September 18, 2012, 12:00 PM
Courtesy of Thomas Gibbons-NeffThe author in Afghanistan
It was the fall of 2011, and I was the quintessential fresh-out-of-the-fleet 23-year-old Marine. I was preparing for Georgetown University’s New Student Orientation, my first official re-entry into academia and a day of assemblies and awkward greetings with a bunch of kids who would have been barely teenagers when I was spending my first weeks in Afghanistan.
I found out Matt had died at 10 a.m. that first day of orientation. I was devastated. Matt was my best friend and one of the most outstanding Marines I had ever served with.
I made my way to the bar on campus and ordered two shots of whiskey. One for me and one for Matt. I drank that entire morning, and as I drank I found myself staring at the new students outside the window bouncing on their way to school and despising them. A mere pane of glass separated me from those students, but yet I felt as if I wasn’t human, that I was from some bygone era, and that I had no place among them.
I had become what so many Americans think veterans are like: the lone guy with military backpack, the thousand-yard stare, the student veteran who keeps to himself and glares at the innocence all around him.
This was my first experience as a student veteran. Attending those orientation assemblies obliterated on Jack Daniel’s and wallowing in the memories of a dead friend.
To be honest, I don’t really know why I went to those assemblies. But at the time I equated my attendance to duty. I had to go. I wasn’t going to let another death stop my life. I had attended too many funerals and too many memorial services, and had watched too many of my friends tear themselves apart in guilt. I had been there too many times and I knew that on that first day of school there was only one way to go, and that was forward. I knew that stereotype lay lurking, waiting for me to fall into its grasp.
But I didn’t let it take me. I went to the second day of assemblies bleary-eyed and depressed, and I stuck my right hand out and shook those kids’ hands and found a way to tell them about Matt. I’m sure they weren’t expecting a story about the greatest man they had never met, but they got it anyway. Matt’s story is my story, and in many ways all of our stories. I saw it as my duty to succeed, to succeed for Matt, for Josh, for Brandon and for all of those who never came home. So I put my head down, raised my hand in class and got on the dean’s list at Georgetown University.
I know this all sounds melodramatic, but aren’t most articles about student veterans these days tinged with despair? I feel like it’s all I see: the blurbs about the misunderstood tattooed guys in the back of the class struggling to fit in. Struggling to relate to their younger classmates.
Is it tough? Yes. It is impossible? Absolutely not. I think my colleagues expect too little of themselves when they return to campus, just as I did that first day in that bar. Too often I hear stories about how ignorant some eighteen year old is. Of course they are. They’re eighteen. If they’re just learning how to do their own laundry they probably have no clue where Helmand Province is.
That’s why it’s our duty to explain to them the best way we know how. No one likes to articulate loss and pain, but we live in a society defended by an all-volunteer military, a military that after a decade of conflict can barely relate to the people we swore to defend.
That’s why we have to do it. We have to bridge the gap.
It won’t be done in Congress or on CNN. It’ll be done in the back of the classroom where you’ll sit down and explain to some kid what it’s like to shoulder a ruck and what it’s like to march for miles, and you’ll tell him how it felt when you wrote home to your girlfriend every night as friendly artillery thudded through the dawn, and you’ll explain how Afghanistan looks on the other side of that television screen.
So, I ask you, my generation of fellow veterans, to be outgoing. I know, it sounds tough, and it is, but these kids we go to school with are going to be the future leaders of our country along side us, and we’re going to have to work with them, not against. We can’t sit in the back of the class forever while they commit our children to future conflicts.
Represent yourselves well, and with pride. Don’t show disdain for our fellow millennials who thankfully haven’t had to experience the horrors that we chose to experience.
Our grandfathers came home from Europe and the Pacific and built highways, raised families and defined our country as we know it today.
Now, I ask that we do the same.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a native of Boston, is president of Georgetown University’s Student Veterans Association and a former Marine. He served on active duty with the First Battalion, Sixth Marines, from 2007 to 2011 as a rifleman and participated in two deployments to Helmand Province in Afghanistan.