<< The Body Politic

Bridging the civil-military divide on campus

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Writing yesterday for the New York Times “At War” blog, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a retired Marine and current student at Georgetown University, describes the challenges that many veterans face when leaving war for college, and encouraged them to “bridge the gap” with the other students they meet on campus.

Describing his first day of student orientation, Gibbons-Neff recalls:

It was the fall of 2011, and I was the quintessential fresh-out-of-the-fleet 23-year-old Marine. I was preparing for Georgetown University’s New Student Orientation, my first official re-entry into academia and a day of assemblies and awkward greetings with a bunch of kids who would have been barely teenagers when I was spending my first weeks in Afghanistan.

I found out Matt had died at 10 a.m. that first day of orientation. I was devastated. Matt was my best friend and one of the most outstanding Marines I had ever served with.

I made my way to the bar on campus and ordered two shots of whiskey. One for me and one for Matt. I drank that entire morning, and as I drank I found myself staring at the new students outside the window bouncing on their way to school and despising them. A mere pane of glass separated me from those students, but yet I felt as if I wasn’t human, that I was from some bygone era, and that I had no place among them.

I had become what so many Americans think veterans are like: the lone guy with military backpack, the thousand-yard stare, the student veteran who keeps to himself and glares at the innocence all around him.

But, he continues, he saw it as his duty to teach his fellow students about his war-time experiences, and in that way bridge the civil-military divide:

I went to the second day of assemblies bleary-eyed and depressed, and I stuck my right hand out and shook those kids’ hands and found a way to tell them about Matt. I’m sure they weren’t expecting a story about the greatest man they had never met, but they got it anyway. Matt’s story is my story, and in many ways all of our stories. I saw it as my duty to succeed, to succeed for Matt, for Josh, for Brandon and for all of those who never came home. So I put my head down, raised my hand in class and got on the dean’s list at Georgetown University. […]

Is it tough? Yes. It is impossible? Absolutely not. I think my colleagues expect too little of themselves when they return to campus, just as I did that first day in that bar. Too often I hear stories about how ignorant some eighteen year old is. Of course they are. They’re eighteen. If they’re just learning how to do their own laundry they probably have no clue where Helmand Province is.

That’s why it’s our duty to explain to them the best way we know how. No one likes to articulate loss and pain, but we live in a society defended by an all-volunteer military, a military that after a decade of conflict can barely relate to the people we swore to defend.

That’s why we have to do it. We have to bridge the gap.

It won’t be done in Congress or on CNN. It’ll be done in the back of the classroom where you’ll sit down and explain to some kid what it’s like to shoulder a ruck and what it’s like to march for miles, and you’ll tell him how it felt when you wrote home to your girlfriend every night as friendly artillery thudded through the dawn, and you’ll explain how Afghanistan looks on the other side of that television screen.

Read the whole thing here.

AEI