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.