decision fatigue.
“The military tells us that we are resilient, that we are able to adapt to big changes,” Pederson said. “But the fact is, when you’re in the military, if you’re supposed to move, they give you your orders telling you where you’re going, they provide the transportation for all of your goods, they provide your transportation there, and they tell you exactly when you’re going to get there and how you’re going to get there.”
But the other side is that veterans often have a lot of responsibility, unlike some of their student counterparts, which can grate on some. Most undergraduates are still young when they come to college, and as a result their veteran classmates who have traveled around the world and served in positions of authority can feel separated from the rest.
“A lot of the issues with trying to build friendships here is that nobody is in the mindset of what comes after university,” said Daniel Singer, a former medic who was stationed in Japan and managed a clinic there.
These differences in experience can easily isolate people from one another. Singer even mentioned that he grew apart from the people he grew up with because their lives diverged so much post-military. To find support, it’s recommended for veterans to band together with one another, which they often do. However, Pederson feels that both civilians and veterans ought to make an effort to reach out to one another.
“It’s something that requires effort on both parts,” she said. “Veterans have to be willing to talk about their experiences and civilians need to be willing to hear them.”
There are some things that civilians can do. Among them, we can engage in more conversations with veterans to truly understand their stories, we can work with the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) on events like Memorial Day, and we can service the community to get a better handle of real-world work.
This isn’t an unbridgeable gulf, but it’s one that needs to be consciously attended to. Both students and veterans can only be enriched by sharing one another’s life experiences, and in the process create a stronger university community.
Reach writer Arunabh Satpathy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @sarunabh