Vets on Campus and the Civ-Mil Divide

July 28, 2014

Editor’s note: This is the latest offering from our Charlie Mike blog, a place to engage on issues important to service members, military leaders, veterans, and others.  We want an active and robust dialog, so please read, comment, share, and email us at!

Last year, Marine veteran, Georgetown student, and WOTR contributor Thomas Gibbons-Neff wrote a moving post for the New York Times’ At War blog expressing the challenges he confronted as a battle-hardened Marine returning from Afghanistan and faced with the transformation into a college freshman. This article has since stuck with me.

I was drawn to his writing firstly because these student veterans deserve to be recognized and better understood as they make the difficult transition to civilian life and pursue new, hard-earned opportunities. However, it was the post’s call to these individuals to reach out to and educate their younger, less experienced and exposed peers that made it a must-read, not just for student veterans but also for the rest of us who have much to gain from them.

My own experience with my alma mater’s many veterans could not have changed my life more, and I was just about the least likely person to develop such relationships. I grew up on the staunchly liberal Upper West Side of Manhattan and attended a high school where I never heard college guidance counselors even mention ROTC as an option despite having many classmates on financial aid. When my father drove me down to Washington, D.C. to visit Georgetown University, he jokingly threatened to drive me to Annapolis instead as we passed signs for the elite school. My reaction was “The military? Why the hell would I ever do that?”

However, I was lucky enough in the summer after my sophomore year at Georgetown to meet a recently graduated Hoya who had been part of the NROTC program and was commissioning as an officer in the Navy. It was the first time I even realized that the military was a great option for those with great educations. More importantly, he was the first serviceman I had personally met, and I could not have asked for a better introduction to the community. His generosity, selflessness, and humility astounded me. I wanted to meet more people like him, particularly members of the military within the Georgetown community.

My interest in defense and military strategy grew and I realized that it was imperative to meet the “boots on the ground” if I was going to pursue studies in this field with any seriousness. I noticed flyers around campus advertising a meeting for a military-oriented organization that was open both to student troops as well as those interested in getting to know them and bridging that civilian-military divide in our own way. Perfect, I thought, though I was intimidated as hell. To be associated with the military is a status I felt I had by no means earned. Plus these guys know how to kill people and maybe even had killed people. Fortunately, I went, and met students who seemed to actually welcome someone who had no connection to the military but had taken a real interest in their experiences.

Not long after, I was invited to an informal party to celebrate the Marine Corps’ birthday with some of the students from that group. It turned out to be one of the most important events of my life. I met Marines there, some Georgetown students and some not, with amazing stories to tell. One in particular stood out: on September 12th, 2001, he dropped out of his barely-begun freshman year at an elite university to enlist. He went to war. He saw hell. And then he hung up his uniform and came back for his college degree. What struck me most about his story was that I had seen him plenty of times around campus and had not the slightest idea that instead of going straight from high school to college like most of us, he had spent eight years in the Marine Corps doing amazing work. I realized that night how otherwise entirely normal kids can show extraordinary selflessness and bravery and honestly, be quite badass. I saw this Marine speak the next day on a panel on veterans’ education, and listened to him and others discuss how students from elite universities no longer answer the call to serve in the numbers they once did; while these students have plenty of respect for those who serve in the military, they often do not have the same respect for military service as a serious profession, or consider it a worthwhile option for themselves even as a complex security environment increasingly demands intellect and talent.

This was the first time I thought about joining the Marine Corps, in which I am extremely proud to currently serve. I wish I could tell that to the girl scoffing at attending Annapolis.

I strongly believe, however, that one does not need to be military-bound or even have an interest in defense to benefit from the many veterans on college campuses. The lessons I learned and the examples set by the student veterans I met are just as applicable and just as valuable to any one of my peers at school.

Georgetown, like most universities, places a high emphasis on diversity, and few people can provide such a unique perspective and set of experiences as veterans. Even for those planning on attending medical school or working for Teach for America after college, there is still a lot to learn from the student veterans sitting at the next desk, or at the next barstool at the student watering hole. Few students better exemplify the dedication and commitment to a greater cause that a successful career and fulfilling life require, and college campuses afford the unique opportunity to share in and learn from the accumulated experiences of your peers.

The jobs these veterans have done contribute to our collective identity as Americans, and we are bound to our military through our tax dollars and votes. At a time when the war in Afghanistan is not mentioned enough in politics and the press and is becoming a thing of the past, it is more important than ever that we make the effort to understand the experiences and perspectives of those who bear much of the cost of America’s foreign policy. As college students go on to become leaders in Washington or in their own communities, it is vital to keep in mind those who fight the fight and know the meaning of service.

The average college student may be intimidated like I was, but it would serve us well to remember that college is new territory for many of these returning veterans as well. I knew an OEF veteran and Purple Heart recipient who had trouble going to a supermarket because returning to a place of such relative luxury and laxity was overwhelming. Going to school was equally daunting, and she sought out the company of others who served because she simply did not know how to relate to students who were seemingly so carefree and ignorant of the ordeal she had faced. However she benefitted from those who expressed an interest in her service, and a respect for her newest challenge. One of the lessons I learned from working for a veterans’ organization is that many veterans can be adverse to talking about their experiences with anyone but those who have shared in them, but that genuine interest and respect are almost always welcome.

Returning to school is a major challenge for America’s veterans, no doubt, and few deserve the sort of opportunities higher education provides more than these men and women. It is also a major advantage for us to have them in our classrooms. It is my hope that both student veterans and their peers begin to bridge the gap between civilians and the military that seems to have grown into a chasm over the past decade or more, particularly at elite schools where military service has become so much less common. Both sides will benefit.


2ndLt J. Emma Stokien is a Marine Corps intelligence officer and a recent graduate of Georgetown University. She is currently stationed in Okinawa, Japan with 3d Marine Division. The views expressed are her own.


Photo credit: Western Connecticut State University