University News

On Veterans Day, a call for conversation

By
Contributing Writer
Sunday, November 13, 2011

“Honor is understanding,” said Chaney Harrison ‘11.5 at the University’s Veterans Day ceremony Friday, when about 150 community members gathered by the flagpole and marched from the Main Green to Lincoln Field. Though the majority of campus bustled through its everyday routine, those that gathered for the ceremony came to demonstrate their appreciation for our nation’s servicemen and -women.

“I think veterans deserve respect every day of the year, especially this day when we remember them,” said Luisa Garcia ’13.  

The ceremony featured several distinguished guests, including U.S. Senators Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.  

Harrison, president of the Student Veterans Society and the event’s main organizer, spoke about the University’s rich military history and the concept of honor. He challenged the audience to resist merely paying “lip service” to the sacrifices of servicemen and -women and to seek to truly understand them.

“The greatest honor that you can show a veteran, or truly anyone you care for, is taking time to understand who they are and what their experiences are,” he said.

Paul Lipsitt ’50 described his time as a member of the Veterans College, a University initiative to enroll servicemen, as “transformative.”

“We’re here to remember the big picture,” said Peter Weber, dean of the Graduate School. “We’re here to honor the big thinkers, the veterans who put their own concerns behind the concerns of the community.”

The ceremony was well received — Dick Carolan ’58 deemed it “most fitting and appropriate.”

Ed Rundquist ’60 said he was pleased to see  diversity in the audience, which consisted of students, faculty, staff, alums and veterans.

Students in attendance agreed that the ceremony was a way for them to recognize and appreciate something larger than themselves. “Up here on College Hill, it’s so easy to be isolated and forget the sacrifice that kids our own age are making every day,” said Rebecca Mendelsohn ’14.

“I’m here because of someone else’s sacrifice. I figured I could sacrifice an hour of my time today. It’s the least I can do,” said Ade Oyalowo ’14.

 

A growing tradition

A few years ago, the University Veterans Day ceremony drew only a few people “who got up by the flag pole and said a prayer,” Harrison said. This year’s audience of 150 denotes remarkable growth.

This growth is largely attributable to the Student Veterans Society, founded in 2008, Harrison said.

Four student veterans came together to form what Harrison described as an “ad hoc student group.” Since its founding, the Student Veterans Society has worked to fill the “white space” that exists when it comes to Veterans Day at the University and what Harrison called the “complete void” of support for veterans.

An Honor Wall was added to the Veterans Day ceremony last year. The Honor Wall functions as a place where students, faculty and staff can post acknowledgement of a veteran with whom they are personally associated. The tradition is meant to visually demonstrate the connections between University members and military personnel, bringing Veterans Day closer to home.

The Veterans Society hosted a set of three lectures preceding Veterans Day as part of a new initiative this year. Lecturers included Staff Sergeant Harrison, Tyson Smith, a postdoctoral fellow in sociology, and Kevin Bell, a veteran and graduate student at Princeton.

But these lectures each met with extremely low turnout. Audiences ranged from five to 10 students, and most who attended were veterans themselves.

 

The widening gap

Such low attendance at the lectures hints at a larger problem: a growing gap between the military and civilians.

“Few people have either the willingness or the stomach to hear (veterans’) stories. In this way, it is commendable that you are here tonight,” said Smith to an audience of eight students Nov. 9.  

“The connection between Brown University and the military is not as clear as it once was,” Harrison said. “The idea that this community — students, staff and faculty alike — could be so thoroughly dedicated to national service through the military is a hard one to grasp today.”

In the class that entered Brown in 1946, nearly 60 percent of the undergraduate student body were veterans, Harrison said. Today, there are only six veterans in the entire undergraduate body — .09 percent of students.

With so few veterans on campus, it is no wonder civilian and veteran encounters are limited. “When you can’t have a conversation, there will be no understanding,” Harrison said.

Though the number of veterans on campus is small, Harrison said he is frustrated that the University has failed to address their concerns. “Why aren’t veterans on the list?” he asked. “Why are they not even part of the discussion?”

“I feel like Veterans Day goes largely unnoticed here,” said Patrice Groomes ’15.

 

Assimilation challenges

The growing disconnect is partly due to a change in the socioeconomic background of military servicemen and -women, according to Smith. “It’s not that conscription was ever egalitarian, but it used to have a more leveling effect,” he said.  

More and more military personnel come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, while fewer students at top-tier institutions are making the decision to enter the military, Smith said. He worries the gap will only grow larger as students graduate and enter top-tier professions, having limited-to-no contact with veterans.  

“There is less veteran representation today in places where voices are heard,” Smith said. “The burden of serving should be (borne) by the entire U.S. population. Wars are much harder to sell when they affect all communities.”

Smith also attributed the growing gap to a change in the nature of war. War is not as clear as it once was, he said — recent wars are unpopular and have ambiguous missions. “It’s hard for the public to understand what’s going on there,” he said.

The distance between military personnel and civilians has made the process of reintegration especially difficult for veterans. “War is moral chaos. If a soldier experiences that, it’s hard to put into words, and it’s hard to listen to,” Smith said.  

“It’s ironic that these people survive warfare and then come back and find that they face a bigger battle trying to relate and reincorporate into the civilian world,” he said.  

 

Bridging the gap

When Veterans Day rolls around, it can be easy to say “thank you.” But when the thanks are simply a response to the holiday, what are they really for? According to Smith, society tends to lionize soldiers’ actions and the idea of military service, but it does not interact with the concept in a real and meaningful way.

“When you’re talking to servicemen and -women, it’s good to thank them for their service, but it is better to understand what they did and what they do,” said Bell at his lecture
Nov. 10.  

Back on campus, it is important to recognize the host of experiences that veterans bring with them, said David Salsone ‘12.5. “We, as veterans, add to classroom discussion. We bring a different perspective,” he said. “To see the way that other people, such as veterans, have chosen to live their lives, is always an enriching experience.”

As Harrison spoke on what he deemed “an auspicious day,” he urged his audience to bridge the gap between the civilian and the veteran.

“Honor veterans by knowing them,” he said. “Honor veterans by welcoming them back into your communities. Honor them by understanding not only the difficulties they might have in making the transition back to the civilian world, but by understanding the incredible value in experience that they bring to the table.”