"Joe" is 32 now. He's a father of two, a full-time employee, a third year law school student, and a former United States Marine, decorated with a purple heart. "Joe" is proud of his accomplishments and optimistic about the future. Today on Memorial Day he feels a tumble of emotions as he prepares for a parade for fallen soldiers in his hometown: pride, hope, loss, nostalgia for the friendship and bonds of the brave soldiers, who weren't as lucky as he.
Nine years ago Joe sustained an injury to his right hand on a hot, desolate Iraq road while disarming an improvised explosive device (IED) as he protected his fellow soldiers. Eight years ago he sat in my Ethics class, serious, tightly wound, sharing anecdotes about the ethical dilemmas he faced as a soldier in Iraq, sometimes tapping his boot-clad foot next to a black backpack that lay on the floor next to him, its contents bulging, zipper slammed shut with a purple heart medal dangling alongside.
Joe preferred Kant to Aristotle, the latter being to "wishy-washy" for him. No Grecian "golden mean" or temperance for Joe, the former Marine. Kant's laws, norms and sense of duty spoke to him and he was often the lone Kantian defender in class. Once, when it came to an in-class midterm where students had to explain Muslim ethics from a section of the Koran, something happened. Joe closed his blue book early, stood up, handed it in and quickly left the class. Reading it, I saw the last page trailed off mid-sentence. Joe's tiny, tense pencil scrawl skidded down a few lines and faded out.
"Well," I thought, "he's not usually so eager to leave things unfinished." I contemplated giving him a C instead of his usual A. Only later did I figure out the obvious: he told me at that moment in the exam, he was having flashbacks to moment when he was confronted by Iraqi children in the middle of a battle.
I've had many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan since Joe. Most don't identify themselves as vets. They usually major in politics or the sciences and sit quietly in the back of my class soberly answering questions about Hobbes' "war of all against all." They are usually older students, some married with or without kids. None ever asks for extra help or talks about his or her experiences. Sometimes I've had nursing majors, who talk about their fiancés and husbands in the armed services and the struggles they encounter. A couple of years ago I had an exceptionally charismatic, upbeat, well-spoken vet, a married physics major, who was proud of his service, thoughtful about life and ready to have discussions. In conversations with him I realized how much more I could have done for Joe and all the other vets I've had.
Vets return to college and university life not only as nontraditional, older students usually over 24. They have a myriad of experiences to share and also need support on campus. Often they tell me, while they are proud of their service, most of their peers and the faculty are critical of the wars they served in. Criticism doesn't bother them usually; it's a challenge and a chance for them to talk about the things that make them feel dedicated to the country they served, whether or not they agreed with every order and policy.
Currently there is too little support on campuses for vets to ensure their success in higher education and thereafter. Since 1972 there has been the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC) Consortium, which was created in 1972 to provide educational opportunities to servicemembers who, because they frequently moved from place to place, had trouble completing college degrees. In California there is the three year-old Troops to College program, in which California's public universities are required to provide veterans' services on campus -- everything from referrals for post-traumatic stress disorder to assistance in applying for tuition aid. But there could be much more. Vets often need help not only with reentry into civilian life, but simply balancing all the extra commitments in their lives, re-orienting themselves to discussions and work, where they don't need to be on the edge ready for an emergency. Campuses could also hire vets who graduate as campus liaisons to do outreach on campus and in the communities. Such a presence on campus would provide more opportunities for vets to share their experiences and create greater awareness of the efforts of Americans who serve their country. We should be proud of our vets and make sure they have the opportunity to succeed. There's a lot more that we could be doing to express our gratitude.
On Memorial Day, we honor those who gave their lives in service. While we remember those who have gone, let's make sure we do what's right for the living and give our vets the thanks they deserve.