A month ago, a fellow veteran contacted me, seeking insight on my time at Yale. He had a few general questions about student life, which inevitably led to the one I get asked most often: do veterans get treated poorly at Yale?
It’s not uncommon for veterans to believe our presence will not be welcome at progressive colleges. I recall watching the video of students confronting former Silliman College Master Nicholas Christakis while I was deployed to Afghanistan. At the end of the video, an officer jokingly asked me if I was going to apply to Yale when I got out. “You couldn’t pay me to go there,” I answered, “I’m not trying to get spit on.” While I was at community college, UC Berkeley oddly invited me and other veterans to their Minority Admitted Students Weekend, where the speakers implored us to come to Berkeley to help fight in the resistance against Republicans. It was refreshing, at least, to hear that any animus I would receive would be due to my political beliefs, rather than my veteran status.
“I have never been treated poorly at Yale for being a veteran,” I always tell those who inquire. Besides a few ill-advised questions about whether I have PTSD or not, fellow students mostly treat me as one of their own. The Yale administration, for all the criticism it receives, has been extremely supportive. Each year, they organize a ceremony to pay tribute to Yale’s many generations of veterans. This year, Moses Cho ’20 told the audience that the selflessness of the men he served with inspired him to start a winter clothing drive for New Haven’s homeless and to organize a conference on the issue of wartime sexual violence against women. As Moses spoke, phones started to buzz with messages. Somebody had smeared red paint onto latex gloves and spread them around the miniature American flags set up on Cross Campus, presumably as a statement that veterans have blood on their hands.
To say that Yale has an activist culture would be putting it lightly. While I usually disagree politically with Yale activists, it’s usually clear what their goals are. Most pursue their goals by targeting those with the power to make change. But there has been a rise in a toxic subset of protesters, here and around the nation, who care more about intimidation and making a statement than what the statement is and who it affects. The protest on Monday was intellectually lazy and incredibly disrespectful to those who served. Vague criticism is a refuge for those who come to the table unprepared. In section, no one is fooled when a student waits for a classmate to say something of substance, and then makes generic critiques in order to get credit for speaking. Monday’s protests are an example of that same lazy tactic, this time for speaking-out credit. There is a safety in criticism that can only be matched by the safety in anonymity. It is impossible to do wrong if you do nothing of substance.
These days, there’s a broad recognition across both political parties that service members don’t set military policy. Or as Evan Gordon ’22, the Army veteran who cleaned up the gloves, put it, “If you disagree with what our armed forces are doing, don’t hate them, vote.” I could only imagine how hard my transition would have been if I was subjected to treatment similar to that of Vietnam veterans in the 1970s. Vietnam vets returned home from an especially traumatic war only to be spit on and called baby-killers. One Vietnam veteran told me that he and his friends threw away any military paraphernalia before arriving home, afraid that they would be identified by protesters. To be clear, this came from the radical fringes of the anti-war movement, but when I received texts about the vandalism, I asked myself if their heirs were making their presence known at Yale.
Veterans Day takes on different meanings to different people. For myself, it’s a painful day of reflection. I think about Specialist Paolo Grassi, the Italian immigrant who always met me with a big smile, muttering, “Doc Fishy, Fishy, Fishy,” in his heavy accent as he walked by. SPC Grassi was murdered in Alaska, leaving his wife and baby daughter behind. I think about my friends who aren’t handling their transition to civilian life well, dealing with the depression that comes from a profound loss of community. I think about my friends still serving. I sometimes feel guilty that they continue to risk their lives instead of me, since so many of them have a spouse and children who depend on them. I reflect on the growing distance between myself and the identity that dominated my life just three years ago. I think of veterans that have suffered lasting physical and mental injuries from their service.
To be a veteran is to always question if you could have given more. Some of us did have blood on our hands. The blue latex gloves that protesters painted red and threw on the grass may have been the same brand as the bloody ones I’d throw in the biohazard can as a medic in Afghanistan, wondering if we had done enough to save our patients. In the way that athletes overthink missed plays, we speculate how we could have saved a friend or patient, no matter how unrealistic. I was sleeping miles away when Grassi was killed, but that didn’t stop me from mentally walking through how I would have treated his wounds had I been there. When I deployed, most of the critical trauma patients I treated were Afghans, so I guess I did have their blood on my hands. In that sense, the symbolism was accurate, although not in the way Monday’s protestors intended. The blood on my hands never bothered me; it was the patients that we didn’t get the chance to treat that stuck with me.
Maybe these protesters never intended to be disrespectful, or perhaps that was their only intent. I’m not suggesting that veteran status secures immunity from criticism. But this protest contained no argument, only a blatant attempt to isolate veterans from the rest of the Yale community.
JAKE FISCHER is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .