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Who Counts as a Veteran?

August 29, 2017 Evan Chartier Northeastern University

Ten years ago I traded in my high school lacrosse stick for an M4 carbine and M203 grenade launcher. Three years later, I walked onto campus and found community with folks who struggled to understand my path from combat to college.

As an avid VKC blog reader, I have been impressed with the community’s critical engagement of veteran support and our collective grappling with what it means to be a veteran. I am inspired by recent blog posts, such as Damien E. Pitts’ Ain’t I a Veteran and Amber Mathwig’s Women. Veterans. History. Pitts, Mathwig, and others require us to see the ways in which all veterans do not fit on the small pedestal reserved for white, straight, ability-privileged, cisgender men with U.S. citizenship.  I hope this blog post - written by a white, formerly low-income, queer, Jewish, and ability-privileged Israel Defense Forces veteran born and raised with citizenship in the U.S. - helps continue the dialogue.

Support for veterans has become an institutional priority for many across higher education, and research suggests that veterans’ challenges vary by gender, race, class, ability status, and other intersecting identities. Sessions at the 2017 NASPA Annual Conference focused on military-connected students of color and the welcoming of first-year and transfer student veterans to campus. However, veterans of the U.S. military are not the only veterans on our campuses.

According to the 2016 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, more than one million students in the U.S. are considered international students. Many are veterans and/or military-connected students. For example, there are more than 80,000 South Korean students studying in the U.S., many of whom leave their studies temporarily to serve in the conscription-based Korea Armed Forces. Many of these students struggle to adjust between the egalitarian collegiate and hierarchical military cultures, and may return to their studies as non-traditional students, two years behind their peers with an increased risk for depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicide. The challenges faced by students who served in foreign militaries may be compounded compared to U.S. student veterans. Foreign student veterans often study in an unfamiliar cultural context, are separated from familiar support networks, face language barriers, and are excluded - explicitly or implicitly - from existing veteran support services.

Yet, our discourses around what it means to be a veteran and how to support veterans continue to ignore the full spectrum of student veteran experiences. Veteran support centers and student organizations focus almost exclusively on U.S. military veterans, and even our own VKC is complicit in making foreign student veterans invisible. The VKC welcome statement says that our community focuses on meeting the needs of military-connected students, defined as “all currently and formerly serving members of our military.” When we frame the U.S. military as “our” military, we re-create artificial boundaries between students who consider the U.S. “theirs” and those who do not, and we let national borders determine which veterans are worthy of support. At a time of increasing diversity in higher education, our conceptions of and support for veterans continues to rely on a nationalist model that does not acknowledge or support all veterans.

Almost all of the research I can find on veterans studying in U.S. higher education institutions focuses on students who served exclusively in the U.S. military. Our singular focus on U.S. veterans mirrors our exclusive veteran specific spaces and support programs. My guess is that our parochial outlook stems from the Americentric allocation of federal grants and support programs, and it makes sense to spend federal dollars to support a nation’s military veterans. However, without an intentional push to be inclusive of other student veterans’ experiences, this Americentrism creates an environment that rarely supports students connected to non-U.S. militaries.

Student veteran recruitment and support is often driven by the belief that their military experiences enrich the campus environment. This belief has encouraged me to begin an exploratory research project on the unique challenges faced by students in the U.S. who served in foreign militaries. I hope this project will help us all acknowledge that student veterans’ experiences, regardless of their country of service, are valued in higher education.