Veterans of the armed services aren’t visible in our public and political culture because they aren’t statistically significant. That’s what Tom Landers, an Army veteran and a graduate student in History at Salem State University, reminds us in an oral history with historian Andrew Darien for an important oral history project that launches for Veterans Day.
Support for veterans’ benefits and accolades for their service spike during campaign season, but once the spotlights fade, political leaders shirk their promises. U.S. veterans fade back into the shadows of American society. We rarely see or hear them speak for themselves about war, politics, or the short and long term effects and implications of their military service. They become a convenient soundbyte. In many cases, their history gets used for others’ gain.
Over the past five years, Salem State University has grown its enrollment of veterans, thanks in large part to the Veteran Assistants Veteran Integration to Academic Leadership program, also known as VITAL. SSU has the largest enrollment of veterans out of any of the Massachusetts state colleges and universities and has been lauded for its military-friendly policies and programs. A strong Veteran’s Affairs office and an active student association for veterans have empowered veterans to claim their space at the institution. We are a bettter place because of them.
Veterans in the classroom are often more motivated, outspoken and unabashed about their commitment to learn and excel in school. In my history classes, they bring experience, insight and incisive questions to discussions about war, colonialism and the myriad ways we see power wielded by different people and groups. They get support from a Veteran Scholars Learning Community, which connects first year veterans in an interdisciplinary approach to history, literacture, writing and public speaking. Darien teaches in this program with fellow SSU faculty Kim Poitevan, Julie Batten and Julie Kiernan.
Veterans are diverse and difficult to categorize. They bring their own complex biographies to their service and to their college journeys alike. Student, Citizen, Soldier, Darien’s project, undertaken with his Oral History students, brings together veterans’ voices while preserving and celebrating the unique histories, experiences and voices of the men and women who comprise the veterans’ community at Salem State.
Student, Citizen, Soldier offers insight and invites us to get to know the veterans in our midst. Drew developed this project as he does everything, carefully and thoughtfully. Whether he conducted the interviews, or his students did, the emphasis here is on creating a comfortable contemplative space for participants to examine their own roles as students, citizens and veterans.
The project does not create a hagiography of militarism, nor does it romanticize or valorize war or military service. It invites viewers to engage with the men and women in uniform on a variety of issues, from the reality of IEDs to the struggles with pain management and opiod addiction to insights into US foreign policy.
Today, Veterans Day, you have an opportunity to listen, to really listen, to veterans. Take it.