Image: Former Iraq Marine
Lenny Ignelzi  /  AP
Nathaniel Donnelly, a former Marine who served in Iraq, says soldiers don’t flaunt their military service but are happy to talk about it in social settings or classrooms.
updated 8/27/2007 6:21:28 PM ET 2007-08-27T22:21:28

On the giant state university campus in this military town, veterans have long been marbled into the student body. For many, anonymity is part of the appeal.

But as service members return from Iraq and Afghanistan, some at San Diego State are raising their heads and making themselves more visible. They’ve started a veterans’ organization that is one of the most active in the country. The group, which lines up support services for veteran students, lobbies for benefits and hosts social events, is fielding calls from other campuses interested in copying the idea.

Students like Nathaniel Donnelly, a former Marine who served in Iraq, insist they don’t flaunt their military service but are happy to talk about it in social settings or classrooms. Many transform their leadership training from the military to campus organizations. Gary Hirsch, a former Marine who graduated last spring with a top academic award, was involved in no fewer than nine different extracurricular groups.

“If I could have 50 percent of our student body be veterans, I would,” said Sandra Cook, executive director of enrollment services at San Diego State, which gives veterans special consideration in admissions. “Maybe they didn’t shine in high school, but they have that experience.”

Financial aid an incentive
Veterans have been a presence on many college campuses since right after World War II, thanks to the GI Bill of Rights. But their visibility and influence hasn’t always reflected that. The Vietnam War and the current Iraq War have been sharply criticized by academics and soldiers haven’t always felt welcome. Student veterans are often eager to signal a new identity, so they keep their heads down.

But these days colleges are eager to welcome veterans. One reason is the financial aid many carry, but they’re also seen as students who have a lot to contribute to the community. New education benefits for veterans have been proposed in at least 32 states this year alone, and signed into law in at least 11, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Programs such as the Minnesota National Guard’s “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon” program promote education as a way to help Guardsmen reintegrate into civilian life. California’s “Troops to College” initiative is working to coordinate services and recruiting efforts at colleges and universities here. The 23 campuses in the Cal State system are trying to boost the number of enrolled veterans from 2,700 to 4,800 by the end of the coming academic year.

In many places, the growing numbers amount to a critical mass. Veterans are more visible in the classroom and — they say — more comfortable. They can pursue a relatively normal college life but also have a real community of older and more empathetic friends.

“I have my civilian friends and it’s good, but you still need your veteran friends because they know what you’ve been through,” said Hirsch. “You’ve got that bond that most students don’t have.”

It’s hard to say how many veterans attend colleges and universities, since the veteran community includes former active-duty soldiers and airmen on the GI Bill, current National Guard members and reservists. There are also some active duty service members enrolled in college, along with former service members who aren’t eligible for education benefits.

Often classroom, campus leaders
According to the Veterans Administration, about 250,000 veterans are currently using the educational benefits of the GI Bill.

Increasingly, veterans are looked to as classroom and campus leaders. Their respect for rules can rub off on students. And they can often make firsthand contributions to classroom discussions on topics that even professors can’t provide.

Veterans “offer a real rubber-meets-the-road approach that is unique in higher education,” said Jeffrey McIllwain, who teaches national security courses at San Diego State, and says veterans always stay on top of the voluminous readings he assigns. “Many professors have a lot of theory, and these students bring a wealth of experience to test that theory in really unique ways.”

Classroom discussions about, say, the surge in Iraq or the nature of the insurgency often bounce aimlessly around, McIllwain says. “Then you have a student come in and talk about how he was responsible for trying to co-opt a Sunni tribe to help the coalition,” he said. Donnelly recalls a class on nuclear weapons security where the professor grilled a student who had served in a counterintelligence unit working on that very issue. Hirsch, who served on President Bush’s Marine One helicopter crew, is often asked about the president.

Emotional gulf exists
But there are challenges, including relationships with other — often younger — students. There’s a huge gulf between the typical 19-year-old sophomore at San Diego State and a 22-year-old classmate who’s done a combat tour.

The concerns of other students “seem very trivial at times,” said Donnelly. Veterans of the Iraq war “have been to the bad side of the world. You have kids coming out of their parents’ house and they’re talking about Paris Hilton.” Still, he joined a fraternity and has made good friends.

Zshakira Carthens, who graduated from Campbell University in North Carolina last spring after an Army National Guard tour in Iraq and now works in the school’s admissions office, says the questions veterans face about the war from other students become tiresome. But she tries to answer them because it helps “people to know what the soldiers go through, because no matter how much you watch the news you could never know the full experience.”

James Wright, a former Marine and the president of Dartmouth College, who regularly visits with wounded soldiers in military hospitals, says veterans deserve the help they need to find whatever kind of college experience they’re looking for.

“To the extent they want to share their experiences, to that extent they become teachers and part of the learning environment there, they’ve got a lot to contribute,” he said. “But let’s let them contribute what they want.”

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