Best Defense

What the academy doesn’t know about the vet: Exploring the top five oversights

Tom recently asked us to address this question: “What the academy doesn’t know about the vet?” The bad news and simple answer is “a lot.” The good news — albeit almost 15 years after the Post-9/11 wars began — is that it’s getting better.

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By Corri Zoli, Rosy Maury, Danny Fay, & Nick Armstrong
Best Defense guest columnists

Tom recently asked us to address this question: “What the academy doesn’t know about the vet?” The bad news and simple answer is “a lot.” The good news — albeit almost 15 years after the Post-9/11 wars began — is that it’s getting better. We will try to explain why.

At the core of the problem is servicemembers’ “missing perspectives” on college campuses and in public discourse. This “finding” might seem odd, given overwhelming public support for the military since the 1980s — outpacing the church (see graph below). In the post-9/11 period, such support is now both pervasive and individualized: ordinary Americans give up seats, buy drinks, and incessantly “thank” veterans for their service.

But scratch the surface and one finds less deep public interest in understanding veterans’ actual experiences in the Post-9/11 wars — what it meant to be fighting them, how they changed the trajectory of a life, families, whole communities, or what these experiences mean for larger national discussions of service and security. As Sebastian Bae has written in these pages, “‘thank you for your service’ represents the banality of society’s understanding of the nation’s wars and the men and women who fought them.” Phil Klay calls this civilian-military distance a failure of imagination — too often vets as stoic warriors “fetishize their trauma as incommunicable,” remaining “forever” separated “from the rest of mankind,” and civilians play along, despite the consequences we all pay when “civilians are excused or excluded from discussion of war.”

Ideally, the academy should be a space for such discussions.  But we academics have too followed suit: we’ve lagged behind our colleagues from the past who used to know a lot about World War II, Korean, Vietnam, even Civil War vets. Aside from health and wellness studies, Gulf War I and Post-9/11 veterans — a cohort facing some of the most complex battlefields, unprecedented multiple deployments, and some of the highest service-related disability rates — have received less attention by social scientists, in education data efforts, or in programing on college campuses (with some emergent key exceptions). Neither the VA, nor the Departments of Education, Defense, and Labor — federal agencies responsible for collecting this data — have fully modernized their collection efforts to be compatible and to show how veterans are doing in military-to-civilian transition (school, careers, their families). Most telling, we do not have an executive-level study of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, like the seminal post-World War II Veterans’ Benefits in the United States: Findings and Recommendations, undertaken by Executive Order (No. 10588) in 1955. We do not even have a formal “after action review” of the Post-9/11 wars and their implications for servicemembers and the all-volunteer service — a normal institutional and policy-level learning process undertaken after war, even Vietnam. A lack of in-depth and data-driven inquiry on servicemembers has thus become common — despite robust traditions of interdisciplinary social science research on veterans from previous wars.

Yet, veterans pour onto campuses: the new Post-9/11 GI Bill has helped increase servicemembers in school — nearly 800,000 students took advantage of the benefit in 2014. The Bill itself was designed to replicate the rich benefits and success of the original GI Bill of 1944, that policy mechanism, to use social science terms, that helped create the famously “civic” greatest generation, the American middle class, U.S. global economic advantage, and the democratized university. Syracuse University, where we work, embraced the academically-untested World War II veteran. Chancellor Tolley opened the school’s doors wide — more than doubling the population — intuitively “getting” what student-veterans could mean for the school, New York, and the nation. Historical research, as mentioned, later backed him up.

But today we’re in a different national moment and mood — with a minority all-volunteer force whose experiences and perspectives are MIA. Without their input, stubborn myths — some new, some holdovers from past wars — persist (i.e., veterans are undereducated, maladjusted, a homogenous group, etc.). Despite the nuanced picture emerging from veterans-authored writing, the idea of veterans as “broken heroes” persists. Too little academic research has challenged such myths with facts, matched media narratives with data-driven analyses, or asked universities to explore what veterans offer to college campuses. Part of the ‘good news’ is that campuses, including our own are working hard to change that.

Here are five “take-aways” from our research for the academy:

  1. Post-9/11 veterans (from our nonrandom sample of 8,400 servicemembers) feel their decision to join the armed services was a good one (70 percent), their military experiences were mostly positive (58 percent), and they learned valuable, durable skills in service useful for university and life — despite personal costs and war outcomes. There is, furthermore, a correlation between positive military experience and the pursuit of higher education — that means somehow service is encouraging, selecting, or preparing veterans to go to school. One respondent summed this up by saying: “higher education is on the frontline of a successful transition process.”
  2. When we asked servicemembers to identify “skills developed during service,” most often respondents said: work ethic, teamwork, leadership, mental toughness, and adaptation (see chart below). Sorely missing from the academy is an awareness of these critical, often intangible skills, necessary for success and resilience, and what veterans might contribute on college campuses today in general. Beyond these items, veterans bring professional and occupational competencies learned from military service, including all the training (safety, preparedness, mission-focus, problem-solving, accountability, etc.) needed for having to do your job in an austere environment. Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 10.26.20 AM
  3. Despite myths of homogeneity, the military is the most ethnically diverse U.S. public institution — in ways the academy should appreciate and leverage. Not only are women the fastest growing group of veterans, the percentage of African Americans and other minorities in service often outpaces their national representation. But beyond rote demographics, the military is extraordinarily diverse in jobs and professions — the occupations, training, background, skills, competencies, and leadership capacities it creates. There are literally thousands of “military occupational specialties.” The military can teach the academy to appreciate a broadened definition of diversity. Veterans may also offer lessons to students on college campuses today in how to insist on mutual respect and equal opportunity but to balance needs — all while retaining the highest commitment to causes greater than self or identity/interest group.
  4. As part of this diversity, Post-9/11 veterans are more disabled than previous generations of warfighters. Yet, such service-related disabilities often spark educational initiative (no surprise for those who study servicemembers). Those in our sample with service-related disabilities were more likely to pursue and complete degrees. Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 10.28.55 AM
  5. Last, we found after service — even after military servicemembers obligations to the armed forces had ended—many veterans wanted to continue their public service and community engagement. This is true in all kinds of ways. Most servicemembers are employed in public sector (49 percent), followed by private sector at 37 percent, non-profit sector at 8 percent. Many choose degree fields at university that emphasize public service or giving back to the community. Many join or start nonprofit veteran-oriented service organizations. All of this raises the question of whether military service — as some claim — may actually preserve and encourage civic values and more public service.

These “missing perspectives” are critical to see. We’ve been lucky enough — in talking to and surveying recent servicemembers since 2009 — to be able to fill in some of the gaps. In the process, we’ve gotten a glimpse, not only of the challenges faced by this generation’s servicemembers, but their ongoing commitment to make public and social contributions.

See our recently released report, Missing Perspectives: Servicemembers’ Transition from Service to Civilian Life: Data-Driven Research to Enact the Promise of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
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