War vets find solace in stories of others


As the sun set over Florida International University, and the burritos got cold, 15 military veterans sat at a table discussing Estela Portillo Trambley’s short story, Village. Together, they considered Rico’s hesitancy to open fire on a Vietnamese village he worried was filled with women and children.

They hadn’t served in Vietnam, but they could relate.

It was the first university-based gathering of a nationwide reading and discussion program called Talking Service, which offers veterans the opportunity to have conversations about speeches, memoirs, letters and stories focusing on the experience of military service. Created by the Great Books Foundation and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Talking Service provides a promising model as universities and colleges develop programming geared toward a growing student population of veterans.

A young former Marine and FIU student spoke up. It was a moral dilemma, he said, in Vietnam, Iraq, and other conflicts. Service members sometimes had to distinguish between civilians and combatants. But they also had to pay heed to their rank and oath of service. Rico, he concluded, should follow orders.

A fellow Marine veteran understood. When he led missions to inspect neighborhoods in Iraq, he attempted to balance his obligations to protect the individuals in his unit and respect the rights of noncombatants by leaving his gun behind when he first entered a house: “If something goes down,” he would say, “light it up.”

The post-9/11 GI Bill has helped more than 1 million veterans access higher education, and usage of the program is expected to grow. But a report from the Student Veterans of America notes that student veterans have postsecondary-degree completion rates of about 52 percent — lower than the nationwide average of 59 percent measured by the National Center for Education Statistics. Student veterans are more likely to have dependents, work full time and live far from campus, according to the American Council on Education. A recent study by Seth Hayden of Wake Forest University maintains that some also face “transition issues, relational challenges, feelings of isolation and lingering effects of combat-related injuries.”

Proactive student veterans, administrators and faculty nationwide are developing programs intended to alleviate those pressures, including targeted orientations, staff trainings and academic success workshops.

Talking Service at FIU — sponsored by the Florida Humanities Council, and supported by Student Veterans of America, FIU and the Miami VA Healthcare System — was inspired in part by an idea conveyed in a recent book, Student Engagement in Higher Education: Small seminars allowing "interpersonal interaction over time” could enhance student veterans’ educational experiences.

Program participants were mothers, fathers, tech industry workers, human resources managers, and retirees. They had served as enlisted personnel and officers in the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy. They ranged in age from 20-something to 60-something.

During weekly meetings in March and April they talked about selections from the Talking Service text, Standing Down. They considered Abraham Lincoln’s assertion in the Gettysburg Address that, “This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” They discussed why a Civil War soldier would reject requests from his grandson to share battle stories. They pondered congressmen’s expressions of shock following visits to World War II battlefields. They reflected on letters a mother wrote during her son’s long recovery in a military hospital.

In post-program surveys, Talking Service participants reported feeling inspired by readings, and each other. A short story called Shallow Hands, one group member said, “reminded me of myself and my own internal thought process.” For another, conversations offered “insight into both the civilian and military experiences, the struggles, the misunderstanding, the expectations.” A fellow participant appreciated “being able to share stories and feelings/opinions and experiences from different places and eras.” “It helps, he added, “that I’m not the only one thinking/feeling in similar ways.”

The best Talking Service conversations were the ones that allowed group members to acknowledge the complex personal legacy of military service. The people we read about experienced emotional distance from non-veterans, and physical and mental suffering. But they also forged strong friendships, gained unique skills and were revered in their communities.

Talking Service participants — and likely, many other veterans — could relate.

Jessica L. Adler is an assistant professor in the departments of history and health policy and management at Florida International University.