Why Veterans Can’t Fit In On Campus

An Atlantic story on veterans returning to college is both poignant and miscast.

An Atlantic story on veterans returning to college is both poignant and miscast.

I first encountered the author, Alex Horton, several years ago when we were booked, along with Phil Carter, on an NPR Veterans’ Day debate. More recently, we’ve interacted on Twitter since he left the Army, went to college, and started working for the VA.

I didn’t have time to read his piece, “Lonely Men on Campus: Student Veterans Struggle to Fit In,” when it posted yesterday morning but was a bit bemused by some of the discussion of it I was seeing on Twitter. After all, I’d gone back to campus after a few years in the Army myself and found myself neither lonely nor struggling to fit in. Or, at least, any more than I had been the first go-round.

But he’s not really talking about veterans per se, or even combat veterans; rather, he’s talking about a group with much less in common with other students.

[Josh] Martell spent just over three years in the Army, including a 15-month tour in Iraq as an infantryman. Now 27, he has since left the military, and his second daughter was born earlier this year. He juggles his welding job and family with a full load of courses at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he majors in communications.

He doesn’t talk about his encounter with a jury-rigged bomb — or any war stories for that matter — with his classmates. Most of them were worrying about prom dates and acne while Josh trudged through open sewers, took sniper fire, and saw his fellow soldiers mangled and killed. He definitely doesn’t mention the time four roadside bombs detonated next to his Stryker assault vehicle in rapid succession, where each explosion felt closer to the one that would tear open the steel underbelly like a sardine can and vaporize the men inside.

But it’s not just the discussion of war he omits from other students. He has quarantined himself almost entirely. He shows up for class, takes notes, and leaves, most of the time without communicating with students or professors. In the first three months of his first semester at UW-GB, he never said more than a few words to anyone. “I’m almost 10 years older than everyone. I’m not a college kid partying on the weekends. Who would want to be my friend?” he told me over the phone as his own kids played in the living room.

I’m sure that Martell’s experiences in Iraq would make fitting in with a bunch of snot-nosed 18-year-olds for whom dragging their asses out of bed in time for class is the most grueling responsibility they’ve ever had challenging. But he’s older than I was when I went back to graduate school and has a welding job and two children! The fact that he’s a veteran isn’t his major obstacle here.

Ditto our next case study:

Some veterans choose to blend in, but that’s impossible for Jason Mendieta. At 6’2″ and 300 pounds, he looks more like a misplaced bouncer than an undergrad student at Redlands University, a private school an hour’s drive east from Los Angeles. His thick black hair and Nicaraguan descent challenge the stereotypical image of a combat soldier as a redneck with a southern drawl. Even his wartime injuries won’t give him away. Jason, 28, earned a Purple Heart during his first tour after shrapnel from an explosion burrowed into the left side of his body. The scars aren’t visible anymore, and neither are the tiny bits of shrapnel still embedded in his skin.

The grueling physical punishment of house-to-house guerilla warfare prepared him for a slot on the Redlands football team as an offensive lineman. Athletes and commentators have been known to make crude associations between football and war; enormous men shove each other in the trenches; the quarterback leads the air attack; defensive blitzes are a nod to Hitler’s 1939 offensive. The vernacular even bleeds into merchandising. Ads for Nike’s Pro Combat gear line show sinewy players under custom pads as if they were the chainmail of our day. Mendieta — a professional of actual combat — sees more subtle associations between the military and football.

“Football held it together for me. There was a lot of teamwork, a lot of camaraderie,” he said. “It was really helpful.” The discipline of the sport helped Mendieta stay focused on his studies in the field of international relations. School was new and exciting as he absorbed economics and posted about realist theory on his Facebook page. But Mendieta’s savings from his two deployments dried up, and he needed an income to support himself through school. He hung up his cleats to work the night shift at UPS, a decision Mendieta says his privileged classmates likely won’t face during their studies.

No longer part of the close-knit team, Mendieta’s only social outlet melted away, and with it, interest and motivation in his schoolwork. He now struggles to maintain a crowded schedule on an average of four hours of sleep a night. Like Martell, Mendieta hasn’t made any lasting friends. He stays on campus long enough to attend class, then he promptly leaves, walking past banners and posters carrying the school slogan: “Dare to be Different.”

Again, the fact that he’s served in the Army and been wounded in combat are factors in his isolation. But it’s far from obvious that this is the main obstacle for a 28-year-old who’s attending an expensive private school while working the night shift at UPS to pay his way through.

Universities have long been a place where young people develop an identity, or a purpose in life. Students load up on debt as they find out who they are and what they can achieve. But for older students with wartime experience, those lessons have already been learned amid a procession of struggle and sacrifice that’s impossible to reproduce in a classroom. A personality molded in the crucible of war doesn’t easily bend to the institutional tenets that universities push in glossy brochures. That leaves student veterans not only detached from other classmates, but from the schools their classmates take pride in attending.

Look, I’m sure that the rah-rah of some college campuses is lost on a grown ass man returning from war. But isn’t that just as true for any non-traditional student? Almost by definition, someone who starts college at 28 is simply different from their cohorts who started at 18. They were probably already different coming out of high school in terms of academic aptitude, family structure, socioeconomic status, or some combination of factors. And they then spent several years working in jobs that were probably lousy and low-paying. That means they show up on campus with emotional scars and bitter experience rather than the stupid optimism of kids who don’t know better.

Again, there’s no doubt that factoring in “getting shot at” or “seeing my friends get blown up” complicates things. But most veterans don’t have those experiences. And even most of those who do come away from it without any permanent damage.

Oddly, it turns out that the key to fitting in is . . . making an effort to fit in.

Lund figured out the formula for an easier time after the military: find a social group, stay active, and make friends, even if they’re not veterans. That’s also the advice Brian Hawthorne regularly gives out. An Iraq veteran and board member of Student Veterans of America, Hawthorne held down a job while finishing a graduate degree in political management at George Washington University. “I don’t think a lot of veterans want the college experience, and use the age gap as an excuse not to participate. And I think that’s a dangerous thing,” he told me. “When parents send their 18 year-old off to college, they say to them, ‘Try everything.’ So why don’t we tell veterans that?” Hawthorne probably didn’t try everything, but he fell into a social circle at the international relations fraternity on campus, which helped him get over the sense of isolation he felt with civilian students.

I was an undergrad during Reagan administration, so most of the veterans I encountered on campus had never been shot at. Still, we had several students who did 3 or 4 years in the service and got out and went to school. We had a handful of them in my ROTC detachment. Others wanted nothing to do with military life again and just went to class. Others joined fraternities and tried to make up for lost time.

Universities may be logistically suited to helping veterans return to the civilian world. But the disconnected social experience and age discrepancies turn many veterans off from approaching school in that way. Universities are beginning to understand this growing issue as the veteran population on campus steadily rises. A psychologist dedicated to serving student veterans has an office at the University of Texas at Austin. Spaces and buildings exclusively for veterans, like the ones at Montana State University, provide room for study and decompression. Purdue University has put up grant money to help student veteran groups in Indiana fund support and resource centers. Student Veterans of America, a national network of 500 student-run groups, works with universities to expand services and encourages its members to leave the dorm and integrate with the rest of the campus.

Which probably makes sense for very young veterans who are still single. Then again, it makes just as much sense for other non-traditional students; I’m not sure what having previously worn a uniform has to do with anything.

Many people begin lifelong friendships at college, but Jason Mendieta may leave Redlands with an empty address book. It’s doubtful Martell will break his quiet streak. Others may drop out all together: A recent study at Arizona State University suggests the power of social relationships directly impacts a veteran’s decision to stay in school. Post-traumatic stress and multiple deployments are thought to unravel the ability of some to make it through to graduation. Without the right support, veterans may not only forgo the campus clubs and house parties but leave before they get their diplomas. They won’t only squander taxpayer money, but an opportunity to recalibrate their professional and personal lives after their service.

It’s criminal that we haven’t done a better job of figuring out how to deal with post-traumatic stress and aren’t providing maximum resources to the minority of veterans who suffer with it. We owe it to them.

Otherwise, though, veterans aren’t necessarily special here. Again, people who don’t go on to college right out of high school are a different breed of cat than those who did. Many didn’t belong in college to begin with. For that matter, a huge chunk of those who do go to college right out of high school don’t graduate and many of those who do don’t make the most of it.

Having served honorably in the military—or even heroically under fire—doesn’t mean that you’re smart, gregarious, or studious. Being a veteran doesn’t guarantee you smooth sailing the rest of your life.

FILED UNDER: Education, Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Otherwise, though, veterans aren’t necessarily special here.

    I wonder if part of the problem is that veterans have internalized too much of the propaganda that soldiers are an inherently higher form of humanity than the mere civilians that make up the rest of the population. There problem here is that they’re being treated just like everyone else rather than being made the center of the universe. They expect all the other students to come to them rather than reaching out.

  2. Eric says:

    As a traditional college student, I felt the sting of this article. But yeah I have seen many adults (or how should I say, developed adults, perhaps?) and interacted with quite a few especially working in my advisors’ office. They don’t share the same enthusiasm as I do (and the stupid optimism) regarding school, but they do try hard.

    My university actually has a campus housing program that does somewhat accommodate the older adults by providing family housing and/or housing with people closer to their age group. But it is weird (from my view and most likely the older adults’ view as well) that some older person is taking classes or walking in the dorms with a bunch of young kids who can’t wait for the weekend to party.

  3. @Stormy Dragon:

    Where is the evidence of that? In my experience, and James can probably speak to this better than I, the deification of the military is something that’s really more a product of the civilian world.

    This really is primarily an issue of age differences. When I was in law school there were a small number of people who were older than the rest of us who had gone straight from High School to college to Law School, including one woman who was in her 50s. I was on the day track, but there were even more people like that on the night track. It really is like they are coming from a totally different world.

  4. Scott says:

    As I was nearing retirement, I went back to take some classes (usually around noon) at a local traditional university. What I found different than the first time I went to college right out of high school was that I could talk to the professors a lot easier and didn’t hesitate to stop in their office to discuss and chat. I think they found it easier also. It was adult to adult, not adult to student. So I think James is right; it is a matter of age, lifestyle, your place at this point in time that is the issue. Being a veteran is just one facet of the whole person.

  5. TastyBits says:

    @Stormy Dragon

    Not all military personnel are better than civilians, and many civilians are as good or better than many civilians. It must be sad going through life knowing your bettors will always be esteemed. I pity you.

  6. Bennett says:

    @TastyBits: I think you are mis-reading what he wrote. And from my own experience, yes lots of veterans do feel a sense of being better than civilians. It’s not like the military tries to discourage it either. “Nasty civilian” is a common term, thrown about by superiors and peers alike. The moment you get off the bus at boot camp to the day you muster out, you really are taught that you posses different qualities than those who don’t serve. It may not be correct, but don’t shoot the messenger.

  7. Wayne says:

    @James
    Your experience probably doesn’t translate well with theirs. First, you went to college first so knew what to expect. The second time you went, I suspect was for your Masters. Those going for their Masters tend to have a different disposition and experiences than a typical person going for their Bachelors. In addition, if I remember right you were an artillery officer. Many branches tend to have a different mentality as well as differences between an Officer and Enlisted personnel. In cadet land, I often had issues with the Artillery and Quartermasters personnel mentality while getting along with the Infantry and Aviation ones. Each has its purpose but they are different.

    I agree that even being a few years older can make a difference in “fitting in”. I also agree that many of people who didn’t serve in military but with similar criteria would experience similar disassociations. Part of it is they are less impressible and tend to approach their studies more seriously with “partying” being very secondary. I know I was much more into being an athlete and the parting than studies my first two years.

    However, IMO there are unique issues with many from the military especially from certain branches and even more so if they been deployed. Even outside of college they often feel like they don’t fit in. Often life in the States feel surreal.

    Let’s take typical someone who was an enlisted Infantryman. One, his discipline is much higher than what a typical college student is. I still get frustrated with the lack of efficiency with people getting on and off of planes. Also, they are aware that much of the idealistic B.S. college ideals are not realistic. They know what misery is like and will tend to have a harder edge about them. I gash, broken bone, or a hurt feeling will not likely be that big of deal to them and think those who do are being silly. Different branches will have their unique issues. For example, someone from the Signal Corp will know the book solutions for troubleshooting a technical problem often don’t work well. Too long so I will end.

  8. Wayne says:

    @Bennet
    When and where did you served? That wasn’t my experience.

  9. Bennett says:

    @Wayne: 2004-2010, USMC

  10. JKB says:

    @Bennett:

    What level clearance did you have? Because I was definitely not read into the program you describe. And I’ll have to say, everyone I met over my 20 years did a great job sticking to their need to know.

  11. Bennett says:

    @JKB: I think what I wrote may have come off as too harsh. Basically, many people in many different infantry platoons I was in had a high opinion of themselves compared to civilians. And I could see how that would impact their ability to adjust to being around them at a university. I don’t see what security clearance has to do with it. I had a Secret, which is standard for any 03 MOS.

  12. JKB says:

    Universities have long been a place where young people develop an identity, or a purpose in life. Students load up on debt as they find out who they are and what they can achieve.

    The experience describes sounds very familiar to me but I did it as an 18 yr old right out of high school. It’s called responsibilities and maturity. I went to class then went to work, then studied. Little time left for being stupid and little tolerance since I was paying my way. The idea of loading up on debt never occurred to me. Granted, this was 30 years ago, but studies have shown, when students are paying their hard earned cash for college, they do crazy things like study and forego the drunken “finding themselves” part of the experience. Throw in a twenty two year old starting college after tour in the military is likely to have more mature outlook on life. Not all but, having been tested, many will be the adults their classmates will hopefully achieve before they are 30.

    If you are 28 years old with kids and a day job, you don’t go to college to find yourself, you go to college to improve your prospects. Your identity is quite defined as dad, provider and someone with a plan to improve things.

    The sentence quoted above is telling. The product and debt universities sell these days isn’t a product many older, mature students desire and if they figure out the “education” has been compromised in favor of the “experience” then universities will find themselves losing customers.

  13. TastyBits says:

    @Bennett

    Since 2003, anybody enlisting knew there was a good chance they would serve in a combat zone. I respect somebody who volunteers to do the dirty work. I also respect police and firemen for the same reason. Many civilians are nasty. Smoking dope and eating Cheetos in mommy’s basement is a sign of a nasty civilian.

    Non-combat vets will never know what being in combat is like. Non-combat traumatic situations are not voluntary. It is difficult for most people to understand what this is like, and many people do not want to know what it is like. Military personal do not put them self first. Often the values that are ingrained by the military are not valued by civilians. In the civilian world, some things do not make sense to a vet.

    The messenger is bitter and has no idea of what or how a veteran thinks. The “propaganda” and “different qualities” are the values esteemed in the military. Most vets will not equivocate about the primacy of these values, and this is what grates many people making them bitter.

  14. Dale B says:

    I went to college for a year then dropped out and spent seven years in the navy as an electronics technician. After I was discharged I went back to college for four years. In college, I never fit in, either before or after the navy, and I was fine with that. The GI bill paid for college and I worked 20-30 hours a week to pay for an apartment, food, and the rest of life. I did participate in campus activities to the extent that I had time and an interest (in other words, not a lot but not zero either).

    The fact that I was a veteran never was an issue. Except for the people in the campus VA office, very few people even knew that I was a veteran. It wasn’t a secret, it just never came up. The differences, to the extent there were differences, were almost entirely because I was nearly ten years older than the other students and had almost no spare time.

    I find Stormy Dragon’s idea that we were indoctrinated to have a sense of superiority towards civilians quite bizarre. The only time civilians were even mentioned was in the context of our behavior on liberty. We were supposed to be nice to all civilians all the time. In other words, don’t be an ass hat or do anything that reflects badly on the navy. Maybe the the other branches were different.

  15. TastyBits says:

    @Bennet

    … I had a Secret, which is standard for any 03 MOS.

    When did this start?

    Personally, I consider 5th Marines to be better than most. You should know that the Marine Corps training is geared toward combat, and it has been since 1775. Training Marines to be as good as everybody else is not a really good idea.

    In the civilian a 20 year old is considered an adolescent and needs to be insured by mommy and daddy until 26. This is a luxury that is not available to military personal.

  16. James Joyner says:

    @TastyBits:

    In the civilian a 20 year old is considered an adolescent and needs to be insured by mommy and daddy until 26. This is a luxury that is not available to military personal.

    Indeed. They’re insured by the US taxpayer.

  17. JKB says:

    @James Joyner:

    True, they enjoy medical care coverage, but then they cannot refuse to go into harms way. Plus, if their irresponsibility on leave or liberty causes them to become unfit for duty, they stand tall before the Commander to explain and have punishment meted out.

  18. michael reynolds says:

    In a related note there’s something condescending and alienating about what above is called the deification of the military. It’s society’s way of absolving itself for getting men killed and mutilated. And by putting a class of people on a pedestal you’re removing them from the collective “we the people.” I think it’s bad for the military and bad for the country.

    The endless, mawkish, “thanks for your service” crap should stop, unless we’re also going to thank cops, firemen, teachers, garbage collectors etc… We all contribute to keeping the civilization and the country running. A soldier — especially a professional soldier, someone who’s been in a while — deserves the respect we show to any accomplished professional. If you meet a senior NCO or officer you can assume they’ve worked hard, become good at their job, know some things you don’t know — same as if you met a nurse with some years on the job or a law firm partner, or for that matter a headwaiter or machinist.

  19. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: I concur. Indeed, I’ve been saying much the same for years now.

  20. TastyBits says:


    … cops, firemen, teachers, garbage collectors etc…

    Two of these things are not like the others. I was not aware that garbage collectors is a dangerous occupation. Teachers probably should receive hazardous duty pay.

    “Thanks for your service” is a way to recognize that military, police, and firemen do a dangerous job and to display gratification. As to “deification of the military” that is not what people who appreciate the military (police and firemen).

    1968 is long past, and the hippies lost. The American people will no longer accept the shameful treatment of the military. If you do not want to acknowledge their service, nobody has a problem, but most people do have a problem with you bad mouthing them.

  21. Bennett says:

    @TastyBits:

    When did this start?

    I don’ know, but it has to do with the encrypted radio gear that is standard these days.

  22. Patrick says:

    I replied to Mr. Joyner immediately after reading this from twitter. I am in an MA program moving into a PhD at Rutgers, and have taken several classes with fellow veterans and still serving reservists and guardsmen, all very much younger than I am. It hasn’t been that they are that much different than the other students in the program because they are veterans. What I have seen is that the older ones that have children, jobs, “grown up” responsibilities, or whatever tend to be the loner and not as engaged with their fellow students whether they are veterans or not. I work in Manhattan, live in NJ, and have a family with 4 kids, 2 of which are 19 month old twins. I am not going drinking. I am not hanging out. I am getting my coursework and doing what group level work I need to do and going home. OK, so I am a withdrawn OIF vet and current Infantry Officer in the Guard? No, I am a father and husband that has responsibilities to my family.

    As far as the deification comment, I agree. It is a response as described by Michael Reynolds, and I do believe that some of these guys are getting pumped up with the “sons of Sparta” warrior and “you are more special than the other -pick your percentage of the population- that didn’t serve. When they have been told they are special, had it beat into their heads, and they don’t get treated as they have been told they deserve, the reactions may be negative. I have interviewed a Soldier that attempted suicide that described that he didn’t think being off active duty would be this hard, and that didn’t he deserve to be treated better because he served and sacrificed? It is hard to talk some guys down when this has been their life since high school.

  23. TastyBits says:

    @James Joyner

    Indeed. They’re insured by the US taxpayer.

    This is usually called employer provided healthcare insurance. I think there may be a law about this.

  24. TastyBits says:

    @Bennett

    It is for encryption. It is classified (or similar) equipment, but I never thought of it that way,

  25. Rafer Janders says:

    @TastyBits:

    I

    n the civilian a 20 year old is considered an adolescent and needs to be insured by mommy and daddy until 26. This is a luxury that is not available to military personal.

    That’s true, they just get insured by the taxpayers.

  26. Rafer Janders says:

    Aha, I see James beat me to the punch.

  27. TastyBits says:

    @Rafer Janders

    That’s true, they just get insured by the taxpayers.

    Again, this is usually called employer provided healthcare insurance.

  28. superdestroyer says:

    Veterans probably make the mistake of using Google Maps instead of Google search engine to find a college to attend. Veterans should attend universities that have a high percentage of students above the age of 25 (the so-called non-traditional school). The veterans should also be very careful in picking their degree. Too many of them go for the easy communications or organizations management at a school that gives them too many credits for their experience.

    Veterans need to be careful that everyone has a degree these days and thus, what the degree is in and where they got it from is more important.

    The example of the veteran who works as a welder and is getting a degree in communications is a good example of the failure of counselling and planning.

  29. TastyBits says:

    @superdestroyer

    The example of the veteran who works as a welder and is getting a degree in communications is a good example of the failure of counselling and planning.

    Is this applicable to non-veterans also? If not, why? If so, what degree is appropriate for a welder?

  30. superdestroyer says:

    @TastyBits:

    If you look at the website for UW-Green Bay, it is definitely the wrong school for veterans. Any school that humanistic studies, justice studies, first nations studies, gender studies, and urban stuides is probably not the place for any veteran.

    Veterans are making the mistake by believing that having the degree is important rather than realizing that what they major in is very important. The only jobs that any veteran can get with a degree in communications from UW-Green Bay are the jobs that either do not require a degree or just require a BS/BA in anything.