(Update: Columbia has released audio of the debate.)
Just last week I wrote about ways to bridge the gap between civilians and Veterans. Though many fall prey to cynicism about the rift, I encouraged an optimistic effort on the part of civilians to welcome Vets back into the community. Only then can reintegration after service and war take place.
But as hopeful as I was at the response to the post, I’m equally discouraged about the news coming out of Columbia University. On the same day my post went up, a fellow Iraq Veteran was being heckled and jeered by classmates during a debate on bringing ROTC back to campus following the Vietnam-era ban. According to the New York Post (admittedly, not a paper known for restraint or subtlety), Anthony Maschek faced backlash during the debate, while his peers held signs denigrating the military with hand drawn placards. If there were any doubts that a cultural rift exists between civilians and Veterans, a number of students at Columbia have confirmed what has been known to many of us. A lack of interaction with active duty members and Veterans has bred ignorance, mistrust, and fear that must be reversed if Vets are going to succeed after their service. Listen to a recording of the student heckling.
The obnoxious and offensive behavior of a handful of students, of course, shouldn’t be an indictment of Columbia or Ivy League schools in general. (In fact, as Iraq Vet and Columbia quasi-student Matt Gallagher pointed out, Columbia leads Ivies in student Veteran population). But these events call into question the health of civilian-Veteran relations. The university campus is a flash point for Vets reintegrating back into society, and can often be the first interaction young people have with former service members. Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders of the country, and what happens in the classroom has the power to affect civilian and Vet relations for decades after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end. We have to remember what Vietnam taught us: the way Vets reintegrate has a profound impact on their success later in life. So until this troubling behavior disappears from the school campus, Vets will be passed over with their service as a factor, a disturbing trend that has increased recently. Facing stigmas attached to service like PTSD, Vets already have an uphill battle when coming back into an unfamiliar and occasionally hostile society.
Throughout this controversy, I keep thinking about Anthony Maschek, a disabled Veteran in his first year of college. Secretary Shinseki has given students a new mission: graduate and succeed in the workforce. Mr. Maschek has experienced the ugly side of the civilian-Veteran divide. By living through grievous wounds, his courage and persistence have been laid bare. But how does he go to school tomorrow, and the next day, and sit next to the same students who shouted him down? I remain encouraged by one thought: he grits his teeth and drives on, like he did on the streets of Kirkuk.