*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on August 30, 2017. It can also be found online here.
I’m a veteran and I belong on a university campus. Both today, as a dissertation student, and someday, as a professor.
Last week a vocal minority calling itself the “Social Justice Collective,” in an unsanctioned newsletter posted on bulletin boards at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, declared this is bad for everybody, that “in order to protect our academic institutions we must ban veterans from four-year universities.”
To be sure, like all broad-based groups, veterans aren’t perfect. And this newsletter’s particularly distasteful argument is easy enough to dismiss. But it does provide an opportunity for former soldiers and fellow citizens alike to evaluate and upend some of what this newsletter claims are fundamental incompatibilities.
The newsletter charges veterans “openly mock the ideas of diversity and safe spaces for vulnerable members of society.” In reality, the soldier always fights in diverse coalition to defend the defenseless. The bigger team usually wins, and soldiers learn early on there’s no greater imperative than to come together as one. We represent and defend diversity.
In my own life, one of the best officers I served in combat with was gay, as was the Anglican clergyman that first blessed our daughter. I fought alongside a Moroccan-American Muslim, who watched my back just as he protected Iraqis of other religious sects. I’ve handed flags to grieving spouses at military funerals, both Jewish and atheist. And when our child had a serious medical condition, we overruled our White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant doctor’s opinion in favor of a Pakistani immigrant doctor we trusted more.
Veterans know through the hardest earned experience what Martin Luther King, Jr. described many years ago: it’s the content of your character that counts, and not much else.
The newsletter’s second point is that “many students are frightened by the presence of veterans in their classrooms.” This is somewhat undermined by the digging KKTV Channel 11 did into the story, finding that literally all UCCS students the network interviewed “disagreed with the stance the letter takes.”
The newsletter’s portrayal of veterans as angry, hair-trigger aggressors doesn’t make much sense. On average, student-veterans are older, more mature, and grateful to be in a classroom exchanging ideas instead of gunfire. And they’re much less violent than this newsletter would have readers think. As British author G.K. Chesterton once put it, the “soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
The newsletter’s last point is the hardest to swallow, that “veterans usually are associated” with extremist groups.
Again, as veterans are a significant part of the population as a whole, unfortunately, there are some out there. But let’s turn attention from outliers and focus on what’s normal. As our newsletter writer likely doesn’t spend time with many veterans, I think it’s appropriate to introduce a few.
As I dropped off my daughter at her first day of kindergarten last week, I chatted with an internal medicine specialist that recently left the U.S. Air Force. While in service, he spent time as an in-flight doctor keeping severely wounded soldiers alive on their way to higher level care. He told me how meaningful it was to serve his country by saving lives.
Or the minister at the church I attend who is a retired U.S. Army chaplain. Her congregation goes far beyond churchgoers; multiple times each week she organizes meals for the indigent and aged. The church’s motto: “Feeding People All Ways.”
Across the street lives an ex-special forces soldier that served as a volunteer firefighter for a time and ran across the street to push my car out of the snow the first time we met. And there’s my brother who just left being a medic in the U.S. Army. He once rushed my wife to the hospital when she cut her hand badly. Upon telling him she’d forgotten her identification card, he ran back into the house to get it. As an additional calming measure, he grabbed her a Fresca.
Do these veterans sound like people that don’t belong in society’s academic spaces? In fact, with these experiences, with such a deep dedication to others, these are precisely the type of citizens we want in all our classrooms.
This newsletter has the problem backwards. The real fear isn’t that veterans and civilians are too close, it’s that they separate too far from one another. For a variety of reasons, we don’t need the massive numbers of soldiers we once did, and Americans know their military a bit less today than in the past. That’s not anyone’s fault.
But it also means we should do what we can to stick together. And one of the best ways is through common experiences in public spaces like universities. And that will only happen if we keep veterans engaged on university campuses.