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Normal people: Understanding student veterans

The National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) has awarded Seattle Central College (SCC) a grant to build a curriculum for a veterans affairs course in the humanities department. One may ask why this is needed? On the surface, veterans receive a great deal of benefits upon their separation from the military, including compensation for any injuries sustained while in the service as well as paid tuition for higher education. That’s a pretty sweet setup, so what need is there to create a class revolving around veterans and their lives post-service?

The public tends to view veterans in a very specific light. They see someone who pledged their life for their country, and who probably came back as a damaged husk of who they used to be. Most people will utter the famous, “Thank you for your service,” to veterans, feeling an obligation to acknowledge their sacrifice. On the other end of that stick are civilians who may hold animosity towards veterans due to the part they might have played in unpopular conflicts. 

The only thing most people with a civilian background don’t do is make veterans feel like normal people. They’re either seen as a hero, villain, or victim. I’m a Coast Guard veteran, a type of service that most of the public barely even knows about, and I always have these awkward interactions that range from that forced thank you to people assuming I have PTSD when I mention my service. I look at my service as nothing more than an interesting job experience, and it plays a much larger part of my perceived character and personality than I want it to.   

The reality for veterans is much different than one may expect. Only 6.4% of Americans are veterans, and even less than that have seen combat. The most prevalent problem for veterans isn’t their PTSD or other mental scars etched into their psyche from the horrors of war, but the stress of transitioning from a military lifestyle to that of the civilian world. One day, you’re at your unit and you have a clearly defined purpose, and the next, you’re thrust into a world where that purpose has been stripped away from you, and the public sees you as something separate from the average person.

One of the hardest parts of transitioning to civilian life is having a hard time relating to anybody who wasn’t in the military. The culture of the military is starkly different to that of modern America as a whole, and even beyond that, each branch’s culture is different to their counterparts as well. Even how a military member spoke to their peers while they were serving at their unit is completely different to how they have to talk to their co-workers at Wendy’s.

In an interview about the upcoming curriculum for the new veterans affairs course, Ysrael Adam-Walker, Marine Corps veteran and Student Veteran Specialist at SCC, said, “They want to have a curriculum for the general student body and the student veterans to dialogue about what it means to have served in the military, what was that life like. . . how is the transition into the general population of society, what stigmas, if any, are applied to veterans, and why these stigmas have been created . . . why people in society may think of us as baby killers and stuff like that or just, like, people who are drug addicts and homeless . . . they want to bridge that divide and be educational for both sides.”

Ysrael Adam-Walker, Marine Corps veteran and Student Veteran Specialist.
Christian Laporte Ysrael Adam-Walker, Marine Corps veteran and Student Veteran Specialist.

The disconnect between veterans and the greater public is rather large. Veterans just want to be seen as normal people, because that is really what they are. Normal people who live normal lives. Most veterans actively go out of their way to separate themselves from their military background because of the stigmas attached to it. While someone of a civilian background may find that odd and say that a veteran should be proud of their service, think about it: How would it feel if everyone you met thought you had mental problems because of your occupation?

The hardest part of a veteran’s service could very well be separating from the military itself. Most people join the military very young, and whether they get out after four years or twenty years, they were shaped by the military and don’t always have the tools or support to make sense of the civilian side of life. Marine Corps and Navy veteran Kerry Holifield, who is also the Veterans Program Coordinator at SCC, said, “The hardest part is losing that sort of family, or those friends . . . that peer group that you spent four years with, eight years with, however long it is . . . it’s like losing everything you worked for in your life . . . and not having access to the friendly faces and people who understand you. Plus, you have the loss of responsibility and the loss of purpose.”

With the plethora of different factors that can affect veterans in different ways, the team designing the curriculum is trying to find out how to bridge the gap of understanding between student veterans and non-veterans. This is quite an undertaking because of the misunderstanding between the two demographics. It’s hard to break someone’s preconceived notions of the military, especially when public portrayal of veterans by the media wants everyone to just see the sad and negative side of being a veteran, regardless of how widely applicable this depiction is to veterans as a whole. “The main thing I’m looking for,” Holifield said when asked about what he would like to see in the curriculum, “is empathy, and some understanding between the two communities, civilians and military. . . there’s a lot of misunderstanding, there’s a lot of people who don’t understand what service is like. They get their views about it from movies. They think we’re all built in factories, they think we’re all conservative . . . and they don’t realize that we are really just them. We’re really just civilians who swore an oath. . . we come from the communities and places that we go back to.”

Kerry Holifield, Marine Corps and Navy veteran and Veterans Program Coordinator.
Christian Laporte Kerry Holifield, Marine Corps and Navy veteran and Veterans Program Coordinator.

Having served in the military doesn’t mean that someone is different from the general populace.  Their life experience might have been different from that of you and your peers, but it’s important to remember that veterans are peers as well. Being othered by your life experience is unfair in any facet, and that goes for the men and women who served our country as well. They come from our communities to go serve the country, and they return to live in those communities when they are done.

One good thing for student veterans is that if they are struggling in school, there are a solid number of resources to help them out, including the Veterans Resource Center, and faculty members like Adam-Walker and Holifield. “We would like to see more veterans that are in school [at the Veterans Resource Center],” Adam-Walker said, “We understand that some veterans don’t want to be known as veterans in certain areas, in classrooms and whatever, but even if you don’t, the lounge is supportive. It’s a place where you can come in, hang out, chill . . .utilize that space. We welcome all those who feel that they are not welcome. There’s a welcoming space for student veterans.”

The Veterans Resource Center Lounge at SCC.
Christian Laporte The Veterans Resource Center Lounge at SCC.

There can be a lot going on in the mind of a student veteran that makes it tough to cope with the unique challenges that come with life after service. It’s important that, as a community, we always see each other as equals and have empathy for our fellow students.

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