This is my first Veterans Day since leaving the United States Army after almost five years of active duty. While the nation enjoys a federal holiday, I’ll be attending class with the rest of the student body. But today still begs a moment of reflection. Yale, despite its international prestige and multicultural atmosphere, is an inherently American institution. While many nations around the world will mark this, the 91st anniversary of the end of the First World War, I thought it appropriate to comment on some contemporary issues, make several personal reflections and attempt to anticipate what the future has in store for the United States military, and for veterans of Yale University; past, present and future.
The nation’s armed forces have been all over the news in the past week. Recent reports suggest that President Obama will decide to send between 34,000 and 44,000 more troops to Afghanistan, a decision which has been the subject of much debate and dissent even within Obama’s cabinet. The president also made headlines with a late-night stopover at Dover Air Force Base to take part in an honor guard greeting soldiers who were killed in action as their remains returned from Afghanistan — a gesture of respect and admiration for those who died that was derided by some political commentators last Thursday, we watched the mass murder of army soldiers and civilians at Fort Hood, Texas — allegedly the act of an army major — demonstrating the peril in which soldiers live at all times, from enemies both foreign and domestic.
Life in the military is a unique challenge for an American. Apart from the danger inherent to the line of work, there is also a social, physical, and spiritual and moral toll taken by those who serve. But I would be challenged to find a service member who sought pity. Rather, and I think most veterans would agree, veterans seek understanding from the public.
There are probably few shifts in location, profession or lifestyle as drastic as the one from staff officer and leader of soldiers in one of Afghanistan’s most contentious provinces to graduate student at one of the world’s great universities. Nevertheless, the characteristics for success are similar. Yale and the military share exceptionally determined people; the types of characters who serve as moment to moment inspiration on account of their morality, their dedication to their field, their empathy towards others, their professionalism and their concern for the world around them.
But that is one of few similarities; most everything else is different and we often perceive things differently from each vantage point. During my time in Afghanistan, I told my unit that I had been accepted to Yale. Many were skeptical; they weren’t sure I would be accepted as an equal, or as a valued member of the community. There was the expectation that, as a veteran, I would be excluded, shut out, seen as a war criminal, or any other permutation of negativity. The sense I got from some was a cynical “Congratulations… and good luck, you’re going to need it.”
But in the short time that I have been here there hasn’t been a single time I felt discriminated against based on my prior profession. In fact, nearly every interaction I have had with a member of the Yale community, whether faculty, students or staff, has been overwhelmingly positive. There seems to be a deep interest in understanding the wars in which the United States is currently engaged, and despite the concern over the war in Afghanistan and the deep unpopularity of the Iraq War, there are apparently few people at Yale who consider me a villain for having participated in these conflicts. Perhaps this column will provide an opportunity for some attacks on my character, but my experience thus far has shown that this is very unlikely from any member of the Yale community.
This, to me, is heartening. As I said before, those who served and continue to serve seek mostly to be understood. In this vein, while I cannot speak for the whole community of Yale veterans, I do not mind talking about my experiences. It is important to share them — it contributes to the environment of learning in which we all share.
As this holiday passes, it is appropriate to think of the state of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines of the United States military. Despite a general detachment toward the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is likely to remain engaged there for years to come. Casualties will continue to come home, either in flag-draped caskets or with wounds, visible and invisible. For those truly fortunate of us, we have the opportunity to return home and enjoy the benefits of living in a great country.
And on this 91st anniversary of the end of the First World War, I ask the Yale community to think on all those who served, both past and present, even for a moment. It is as simple as taking a brief respite inside Woolsey Hall; the names etched into the passageway speaks of Yale’s proud history as a foundry for military leaders, reminds of those of the Yale community still serving, and hopefully portends for a new generation of new military leaders forged not only on military bases and far-flung battlefields, but the campus which we are all fortunate to share.
Eric Robinson is a first-year graduate student in international relations. He is a veteran of both the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan.