Minnesota Humanities Center

What We Don’t Know We Don’t Know About Veterans on Campus

Posted March 19, 2019

A few weeks after I attended the Veterans’ Voices Educator Salon in summer 2018, a card appeared in my mailbox; it was from me, reminding future me of ways I could help student-Veterans at the University of St. Thomas, where I teach English. For several years now—since reading Bryan Doerries’ “Theater of War,” the story of his inspiring public health project that produced ancient plays for current service members, Veterans, and their families—I have been drawn to narrative therapy and untold stories about war and public memory. In this time, I have also grown increasingly concerned for a public (myself included) that is overwhelmingly not involved in the ongoing wars of our nation. You may share my dismay that while the United States has been continuously at war for eighteen years and counting now, actively deployed military personnel amount to less than 1% of the current US population. As Phil Klay, Veteran and winner of the National Book Award for his short-story collection “Redeployment,” wrote for the New York Times in 2014, this situation puts both civilians and Veterans in a difficult spot:

The civilian wants to respect what the Veteran has gone through. The Veteran wants to protect memories that are painful and sacred to him from outside judgment. But the result is the same: the Veteran in a corner by himself, able to proclaim about war but not discuss it, and the civilian shut out from a conversation about one of the most morally fraught activities our nation engages in—war.

How are Veterans’ narratives far more individual, multifaceted, and complexly human than that of the invincible hero or PTSD-crippled victim thanked for his service at the ballgame and on the airplane? (That “his” was deliberate, for how often, I now ask myself, did I imagine a woman’s face when I thought of Veterans?) How can the humanities help to express these narratives? Veterans need precise, unclichéd language and a full range of storylines and narrative possibilities for processing their memories and (re)writing their lives. Civilian onlookers need richly complex real stories to push away the stereotypes and listen.

In the Educator Salon mentioned above, over the three sessions led by Veterans (and educators) Miki Huntington, Roland Peckham, and Blake Rondeau, I engaged in conversations with other faculty and staff from local colleges and state offices concerned with Veterans’ affairs. Some of us had personal or family military experience; most of us didn’t. We were invited to share assumptions about war, military experience, and student-Veterans, many of which were overturned. We listened and were able to be vulnerable and open to what we don’t know—and what we don’t know we don’t know. We also ate good food. It was nourishing all around.

Our focus was Veterans on campus—that is, student-Veterans. What are their experiences on our campuses? How visible are they to faculty? The students in ROTC make themselves known through their uniforms; how do we identify Veterans in our classes? When colleges and universities talk about being a military-friendly campus, they’re thinking of course of providing services around accessing Veteran benefits, health care, career counseling. How, we asked in our conversations, can we expand the vision beyond seeing Veterans as students with special needs, to viewing them as valuable resources on campus? Here are students with leadership experience, specialized expertise, and maturity who’ve shouldered heavier responsibilities and gained a much wider acquaintance with the world than most traditional 18-22 year old undergrads have. What can we learn from them?

I dream of writing workshops on campus in which Veteran and non-Veteran students share their stories; of creating our own Theater of War-style readings of plays followed by discussion; of a symposium comparing the differences between traveling abroad as a student and as a soldier; and of a research day devoted to examining PTSD from neurological, psychological, political, philosophical, and literary perspectives. The humanities are such powerful tools for exploring and understanding the human experience, something I learned once again, even after nearly twenty years in the classroom. This is why the Veterans’ Voices Educator Salon was such a stimulating experience and why I continue to seek opportunities to connect with and learn from the Minnesota Humanities Center.

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By: Amy Muse

Amy Muse is an associate professor of English at the University of St. Thomas with a research (and life) interest in how literature and writing bring us together and equip us for living. She has engaged in introductory training at the Narrative Therapy Centre in Toronto, participated in a Veterans’ Voices storytelling workshop, and served as an Echoes of War discussion leader in Winona.