*The following was an email sent to Milites Christi members and allies shortly after I graduated, as we were transitioning to new leadership.
Recently Duke Today published an article about how the veteran population at Duke has quadrupled from 55 when I started to 158 as of the month I graduated. And that only counts those who self-identify by utilizing the GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon funds, the two federal programs cited in the article. During that same time, the known suicide rate for veterans has also increased, from 17 every day to 22, by the VA’s own investigation. In that same three year period, I served as the president of Duke Vets (the only inter-disciplinary student group for veterans and supporters), co-founded the Divinity student group Milites Christi and helped convene the After the Yellow Ribbon conference, which produced hours of material to help communities (especially the academic one in which we were immersed) to engage more meaningfully with veterans and service members in our midst. I also wrote one book with a lot of information and reflections on faith and service, and another is in the final stages of editorial work before launching this coming All Saints Day.
I hope that in some way the work myself and innumerable others accomplished and the resources we’ve produced have had a positive effect in your life or ministry. Maybe you are a current student whose interest in ministry to the military community has been sparked. Maybe you’re an alumni who is putting those skills to work in your own congregation, which in NC is likely to have a few veterans (considering that one in ten residents is a former service member). Or maybe you yourself as a veteran have appreciated what’s been done either by the university or by the small group of folks that have been a part of those groups I mentioned above. If that describes you, I’d like to ask you to return the favor.
The article I cited above was very difficult for me to read. I was interviewed for it and when I saw the first draft, I asked for any reference to me to be removed. I did so in part because I have seen what the article leaves out, like why every other (public) university in the triangle has a dedicated center and staff for veteran concerns, like disability management, financial aide, registrar, VA interaction, etc. At places like NCCU, NCSU, and UNC, they have a small number of people whose paid, primary responsibility it is to work with and for veterans to get services they deserve. Duke has one person, who recently described her work as “a nightmare,” because she wants to be able to do more but does not have the resources she needs, like training, extra personnel, and the tangible administrative support of the wider university and its many schools. One person is not enough to do what needs to be done and the services that Duke provides are inadequate, as numerous first hand accounts have made clear to me and others. The two programs that the article mentions are the bottom of the barrel, the bare minimum that any elite university in the south (where an overwhelming majority of military installations reside) would commit institutional suicide by not providing.
The improvements that Duke can make are many and varied, but one baby step at a time can get us to a place where veterans are not just another mundane, forgotten part of the university, but an integral and valued part of community there. As a Divinity grad, my concern is front and center for developing theological resources for the church. As a socially distinct group, veterans need to explore and understand themselves and their social location in order to fully embrace who and whose they are in light of their particular set of circumstances. Many groups have advanced spiritual formation that they can elect to participate in, and I think that is a great start. Chaplain Bates and Dean Hays were very supportive of this idea when I brought it to them at the close of last semester, but said that it is a numbers game; they cannot allocate the resources to create that space until enough squeaky wheels speak up and ask for it. I get enough correspondence from current students and alumni to suggest it is a need that warrants this kind of attention at the school.
I’m writing today to ask you to contact either of them and ask that they make sure that the work that Milites Christi has begun does not stagnate, that the school continues to be a place that actively welcomes veterans and is an example for the wider university on how to do so meaningfully. We have done it before and we can do it again. It can begin with us at the Divinity school once more, with institutionally provided advanced spiritual formation that focuses on the distinct needs of veterans (for them and for their allies), especially at the tail end of over a decade of war.
Thanks for reading this far and considering how you can support those in our midst who have served in the military. To stay up to speed on Millets Christi [now Duke Divinity Veterans Partnership], they have a Facebook page and a Twitter account you can follow for updates.