Thursday, April 22, 2010

Summer 2002 Vision Statement: Military Veterans of Columbia University

Note: Outside of Oscar Escano fresh from OEF I, the milvets who started MilVets in 2002 were pre-9/11 veterans. Nonetheless, not yet a year after the 9/11 attacks, I was motivated by the war veterans who would soon be enrolling at Columbia. I strongly believed they deserved a student-veterans group ready to welcome them when they arrived on campus. In my mind, the group was meant more for them than for us pre-9/11 vets. (Over the years, I've taken a deep breath and reminded myself of this whenever a fellow milvet who's also a war vet pissed me off.) I often discussed the war veterans aspect at the time, so I'm surprised I didn't explicitly state that reason in my summer 2002 vision statement - I thought I did. Anyway, what I said in my vision statement applies to them, too.
Vision Statement: Military Veterans of Columbia University.
By Eric ******, 27 August 2002

My seminal motivation for MilVetsCU is a simple one: as a former soldier and as a current Columbia student, I believe that there should be a student club like this at Columbia. There is every positive reason to form this club and no negative reasons.

1. Social group: Because of General Studies, Columbia probably has the largest concentration of veterans in the Ivy League. Factor in the graduate schools, non-American veterans, and the scattering of veterans in the other undergraduate programs; military veterans probably constitute the largest special interest population at Columbia that isn’t represented by its own student club. My experience tells me that veterans come to Columbia seeking a new challenge after years of honorable service, to remake themselves as Ivy League students. While some veterans return to military service by their own choice, by and large, they are not at Columbia to relive their military days. They find a home at Columbia that fulfills their intellectual expectations, but they also find – often to their surprise – that their military service has imprinted itself upon them. By inclination, especially after years in uniform, many veterans are protective of their own individuality, but at the same time, they discover that military experience gives them a shared bond. On a level forged by earned experience, they are understood by and understand their fellow veterans in a way that is often hard to communicate with other classmates. The military is, in fact, its own American community with its own cultural influence. As much as any group of students organized along a special interest, veterans deserve their own organization at Columbia.

2. Practical benefits: Because of the years given over to military service, veterans are older, more mature, perhaps with a different perspective, and are usually financially independent. Many veterans begin attending Columbia shortly after leaving the military, which can be a culture shock and a significant lifestyle adjustment. Similar to Columbia students in general, many veterans are not from the New York City area. The added maturity of veterans alleviates the transition process somewhat but the assistance of experienced classmates who understand their special needs always helps. As such, like any student club, a military veterans group can function as a support group and a network of resources that serves the veteran-student well beyond the initial transition from soldier to student.

3. A unique resource: Columbia’s veterans, whether former soldiers, marines, sailors or airmen, represent a special, hard-earned pool of knowledge, perspectives and experience within the Columbia community. The military has an essential historical, cultural, political and social role in our society; the Columbia student body would be well-served by a focal point of classmates who have “been there and done that.” As many veterans have noted, shocking ignorance about the military seems to prevail among otherwise intelligent and well-informed Columbia students. Grossly offensive stereotypes that would be unacceptable if applied to any other group seem to be accepted as a matter of course when applied to the military. In any era, but especially in the growing uncertainty of today’s world, it is vital that Columbia’s graduates leave this institution with a better understanding of and respect for the military. While it cannot and should not be the only answer to ignorance at Columbia, an organization of military veterans can greatly aid this institution’s mission of preparing graduates as informed members of society.

4. Pluralism ideal: Columbia University aspires to be a pluralistic institution that promotes the best qualities of a diverse society. The promise of that ideal attracts military veterans to Columbia University. Indeed, veterans are well acquainted with the benefits of diversity from serving in the military, and many veterans have served overseas. Sadly, Columbia University has had a shameful record of anti-military discrimination since the 1960s, perpetuated by a minority of actively anti-military students and even the administration itself. The Military Veterans of Columbia University would be an important agent for restoring true pluralism at Columbia and healing the 40-year-old wound to Columbia’s proud traditions.

Bonus. For military veterans only, a calling: The School of General Studies allows our relatively large veteran population at Columbia, and that makes Columbia unique in the Ivy League. At present, there is a fledgling military advocacy effort at Columbia and an older effort at Harvard being undertaken by non-military students and ROTC cadets. Ladies and gentlemen, ROTC cadets are not military veterans. I commend their efforts to represent the military on campus and I feel our groups ultimately have a shared purpose, but bottom-line, it is our place as veterans to represent the military, not theirs. The military is far more than just ROTC. At Columbia, as students and as veterans, we have an opportunity to advocate for the military that is unique across this country. Furthermore, the Columbia name carries weight, and the difference we make on this campus will resonate far beyond Morningside.

The Vietnam War ended 30 years ago, and it is past time we closed that chapter of American history. There is no better place to do that than in the nation’s cognitive centers and memory banks, elite universities like Columbia. 30 years equals 3 decades of cultural upheaval and 30 (!) different generations of college students. Things have changed more than we realize, and I think our campus is ready for change. I believe we are merely agents of history – we are discussing this group now simply because it’s the right time for it.

After a year at Columbia, I am convinced that Columbia’s military veterans constitute a special breed of student, the elite class of an elite class. We have an opportunity to make a difference. In the words of the immortal poet, the times -- they are a-changin'.

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