Swords to Pencils: Thoughts on the Veteran Experience in Academics

by Daniel Buckman

I saw the young veterans filing into my classroom before they saw me understanding them. They patrolled my school’s Greyhound terminal hallways where I taught English composition among rodents and balled fast food bags, a rundown college in Chicago’s Uptown where pistol fire popped in daylight hours from the three-way gang war over the lucrative narcotics trade in a neighborhood blooming with homeless addicts and halfway houses. The young veterans humped camo assault bags, containing US History texts and biology notes instead of spare MREs, 5.56mm ball ammunition, and Afghan dust. They kept sleeves down over tattoos of battle crosses, globes and anchors, the names of friends killed in Afghanistan. They were young men who had seen enough to lose their smiles forever, and none looked optimistic about doing two years with Purple Kush-reeking classmates who attended my college for the financial aid disbursement checks and the deans and tenured faculty who believed they had more than a full-time city job teaching remedial skills. Being an older grunt, a man who trained and served twenty years prior to these young veterans, I was no stranger to hiding my aversion for the innocence and untested idealism of my civilian peers by looking away and pretending that I saw something in the cinderblock walls except painted cinderblocks. This habit hurt me with civilians, and took time and patience for me to accept, and I wanted to make sure these young men weren’t held back by looking at brick walls like they were staring out windows.

I completed junior college, undergraduate, and graduate study by staring at many walls, drawing my eyes to keep them from rolling, and developing my method of appearing engaged by the surreal students and professors who hadn’t left a classroom since kindergarten. I had my military years away from the conventional experience of attending college after thirteen years of unbroken school time, and unlike my peers, I had discovered that not every problem in the world can be solved by well-intended dialogues. These young men realized, like I did, that being an outspoken veteran wouldn’t work in colleges because the young vets’ presence destroyed the academics’ ideal world and buzz-killed the young people who were sure they could rearrange the social order according to these professed ideals. In less than a month of US History and biology, I saw them mastering the skill of staring at walls like they were windows. I began to round them up.

They were former infantrymen, boy Soldiers and Marines morphed (in less than 90 days) into boy combat veterans who knew these community colleges saw them and their GI Bill as dollar signs, the deans wanted their enrollment but hoped they would keep their mouths shut about the war. Most Chicago academics weren’t comfortable with the progressive president they’d elected to end hostilities in Iraq suddenly surging thousands of our young people into the mountains of Afghanistan to win hearts and minds during an active drone campaign, a presidential war that would fail as badly as Bush’s adventurism in Iraq. They were Latin, African, Bosnian, and Polish Americans, first generation immigrant kids who walked the gauntlet of drugs and gang violence long before joining the First Marine, 82d Airborne, 10th Mountain, and 101st Airborne Divisions and deploying to the “shithole,” as they called Afghanistan, during Obama’s 2010 “Surge” into “the right war.” I introduced myself to the guys, self-identified as a Cold War paratrooper, and invited them speak about their military experience, make their arguments that war is the saddest part of the human condition, not a flu to be cured with antibiotics, and nagged them to use this educational time to define what being a veteran means before going into the post-college workplace and stuffing every feeling about Afghanistan to remain employable.


They became my nephews in short time, and they joked that I was really a defense contractor sent to “unfuck” them. We met in empty classrooms, a squad of USA and USMC infantry veterans of the Obama Surge, and drank the ice coffee and ate the cookies that my wife sent from home. I let them rant about getting asked how many people they killed by fellow students, how they could enlist to fight Bush’s war by instructors, and why nobody seemed interested in their specific experiences save for the scripted versions from Hollywood, MSNBC, or Fox News about why America was fighting in Afghanistan. The young veterans laughed, recounting their encounters with the storytelling ability that comes from pulling guard with your buddy during cold nights. We are lost with blood lust, they’d say with the jokey sarcasm of a homesick infantry sergeant to their noisy instructor, or relate to fellow student asking about killing by responding “I got twenty-two kills, but I never notched that knife kill; you know that gets you the Medal of Honor,” or telling a college peer that querying a veteran about killing is like a civilian being asked if their father enjoys having sex with their mother’s best friend.

I knew the guys weren’t liars. They mocked their own hyperbole, but back in Fall 2011, junior colleges were not understanding that veteran students freshly returned from the worst infantry combat since Viet Nam were attending classes in their systems comprised of 80% “come and go” adjuncts. The schools were happy for the GI Bill to come their way–anything for our vets, the college president with a German car told me while she was looking away, as if expecting a question about all the poor kids she helped by giving them the hope of a PhD and political connections so they could drive a foreign luxury car to an urban community college and preside over a four percent graduation rate someday – but nothing was done to build learning communities where a cohort of veteran students took the same classes for a year, helping them transition into academia and graduate, which is a rarity at junior colleges. I asked my tenured department head if we could have veteran organizations speak to faculty about how to teach a two-deployment infantry veterans since the military and the mainstream were more removed from each other than at any time in our nation’s history. She was uncomfortable, stalled, then said something about having to clear it with the dean of instruction, an entity who never seemed too interested in what was being instructed by my fellow adjuncts and myself, and less about insuring these motivated, young veterans succeeded despite culture shock, varying levels of PTS, and a legacy of educational stagnation from the “drop-out factory” Chicago high schools they attended before enlisting. These veterans needed attention and a level playing field, but all my college thought to do was hire a part-time veteran services specialist who was on campus when most of the veterans weren’t. The cultural critics were right. Patriotism (or simply doing the right thing for those who fought in your name) had given way to narcissism in 2011, and nobody felt that more than these young men who’d cheated death and fear for two years in Afghanistan. The selfless person and the narcissist can never speak the same language.

The veterans took this lack of administrative understanding hard, but they took security tailing them around campus with real sadness. They were first semester college students because they believed college was integral to success in America, and they sought a chance to be successful at something beyond surviving the Korengal Valley. The boys were always alone or with their fellow veterans, rarely finding a civilian peer that didn’t treat them as preternatural humans to be feared. Their disconnection from civilians based upon society’s disbelief that these men wanted to fight the war left them stranded in the memories of their old rifle companies and deployments via social media, and they laughed to themselves over private jokes first hatched while patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan with buddies who lived anywhere from Florida to Washington State. The retired cops that my college employed as security guards continued following them for laughing to themselves, and tried their best to give real Soldiers and Marines the classic asshole cop grin that promised violence. The vets countered with the same, loud grin. None of this was helping anything; assuming a veteran is violent because he has done violent things is the quickest way to hurt him.

Haven’t they ever had to laugh to keep from crying? The guys asked me of the faculty and administrators who always had security tailing them. No, I said. Not the way you have. Laughing solo labels you crazy in this world.

I advised the guys to close ranks and we were soon reading Heinemann’s Close Quarters, Jones’ Thin Red Line, and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Some started writing. These old grunt writers, they said, are the only people teaching us anything here. Our informal sessions became the reason they came to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays since they had already figured an underpaid adjunct instructor stressed about personal finances wasn’t worth the GI Bill they survived to not waste and their close friends died hoping to have the same attitude toward the greatest benefit of military service. They avoided well-meaning instructors who gave them articles about veteran suicide in Sociology 101 and wanted to know—before the class—how they felt about the epidemic. The veterans started dropping classes, or stuffing enough into one year for a quick transfer to University of Illinois at Chicago, until the group was only forming to see each other, eat my wife’s cookies, and discuss the greatest American novels about war and return with their new buddies. We are done being taught by movie watchers and news junkies with lots of education, they said. It is a waste of my GI Bill. Does anybody here have a clue about what we just did, and what we want to overcome by seeking an education? I could answer by doing, by keeping them close and together for one year. There was little to say that might not be a lie.