Understanding Veterans - Part 1 of 3

Veterans Knowledge Community

July 7, 2017

Understanding Veterans – A Three Part Series

To help better understand veterans, we will present a series of blog entries to address various questions people may have. Much of the information was taken from the book by Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, “100 Questions & Answers about Veterans” and part one talks about the demographics and makeup of the veteran community.

Who are our veterans? This is sometimes difficult to answer because there are varying standards for determining eligibility. According to Title 38 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) a veteran is, “a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable.” This includes National Guard and Reserve service members who have been activated, although those who haven’t may also be eligible for certain Veterans Administration (VA) benefits.

According to the 2014 U.S. census, there are approximately 21.4 million veterans in the US, and about 4.5 million living in Region IV-E. So who are they? The makeup of the armed services has changed many times over the years and now there’s a growing number of women veterans who are often overlooked. According to the Veterans Administration (VA), almost 10 percent of U.S. veterans are women, an increase of 6 percent from 1980 (2015). Another fact from 1994-2013, women were allowed to serve in combat zones; however, only in non-combat positions. This policy, largely ignored for women whose units deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, was revised in 2013, and established the first fully gender-integrated force by the end of 2016.

Service members of all racial and ethnic backgrounds have made considerable contributions to our armed forces over the years, though a few have stood out. The Tuskegee Airmen, African American pilots, distinguished themselves during World War II. A second group of service members, the “Code Talkers”, comprised of 13 Native American tribes, developed an indecipherable code that provided unprecedented security for American service members. and the highly decorated Japanese –Americans, who were members of the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

So what does a veteran look like? Some are easy to spot: short hair, wear military clothing, or carry around camouflage gear. Others may have tattoos, wear a specific brand of sunglasses or use military jargon. Still, not all veterans are easily-identified simply by appearance.

Maximillian, (2014), "Anatomy of a veteran", Terminallance.com

The majority of veterans are content to blend in with everyone else and you would never know they’ve served. However, labels are often placed on veterans and one many dislike is the term “hero”. Some don’t see themselves as heroes; rather, they consider themselves someone who volunteered and did their job. Others may dislike being called “warriors”. Many veterans don’t see themselves as warriors because they may only have been in a support role or possibly never deployed to a combat zone. Perhaps the worst stereotype veterans experience is that they are somehow ‘damaged’ or ‘broken’. Or worse yet, someone ready to snap at any point. These perceptions often are the result of news media or movies that portray the typical veteran as having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Occasionally service members may get upset when someone who has never served tries to explain what it’s like to be in the military, or may feel personally attacked when war or government spending is blamed on them. For many veterans, there is genuine appreciation for taking the time to get to know them as people. Not by inquiring about the number of people they killed, how often they fired their weapon, or any combat-related war story. Instead, veterans are more likely to open up and discuss their experience as a soldier, marine, airman, or seaman when you ask about their job, the people they met, and how the military contributed to their personal development. So, the next time you meet a veteran, don’t be afraid to ask about their service. If they feel comfortable, they will tell you. If they wish to discuss something else, please don’t be offended. There are plenty of other things to talk about in the meantime.

Bottom-line, veterans don’t want to be treated any differently than those without a military background. Similar to other marginalized groups, there’s no one thing that defines what it means to have been a U.S. service member. By learning about the military and people who serve, campus administrators and the at-large community can positively contribute toward a successful transition out.

Look forward to our second blog post, where we will introduce military structure, its culture, and how military service can make for a difficult transition to higher education.


Stephen Pepper is the Student Veteran Specialist at Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac, WI and the NASPA Region IV-East Veterans Knowledge Community Co-Rep.

Michael Kirchner, Ph.D. is a Visiting Assistant Professor and Veteran Recruitment and Retention Coordinator at Purdue University and the NASPA Region IV-East Veterans Knowledge Community Rep.

Michigan State University School of Journalism. (2015). 100 Questions & answers about veterans. Canton, MI

Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of NASPA. If you agree or disagree with the content of this post, we encourage you to dialogue in the comment section below. NASPA reserves the right to remove any blog that is inaccurate or offensive.

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