Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On Getting By

In my previous post, I outlined some basic principles needed to successfully navigate the murky waters of education under the GI Bill. The challenges in dealing with the VA for education benefits are considerable, yet veterans new to college face an unfamiliar, unpredictable and strange environment on campus. If taken all at once, these hurdles can quickly overwhelm a student veteran and distract from the overall goal: to finish a degree on time with benefits to spare. Next week I will be in class for my fifth semester of higher education, and in my time I have tinkered with a system of how to bring up my veteran status, discussing Iraq and Afghanistan in the classroom and dealing with the myriad reactions fellow students have had. The system cannot be expected to work for everyone, but as veterans file into classrooms for the first time this spring, these tips could help in the development of a coping system better tailored for you. These should simply help to get you started.


Modesty is the Best Policy

There are only two kinds of veterans in school: those who prattle on about their time in the military and overseas, and those who do not. The former will find any opportunity to bring up their time in Afghanistan or Iraq, even if it is not relevant to class discussion. They forget one of the tenets of military experience - the role of the consummate professional. Joining the military and serving in a time of war are sacred acts and carry a certain degree of respect and modesty. We owe it to our injured buddies and fallen friends not to brag about our exploits overseas. We have done our fair share of things that set us apart from others in the classroom, and that is exactly why it is best to retain an understated presence among others.

This is a difficult situation as it applies to reintegration, as the chasm between veterans and civilians has never been wider. From World War II to Vietnam, it would have been a difficult task to know someone that neither served overseas nor had a family member or friend who did. Now there are whole classrooms filled with those people. As Matthew McConaughey spoke prophetically in Dazed and Confused, "I get older, they stay the same age." An 18 year old in college this year would have been nine years old during the invasion of Afghanistan and eleven years old during the invasion of Iraq. They have grown up with war to the point of it becoming a mind numbingly prosaic concept. It would be a frustrating battle to try and close the rift with those who don't see a rift at all. The best thing to do is use your judgment when bringing up your veteran status in the classroom. I've done it just a few times and felt uncomfortable enough to think twice about the next time. Now I tend to mention it in private conversation, not when I have the floor in public, and even then it is a casual touch on the subject. When you are ready to talk...

...Prepare for a Question Salvo

No matter how much you try to keep it stashed away from students and coworkers, your military experience will come out sooner or later. There are things you simply cannot hide forever, like going to prison or reading Twilight. Once you begin to move past casual conversation, it's only a matter of time before that period of your life is visited. It usually begins with a discussion of age . When I tell people I'm 24, the followup questions are almost always, "What have you done since high school?" or, "Why did you wait so long to go to school?" People tend to catch on if you mention extended vacations in the Middle East or recite monologues, so at that point it is best to come clean. However, be prepared for the questions they are more than willing to hurl your way. They might not know anyone who has deployed, but our hyperviolent culture has removed any restraint left in the world and enables them to ask any question that comes to mind. Here is what you can expect, in order of the most frequently asked:

1. What's it like?
2. Was it really hot?
3. Did you kill anyone?
4. Seriously, how hot was it?
5. Do you regret it?
6. Did you see any camel spiders?
7. Were you in Iran?

It's hard to get upset at some of those questions, as I find it difficult to think of what I'd ask if the roles were switched. #3 can be blamed on ignorance and apathy, but #5 is the most troubling I've heard. It suggests that there is something shameful about service, duty and sacrifice. Both questions trivialize an important part of our lives. The best answer to #3 I've heard comes from the The Kitchen Dispatch comment section: "I will forgive you for asking that question if you forgive me for not answering it." Something that personal should never be asked, only told.

The flip side to some of those cavalier probes are questions that handle the topic with kid gloves. Once a coworker found out I was in the Army, she asked, "Did you go of those places they send people?" It was uncomfortable for her just to utter those dirty 'I' and 'A' words, like we were speaking about some subversive topic. The kind of questions you will get will be all over the map, spanning from a place of genuine interest to the depths of sheer morbidity. Be prepared to answer anything, or politely let them know the subject isn't appropriate for casual banter.

Let The Right Ones In

Popular culture is replete with images of the maladjusted veteran, from Rambo to Travis Bickle to Red Forman. These characters are ingrained in our national conscious and typically become placeholders in the event someone doesn't personally know a veteran. When these sources are taken at face value, war veterans are invariably crazy, depressive, easily startled, quick to anger and alcoholics. We come from broken homes, trying to escape jailtime and were too dumb or poor to go to college after high school. The best way to combat these silly notions is to let people get to know you, the person, before you, the veteran. Those stereotypes aren't going anywhere soon, so the best idea is to take the concept of guarding your veteran status in the classroom and carry it over to blossoming relationships. That way your service and overseas experience complement your personality and don't define it. Revealing too much at one time can damage a friendship before it takes off. Just like in the classroom, take it slow. If they are worth keeping around, they'll understand why. We have met our lifelong friends already; we can afford to be picky.

Try to Keep a Straight Face

There's a huge disparity between what you have been asked to do in the service and what you will be asked to do in school. At the very basic level you were asked to maintain a clean weapon and uniform. Many of you were tasked with watching the back of your fellow soldiers while in imminent danger or operate complex machinery and vehicles. At school, you'll be held responsible for showing up and turning in work before deadlines. That's it. Like I mentioned in the earlier post, college seems like an insurmountable gauntlet of crushed dreams when you're in the military. Once you transition to civilian life and take a few classes, you'll be astounded at the lack of discipline and drive in some of your classmates. It's a big joke, but try to maintain composure. I'm not saying it's easy the whole way through, but I guarantee you've done something harder than a five page essay. As they say, the rest is downhill.

Find Another Brother

If you were in active duty, the friends you met along the way are now scattered across the country. Perhaps I've always been an introvert, but I don't make friends as easy as some people. I've met just two people in fourteen classes that I consider friends, and one of them is an Afghanistan veteran. It's easy to understand why we get along. Do your best to find other veterans in your class and say hello. Talking to them will come easier than the 18 year old hipster next to you about his passion for ironic hats. Find out if there is a veteran's organization on campus, but be wary of their motives. While some will join to find support and befriend fellow veterans, others will use it for recognition (see principle #1: don't be a douche).

Enjoy the Ride

Besides getting a degree or learning new skills, people go to college to meet new people and to experience a different life. If you've served since Sept. 12, 2001, you've already had a bit of each. But don't let that stop you from enjoying everything school has to offer. It's the last time very little will be expected of you, unless you get another government job. Then you're golden.


If you are recently out of the military and on your way to college, these tenets, coupled with the GI Bill pointers, should help you get started in academia. Like most things, your experience may vary, and I would hope you don't safeguard your veteran status like it's a dark secret or the true location of Jimmy Hoffa's body. It's something to be proud of, but not flaunted. It's something to share with your friends who genuinely want to know about the world you lived in, but not with the people who have twisted notions of what you have done overseas. The last thing you want people to know you as is the guy who went to Iraq. You want them to say "Hey, that's Alex, he's good people," and not "I wonder how many ear necklaces he has. I'm betting two." Hopefully these tips will help even just a tiny bit in that regard.


Special thanks to Mendi, Jeff, Josh, Justin, Clinton and Jason for their candid and thoughtful responses that helped formulate the content of this post.


Alex Horton said...

As usual, I welcome feedback and any additional tips from veterans who have been through school since their service. Anything to help a fellow vet out!

Also, if you were waiting to catch The Hurt Locker on video, it was released yesterday on DVD and Blu Ray.

Unknown said...

But DID you see any camel spiders?! ;)

Great post.

Joe said...

Well, you see, like, my dog exploded on my laptop, which caused, like, you know, a chain reaction that blew my legs off which prevented me from coming to class for a month or using the computers at the library. So can, I, like, be excused for those days, you know?

1. Brew coffee
2. Show up to class with coffee
3. Enjoy coffee

Also, my captcha for this post was HOSS.

Alex Horton said...

Haha, good shit Joe. And I thought my classes were the only ones with self entitled whiners!

If you've talked to BT lately, tell him he's an asshole for dropping off the face of the earth.

13 Stoploss said...

Alex, this is your best composition yet. Keep it up.

Not to get sidetracked, but I've emailed BT a few times. He used to respond...

Alex Horton said...

Thanks Jason! I don't know where he went. I haven't heard from him since May and figured he closed down his email address as well. I was hoping someone had an alternate address.

Unknown said...

Awesome blog man. I'm redeploying soon and your tips on going back to school are top notch. Thanks man! "Bridge the Gap"

CI-Roller Dude said...

The more things change, the more they remain the same. In 1975 when I was in the Old Berlin Brigade we had a poster in my room.

The US Army, 200 years of tradtion unchanged by progress...the VA is the same... F.U.B.A.R.

As far as the dumbass questions we get asked, I just fuck with people when they ask...
"CI Roller Dude, How many people did you kill in Iraq?"

membrain said...


ArmyStrange said...

This is fantastic! Should be required reading for anyone attending college after the military, and those considering it. I did college before I enlisted (and then had to answer a reverse list of questions about college from soldiers) and am always blown away by how many soldiers are INTIMIDATED by college, when what they've already done is so much harder.

Oh, and, "There are simply things you cannot hide forever, like going to prison or reading Twilight." - LOL!

Pattie Matheson said...

Excellent piece Alex!

PurpleTiger006 said...

So Alex, have you read Twilight?-LOL

Great Post. I haven't been in college for years, but I can hear those inane and ignorant questions in my head. Sometimes those who have never served, even in the pre-Iraq and Afganistan days, cannot fathom what types of sacrifices that those who choose the military life encounter.

I agree your contention that college may be an easier challenge than newly discharged vets realize. The military life, IMO, can positively influence how one performs in the academic arena. Good luck with the rest of your college days.

Also Good Luck to any of you who have served in your future pursuits.(There are many benefits to being in college these days. Take advantage of all of them!) Thank you for what you all have done and the sacrifices that you all have made.

Anonymous said...

Long time reader, first time commenter.

As a college instructor, I am consistently baffled by the offensive and ridiculous things my students say when a veteran has the courage to mention that s/he was deployed. Generally, my policy is a quick motherfucking smack down in the vein of, "Hey, ass, shut up and let the guy talk." Once, I had to deal with a student who came to me and complained that a veteran in my class was "obviously, like, going through some PTSD stuff and it is, like, totally, interfering with my ability to understand your class." I teach an intro level sociology class. *facepalm*

However, I must admit to being relatively clueless myself. No one close to me has ever joined the military. Call it privileged ignorance, I don't mind. That is exactly what it is. But it is difficult sometimes to know what to say to someone who does talk a bit too much about his/her service or who wants to dominate class discussion with tales of how he shot people(yes, this happened). What have you seen that worked? What didn't?

Additionally, I consider myself a caring and reasonable person. As a professor this means that I cut my students a break sometimes; if they turn in an assignment late and it only happens once, I am likely to let it go. But at the same time, I am wary of letting one student get chance after chance after chance, while they use their military service as an excuse. Long story short, I had a student pour his heart out to me about Modafinil (google it, its fucking scary) and PTSD and trays and trays of chili mac and heart conditions the Army would not pay for him to get fixed and his family hating him and and and. I felt sorry for him so I gave him an Incomplete and then extended it twice until I could take no more. This happened three years ago and I still feel bad about it, like I could have done more.

Sorry for the ramble, but I still struggle with the best way to help a veteran student, without coddling them. Any suggestions?

Karl said...

I'm in the Foreign Service and was in Iraq for over a year. I was embedded with the military at MNF-I headquarters at Camp Victory outside Baghdad. Quite different from the experiences of recent veterans then outside the wire, and now at college, of course, but still very intense (in a good way).

Now I'm re-studying Spanish in the Washington DC area for my next assignment in South America. The transition from working all day/every day, "on" all the time, to language study has not been easy, but some of the principles outlined here are useful even in a more adult learning environment.

Thank you for your service and for sharing what you have learned as a "How To."

Karl from Operation Yellow Elephant

FOX3 said...

Great post. Wish I woulda followed some of your advice, believe me it's not as funny when you tell someone in your class that you used to throw little kids off bridges into the canals to see if they could swim as it sounded in your head.
In retrospect I probably shoulda just asked to be left alone. Anyways great post man.

flexterkebumen said...

nice blog,we like....

Anonymous said...

Hello, and thanks for your humor, and direction. I am the wife & student of a very humble Viet Nam survivor Marine! I thank God for him, and everyone who gave of themselves to protect the US. The VA benes are very helpful, and your guidance is the first honest pitch I have seen! My husband also helps other Vets to get thier benefits, cause no one is advertising the help needed!



Anonymous said...

Love the post! I counseled Veterans on their educational benefits at the VA office at my university.

Yes, life is much different in college as a veteran and it makes it a whole lot easier when you meet other veterans on campus.

I returned to college after my Iraq deployment and it was quite an experience transitioning to academia. Being a veteran, your threshold for bs is pretty high, so I found it funny whenever I heard students complain classes being scheduled soooooo early (8:00 a.m.) or having to actually attend class.

Additionally, a veteran's mindset upon returning or starting school is considerably different than that of a traditional student. Personally, I believe most of the veterans I have encountered have surpassed the binge drinking and partying phase and are now serious about obtaining their degrees.

Again, great post :)

Anna Lefler said...

What a great and thoughtful post.

I look forward to reading more of them...

In the meantime, take care...

:-D Anna

Kanani said...

Thanks for the mention, Dude!

First off, I think age and experience has everything to doing well in college. They say write a 10 page paper by Monday, and you know you've done much harder things.

As far as handling questions, it does help to know that most younger people do so with a bit of naivete mixed with a bit of figuring out where they themselves are politically. It's when the older folks whose minds are already set come at you where you know it's mostly pure venom that you have to watch out for.

A long time ago, pre-Army of Dude birth, I was in college. There were two older guys who would hang out with one another laughing their way through classes. They were Vietnam Vets. Though back then, I didn't understand their cameraderie, now I do. I'm awfully glad they had one another.

Anyway, good post. You're a very good writer! Have fun in the literature course. My bro-in-law got his Ph.D there, and is now in charge of the dept. at UNC.

Rob W said...

Dude, well put my brother, and this really applies in more than just "academia" ya know? I see Army guys being douches all the time in the Army which befuddles me. And of course when guys go home on leave. I think it's just jackasses trying to be "cool" to get chicks. Thats pretty much the driving force behind most things soldiers do anyhow.

Oh, and if someone asks me if I've killed someone, well, I just tell them, "shut up, because shut up"

Your blog kicks ass, next time I'm in Texas I need to look you up

Rob W said...

I just read all of the comments, and one was from a current college instructor asking how to deal with that vet that blabs and blabs about how hard his experience was, and how he's so mentally fucked up. Most civilians would find what I'm about to say a little harsh, but sometimes it just takes someone to call him out on it and tell them to shut the fuck up.

I'm a big believer in the "quiet professional" mantra. I dont talk about my experiences unless it's around fellow soldiers that I've actually served with or if I'm directly asked.

However, I know those types and it gets worse when soldiers start comparing experiences and it eventually turns into a dick measuring contest that goes nowhere and means nothing.

It's those types, who blab too much, that you know actually didn't do anything but unfortunately they give the Army and the notion of service to one's nation a really bad name. They're the one's on the news complaining about PTSD, but they dont really have it, they studied the symptons and are making it up to be cool around campus. They're the soldiers who stayed at the big bases where they could have Green Beans Coffee, Pizza Hut and Burger King whenever they wanted while they screwed up everyone's award paperwork but 1 rocket landed within 1000 meters of their base and...oh my God, War is hell.

Rene' said...

Alex, this is a very good post. As a wife of a Vietnam Veteran who was only 4 when he served I have learned a lot about veterans and the VA in a very short amount of time. My husband has been speaking to students and groups since the early 70's. He is asked some of the same questions that you listed in your post. He has found that it is best to be honest, no reason to expand on a question that you can answer in a couple of words. There are many out there especially those who haven't served and students who have family members who have and will not speak to them. This leaves so many unanswered questions for them that sometimes they seek out other Veterans to ask and don't know how to ask the questions. My husband has received so many letters over the years from students that have brought me to tears when they thank him for taking the time to answer their questions. And yes, they always ask him if he killed anyone. He answers honestly and then lets them quickly know that it was a necessary for survival and his job but is nothing to glorify. Veterans are always more comfortable with other veterans, for a large part of my husbands life he only associated with Veterans and Veterans issues and kept himself so busy he didn't have time to think. It all caught up with him. He has spent countless hours helping veterans file for and obtain the benefits they have earned and guiding them to the help they need, this was his therapy and still is.

The Medic that served with my husband and saved his life buried his service so deeply that the people from the small town he lived in thought he was away at college, he suppressed his memories for over 30 years and it almost destroyed him when he could no longer supress the memories.

When I read your post you seem to understand some of the hurdles you will face in the near future, but please know that in each stage of your life you will have new and very different hurdles to face as will your family. At each of these stages of your life seek others who share what you are going through or those who have been there, it helps. War is Hell and only Combat Veterans can understand what Combat is and what you went through. Always be honest with yourself and your family and I wish you the best of luck with your future, it sounds like you are off to a good start. Please do not hold too hard of feelings towards those civilians who ask "stupid" questions, you will face them always, but it's better to face the questions than to shut yourself off. As far as the Veterans who ramble on and on, my husband meets a "sniper" or "special forces" guy at least once a week, most of the time he has the patience to listen and then quietly walk away other time he doesn't, these Veterans usually served in the rear or in the states and want people to think they were heros because they are embarrassed at their true MOS, we do our best to let them know that what ever you MOS it kept the grunts in the field alive, it took a lot of them to take care of one of my husband. Education is the best thing for the general public. Thank you for your service and Welcome Home.

Jacob said...

Hey, found your blog from the USAToday review article about The Hurt Locker.
Just wanted to say I enjoyed reading this post to get some perspective of what it's like to be a veteran in college.

MTBradley said...

Your subheading is a reference to the Tomas Alfredson film? (If not you should give it a try!)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your excellent blog. As a university professor, I often have student veterans in my classes. I am consistently impressed by the work ethic, maturity, and leadership shown by these folks. As the daughter of a veteran, I have a limited understanding of the issues facing these students. Your honesty in discussing your personal challenges encourages me to find new and better ways to support these students as they adjust to civilian life. Thank you for allowing those of us without military experience to share in your journey.

Tiffany P. said...

Thank you so much for writing this post! I am currently working on recieving a masters degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs and am hoping next year after graduation to work with returning veterans. It was very helpful to actually hear the struggles and words from a veteran who has dealt with the hurdels first hand! Thank you again!

John said...

quick story: when I enrolled at a university in d.c this past summer and became a member of the veterans group on campus, some of the issues you talked about in this entry flared up. The focal point of the controversy stemmed from where I moved to: a house a half a mile from campus shared by 5 other student veterans. Such a beautiful idea in theory; our own fraternity, whose ties stretched far beyond the superficial ambitions of what greek life aspired to. The house was great, and it still is but while I was there I slowly began to find minor problems with some of the vets I was with... insisting we call the house FOB Van Ness when having parties. Wearing caps with CAB's stenciled onto them, and stitching nametape into olive drab vietnam era jackets. Giving interviews with school papers and local media about the student veteran experience... in short, as you said the "prattlers". Eventually their actions seemed to be alienating, or at least not engaging the other veterans on campus, and our parties seemed to be mostly ROTC kids and freshmen/sophomore girls. Against this, a marine veteran of Phantom Fury sent a scathing message to our veteran group rebuking us for the apparent whoring. To this non prattler, the idea of even calling a house a FOB was infuriating, let alone the other more outright transgressions. He promptly fell out of touch with us and dropped off the grid, his silence perhaps a badge of honor against our lack of modesty. As fate would have it I was recalled out of the IRR this past December, and had to leave campus and "FOB Van Ness". It's a great fear of mine that the prattlers will overcome the non prattlers, especially those who take the quiet professional mantra to mean not telling anyone you're a veteran at all. And from Iraq, seeing these same vets give there interviews and hold their ROTC co sponsored parties has moved from minor problems to source of genuine frustration. Anyway keep truckin- its in the deft balance of articulating what the fuck happend to us while carefully maintaining humility that the gap can begin to be bridged between civilian and soldier. I think

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the perspective, I'm looking to get back into school for my masters and its nice to see what the world outside the Army is shaping up to be.