My father, who passed away last year, served as a sergeant in the Signal Corps in the Philippines during WWII. After I had survived the trials of adolescence and entered the ranks of adulthood, my father began to talk about his war experiences. War was always a subject of ambivalence for my father. He disliked war and deplored the killing of innocents. He always liked to say that he burned his uniform the day that he got home.
And yet, the stories he told about his beach landings and General MacArthur taking him aside to watch a dogfight over Manila Bay seemed to glow with a special reverence. Apart from his youth as the son of immigrants in Chicago and then creating a family in Portland, I think that his wartime experiences were some of the most important events of his life.
Everyone’s experience of war is different, but I suspect that many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and entering the University carry this sort of ambivalence, proud to have served yet eager to get on with their lives. A telling statistic is that only a fraction of student veterans attend veterans’ events on campus. Nonetheless, at a recent veteran’s and families art show, cosponsored by Counseling & Testing Center, I was pleasantly surprised at the level and range of participation. The artists included veterans of wars in Viet Nam and Iraq and those who served in non-combat positions. Through poetry, photography and artifacts, one could catch a glimpse of what these students went through during their service.
Students making the transition from the military to academia face some unique challenges. Many of these students are older than their academic peers and may find it hard to fit in. Some feel as though their opinions are not valued and their voices are not heard. Many are juggling school with other obligations, such as running a business or raising a family. Some are also struggling with the physical and emotional scars of war, including PTSD and minimal brain damage.
The Academy Award winning film, The Hurt Locker, artfully portrayed the disconnect that some combat veterans experience when returning to civilian life. In relation to the life-and-death situations and decisions of combat, the tasks and worries of everyday life can seem pale in significance. I will mention here that the Nontraditional Student Programs office recently launched a mentoring program called Dogtags to Ducks to help student vets with the transition to UO. In addition, the Veterans and Family Student Association (VFSA) hopes to establish a full service Veteran’s Center on campus — a place where vets can get receive critical assistance and find a sense of community.
Student veterans bring to campus wisdom born in the fires of experience. They have lived in the “real world,” which brings its own maturity, and they can be remarkably resourceful. Your student may benefit from getting to know a veteran on campus. If this relationship flourishes, the veteran may become an informal mentor. Short of this, your student can show support to veterans by attending upcoming Memorial Day events Spring term. Regardless of one’s political persuasion or views about the wars of the last decade, this is a time to recognize and appreciate those who served their country when called and who paid the ultimate price.
Mark Evans, Ph.D.