Veterans at Duke: Following up

Monday was Veterans Day, which is always a crazy busy time for me. Besides being a member of the group honored by this national holiday, it is also the feast day for my patron saint, Martin of Tours. But it is also very near what veterans and VA clinicians call an anniversary for me. Nine years ago, it was mid November when I watched a young man die slowly in the cold desert night pinned beneath several tons of a Humvee in Iraq. Reflecting on that evening over the several weeks and months that followed, my heart and mind was eventually converted from the remaining confidence I had in war.

In the years that have followed, I have committed myself to serving and supporting veterans and soldiers in particular, especially in the church, but not exclusively. For two  years as a student at Duke, I presided over the campus wide organization for students, staff, and faculty veterans; Duke Veterans. But the more we did as a group, the more speedbumps we hit. Trying to work within the system for two years left me wondering if anything was accomplished. After recently reconnecting with administrators and those who replaced me in various ways, it seemed to me that it remained business as usual.

The problem with business as usual at Duke is that it began only after someone like me took their own life.

The article I published on Monday afternoon was probably only the first of many. The system that has established itself at Duke has defaulted to methods that obstruct veterans from communicating openly with one another. However, it is common knowledge that veterans process most productively with other veterans, especially those who fought in the same or similar conflicts. Because of generational and operational differences between different wars, veterans do not connect nearly as solidly with veterans of other wars.

The instincts of the institution to put Vietnam or Gulf War veterans in front of the camera or the microphone which is certainly a small step in …a direction. But in three years, I haven’t spoken to any student veterans who fought in those conflicts. It leaves me wondering who it is the administration expects to be speaking to. For well over ten years “veteran” has included people of my war, the “Global” war on terrorism (funny how global and “world” otherwise seem synonymous), and I wonder why, for example, they didn’t put a GWOT veteran on their web page or ask one to speak on Monday.

Hopefully things will change. Hopefully those managing information and other resources will listen to the very students who make their salaries possible. I hope that administrators will begin really listening to those who continue to serve in these latest conflicts. But even those veterans who fought long before me have not been heard and fully appreciated. If they had, Duke would not have allowed the ceremony to desecrate the solemnity of the annual 11 bell tolls struck on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, in memory of the devastating effects of war. Instead, the perfunctory ceremony began just as the first toll sounded , steadfastly refusing to stop and wait and listen during each and every toll that followed.

If Monday is any indication, even without my previous experience there, Duke has a long ways to go to understand and properly acknowledge their own fastest growing student population. Instead of focusing on token gestures that themselves violate the rituals and symbolism developed by the martial community, Duke must stop and assess how their actions and inactions reflect on the character of the institution. Does Duke really want the kind of reputation it is gaining with veterans? Will they invest in this, the next greatest generation, by responding effectively to their unique needs? Time will tell, I suppose.

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