Brian Hawthorne: A Veterans Day challenge

With Veterans Day only a week away, it’s important to remember what it means to be a veteran here at GW.

After World War II, the troops came home to yellow ribbons, a GI Bill of Rights and the open arms of their communities, with parades, ceremonies, employment opportunities, and the chance for a better life. “Support the troops” was not just a catchphrase; it was a promise and a life-long commitment of that generation to take care of their veterans. Unfortunately, our country’s vow fell by the wayside.

Following the Vietnam War, war veterans (many of whom were draftees) came home to apathy, anger and, sometimes, outright hostility. There were no calls to “support the troops” in the 1970s, and we must not forget the pain those men and women endured when they returned from the battlefield. That generation is also responsible for an embarrassing statistic I want each of you to think about: 80 percent of Vietnam veterans attended college in the years that followed the war, but less than 40 percent actually graduated. How did that happen? We must ensure that today’s generation fares better and goes on to make the contribution that the Greatest Generation did more than 60 years ago.

On Friday, Oct. 23, GW hosted a first-of-its-kind symposium on veterans’ success in higher education. Bringing together educators from across the country with veterans’ rights advocates, mental health professionals, political leaders and student veterans, we spent the day learning about the many challenges facing veterans in the college environment. We also discussed how coming together as a community can really make a tangible difference in the concept of “supporting the troops.” The conference was well attended, and as a veteran myself, I can say we came away feeling that the discussion we started will translate into a real difference for vets around the country.

We as a University have an enormous opportunity to make a difference in the lives of some men and women who have done so much for our nation. There are service members younger than us who are in Iraq or Afghanistan right now who would give anything to be part of this University community. With the Post-9/11 GI Bill, it is likely some of them will be here in the spring semester and semesters to follow. Are we ready to support them during their transition from the battlefield to the classroom?

A good first step is to treat them like peers. Interact with them and don’t be intimidated. Avoid questions you don’t want or need to know the answer to, like “How many people did you kill over there?” War is a terrible thing to have to experience, and if veterans want to talk about it with you, they will let you know, I promise. Remembering those memories can be very difficult for some people, and not necessarily what someone wants to do while on the way to chemistry.

Instead, encourage them to talk about the positive parts of their experiences, like the places they traveled, the funny stories they have and the leadership opportunities they were given. I guarantee you will be surprised at what these humble men and women have accomplished, regardless of service or rank or age. Despite the impression some in our country still have, the military is not a last resort, and some of the most intelligent people in our nation have volunteered to go into harm’s way to defend our freedoms. Do not think of military personnel as the group of misfits from the movies. We are a highly professional force, and we bear the burden of service with a fierce pride.

I would like to personally issue a challenge to each of you: Before Veterans Day on Nov. 11, reach out to a veteran somewhere in your life; maybe your grandfather, or one of your parents or siblings, or any of the population that is serving right now. Learn about someone’s story, and say thank you. On Veterans Day, the GW Veterans Organization will be in University Yard all day. Come out, and tell us about your veteran, and maybe stuff a care package or write a letter to send overseas. Look around your GW community on that day. See the flags and yellow ribbons and the men and women in uniform. Think about the history of our great nation written too often in the blood of its citizens in the name of freedom. Look around again, and on this famous day, say thank you to those who have given so much for the freedoms we enjoy, and ask how you can help. I promise, it will go a lot further than a car magnet.

<pThe author is the president and co-founder of the GW Veterans Organization, and a senior at GW. He has served two tours in Iraq.

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