Not a Hero, But a Human

As I wandered through the Student Activities Building, I struggled to find Philip Larson. Tucked away in the Office of New Student Programs, Larson’s office was filled with posters and flyers of various programs that represented every branch of the military.  It was fitting for the Director of the Veterans and Military Services Program at Michigan. As I pulled out my computer to begin the interview, I wondered if he would embody the military serviceman stereotype: furrowed brow, commanding presence, lackluster emotions. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Larson, a former Sergeant in the Air Force, told me about his background and how he found the Veterans and Military Services Program at the University of Michigan. He studied higher education in college while being in the Reserves, attaining three degrees from Indiana University.  His thesis paper discusses first generation college students at four-year institutions, which he says applies to a high percentage of student veterans.   

According to Larson, Michigan didn’t always celebrate their student and alumni veterans. Once, the athletic department initially rejected the presentation of an American flag from a military serviceman.

“When people are getting out of the military or serving in the reserves, some people don’t know where to go,” Larson explained. “There are clear entry and exit points” in the military; “When we talk about college, it’s a decentralized system.” Many incoming student veterans find it difficult to go through the application process to the separate colleges (e.g. LSA, Ross, Taubman, etc.) and don’t know what credits they can transfer over from previous educational experiences. 

According to Larson, Michigan didn’t always celebrate their student and alumni veterans. Once, the athletic department initially rejected the presentation of an American flag from a military serviceman.  The athletic department initially made the wrong decision, but the flag was eventually presented after the request was forced through the public relations team chain of command. The Veterans and Military Services Program is less than a decade old, and has improved veteran-university relations. 

Larson went on to explain that on campus and in this country, civilians have a tendency to treat veterans in one of two ways: as a tragic people plagued with PTSD, a hard time finding jobs and homes, and in constant need of help; or as a heroic, invincible people who should be idolized. 

Fortunately, considerable headway has been made in working with student veterans to make them feel at home on campus.  New and prospective student veterans have access to P.A.V.E., peer advising from current student veterans, information about and coverage under VA health plans, and workshops and conversations with current students, alumni veterans, and other student military officials. 

However, it’s not just the university’s policies that were outdated and exclusive.  Larson went on to explain that on campus and in this country, civilians have a tendency to treat veterans in one of two ways: as a tragic people plagued with PTSD, a hard time finding jobs and homes, and in constant need of help; or as a heroic, invincible people who should be idolized.  “95% of folks who get out of the military are fine, [and] will not end up homeless.” While this is certainly better than the stereotype often presented for Veterans, Larson added that the heroic persona is also misleading because veterans are “assumed to be flawless when in fact they may need some help.”  Knowing this, how should our campus and community treat our veterans to help them feel welcome?

“Humanness,” says Larson.  Treat them like humans. “They don’t want to scare the hell out of you,” Larson joked. You’ve heard the phrase “Thank you for your Service” time and time again when meeting veterans.  That phrase is not only incredibly cliché, but it is an empty statement. No real interest is conveyed in the person’s time served or experiences they had. Veterans don’t need empty thanks; they deserve true interest in how they served this country. 

“I hope people don’t see veterans as either this tragic figure or heroic figure but see them as people who went off to do something good for this country,” Larson commented. “Veterans are ordinary people who have seen and done extraordinary things,” he said. 

The University of Michigan is starting to treat veterans as a part of their community, but stigmatization of student veterans is ongoing. That stigmatization will not cease until we all work towards better inclusion, understanding, and respect of our peers who served. 

Promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus is a large part of Michigan’s agenda, but it’s easy to forget that student veterans are a crucial community to be included in this push for equality.  Fortunately, Veterans Week 2019 is an incredible way to show support for your peers who served. Events like veteran student storytelling, a flag raising ceremony, and a panel on diversity in the military provide outlets for civilian students to learn about their peers in the service.

The University of Michigan is starting to treat veterans as a part of their community, but stigmatization of student veterans is ongoing. That stigmatization will not cease until we all work towards better inclusion, understanding, and respect of our peers who served.  Whether that comes from attending a panel of veterans presenting about their experience on a college campus, or offering to buy a cup of coffee for a student veteran you meet to ask them about their time in the military, every attempt to make student veterans feel welcomed on campus is a vital one. 

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About Lindsay Keiser

Lindsay Keiser is a freshman in LSA, studying political science. When she isn’t writing or copy editing, she enjoys traveling the world and browsing twitter.