Fighting for a New Generation of Veterans

On May 28th, IAVA Member Veteran Jacob Worrell, a combat veteran of the Iraq War and a student of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, addressed the 65th Reunion at Amherst College on the challenges overcome by World War II veterans and the unique issues now facing veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Below is an excerpt from his speech.

In 1942, exactly 69 years and 10 days before today’s dedication, The New York Times ran a piece about Amherst’s 121st commencement. The piece read:
On May 18 1942, President Stanley King conferred degrees upon one-hundred-seventy-three Amherst College seniors at the annual commencement. Twenty-five members of the original class of two- hundred-forty were granted leaves from the armed services and returned in uniform to receive their degrees...

Dr Van Etten of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Boston delivered the baccalaureate sermon in Johnson Chapel. The text was taken from the tragedy of Samson whose loss of strength Dr. Van Etten interpreted as a consequence of his loss of purpose and consecration. The challenge of the story, Dr. Van Etten told the seniors, was to keep the fresh unsullied vigor of your consecration.

I take Dr. Van Etten’s remarks as a warning that we ought to remain vigilant in not allowing setbacks to cause us to lose faith in our commitment to service, whatever that service may entail. Though meant as general advice to the class of 1942, I can’t help but wonder specifically about how those 25 men, temporarily relieved from their combat or combat support duties in World War II, appreciated Dr. Van Etten’s sentiment. I suspect that, like all soldiers who have seen combat and met the grim realities of war, they knew that the threat to one’s vitality in the face of such horrors is very real.

During World War II, the war captivated the attention of an entire nation; sacrifices were made, not just abroad, but at home to support the war effort. The fact that we gather here today to commemorate the achievements and generosity of the class of ’46, a class that attended Amherst while it served as a military training ground, is testimony to this truth. It is likely that students from the most recent graduating classes cannot even fathom the dynamic that existed on campus at the time.

I suspect that one reason the brave warriors of World War II, and all members of The Greatest Generation, were able to bounce back from such hardship so resiliently is due to the sense of support and understanding which permeated the nation as a whole.

But today, our newest generation of veterans often does not feel the same sense of community which binds us to home and country. Upon returning home, many veterans feel as if they are received by a nation which no longer understands them. I do not believe that this misunderstanding stems from a lack of compassion. It derives from the fact that the average citizen rarely finds time to think of veteran’s issues for a variety of reasons: major news coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are lacking in both number and content, less than 1% of citizens serve in the military making it less likely that the average person will be directly affected by the consequences of war, and there are pressing domestic issues such as, recession, unemployment and health care which weigh heavier on the average person’s every day life.

Nevertheless, the major consequence for this lack of understanding is now being called the civilian-military divide. And the effects of this gap in understanding, especially in the realm of public policy, have had an enormous negative impact on the lives of returning service members. In January 2011, the unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans hit a staggering 15.2 percent, leaving over 278,000 combat veterans struggling to find gainful employment after their service in the most severe economic recession in decades. For veterans under the age of 30, that number was closer to 25%.

In addition, we have an antiquated VA disability system which focuses on quantity over quality, leading to frequent errors and a lengthy wait for benefits. Finally, and most troubling, is the epidemic of veteran suicides. In both 2009 and 2010 suicide claimed the lives of more veterans than casualties from wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. During the past year, one of every five suicides was a veteran.

But the negative impact of the divide does not end with the suffering of veterans. The civilian-military divide is of such concern to our nation that, recently, the highest ranking officer in the military, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, felt the need to address the issue at this year’s West Point commencement ceremony. The Admiral remarked:
"Our work is appreciated, of that I am certain. There isn't a town or a city I visit where people do not convey to me their great pride in what we do...But I fear they do not know us. I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle. A people uninformed about what they are asking the military to endure is a people inevitably unable to fully grasp the scope of the responsibilities our Constitution levies upon them.”

As the proud, first recipient of Amherst’s new veteran’s scholarship and one of just three Iraq/Afghanistan veterans on campus, I too often feel the divide between myself and my academic peers and share Admiral Mullen’s sentiments.

Even at a college like Amherst, where there is a rich, vibrant community of socially conscious students, it is often difficult to begin a dialogue regarding issues surrounding the wars and veteran’s issues. Sometimes, I think both my peers and myself are equally to blame. I know that they want to understand my experiences, but they often don’t know which questions are appropriate to ask. Many of them have never met an Iraq War vet and broaching a conversation about my combat experience involves treading unfamiliar ground. And, admittedly, I often don’t know which questions are appropriate to answer or when it is right to speak as a veteran or just plain old Jacob. In other words, it’s difficult to transition from the guy at the beer pong table with the sweet behind-the-back-shot to an authority on the Iraq war.

And yet, as a veteran, that is exactly what is expected of you sometimes. Aware of the fact that interaction with me may be the closest many of these students will ever get to the conflict in Iraq, I feel both a deep responsibility to represent all veterans well, and a lingering apprehension that makes me reluctant to say too much, lest I turn a personal position into a general sentiment in someone else’s mind. Consequently, I often feel like I am both a victim of the civilian-military divide and a culprit complicit in widening it.

And yet it is especially important that the gap between military and civilian be bridged at institutions like Amherst College. For it is here that we find the future leaders in business, academia, and government. It is important that the brightest students in the country be given an opportunity to relate to the veteran perspective. It is important that these students learn to respect and not disregard it, not just for a moral imperative which dictates that we should respect those who serve, but also because the future security of our nation depends on it.

I think one step in the right direction in bridging the civilian-military divide are events such as these; gestures of good-will like the renovations to the Frost study room by the class of 46. By connecting students to the war service of past generations, you have also raised awareness for veterans and military issues as a whole. It is my hope that the room will be used, not only as a quiet place to study, but as a place to reflect on the military history of Amherst College and its relationship to contemporary military issues. In addition, I would like to thank the class of 46 for their contribution to the veterans scholarship fund which will be used to bring other veterans with their own unique perspectives onto the Amherst campus.

Through your generous contributions, you pay homage to the advice given by Dr. Van Etten in 1942, by restoring both the vigor of your consecration and mine.

Jacob Worrell is an IAVA Fellow who served for four years in the United States Army as a team leader and vehicle commander of the 172nd Stryker Brigade out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska. He is a combat veteran of the Iraq War. Currently, he is finishing his undergraduate studies at Amherst College. He is the first veteran supported by Amherst College’s Veterans Scholarship Fund, and is the President and Founding Member of the Amherst College Veteran’s Association