Student veterans adjust to life at MSU
Serving in the U.S. military doesn't bear much in common with life at MSU, and while transitioning from the stress of life-or-death situations to waking up for an 8 a.m. exam might sound like an upgrade, it can be a challenge for student veterans to adjust.
The Veterans Day Breakfast is one of the ways MSU's chapter of Student Veterans of America is aiming to make that transition easier. Held in the Kellogg Center's Lincoln Room, the free event allowed students and faculty to hear the stories of those who risked their lives in service, as well as clear up misconceptions about what it means to be a veteran.
This understanding is important to veterans, as misconceptions can often end up hurting them. In her speech, guest speaker and former Marine Cassie Michael mentioned how often veterans will hear "you know what you signed up for" as a response to the residual effects of their service. She said not only is this comment insensitive, but it doesn't give thought to the many factors that play into citizens' choices to join the military.
"I think for most of these people, they assume that because we joined the military, we must be in favor of the war," Michael said. "For some of us, that may be true. For others, that's not always the case. I think it's important to make a clear distinction between the war and those that fought in the war."
For some citizens, military service wasn't a choice at all. Richard Wendorf, who attended the breakfast on invitation from a friend who works for MSU, was drafted into the Army in September 1961 and served for two years. The timing of his enlistment — he was discharged two years before former President Lyndon B. Johnson deployed 200,000 troops to Southeast Asia — meant he was able to avoid the trauma of serving in the Vietnam War.
"I was drafted, taken away from my job, and served — I felt, honorably — and enjoyed my experiences. I was there when they needed me," Wendorf said. "I was fortunate in that I wasn't called back in, because at the time I was single. I could've been taken to Vietnam. I'm grateful I didn't have that bad experience, but feel sorry and have compassion for those that did serve through that war."
Wendorf said there are many ways his service has been disrespected throughout the years. The Vietnam War was deeply unpopular, and many civilians at the time hated what a military uniform represented. He has heard people say veterans joined for a guaranteed job and easy money, and echoing Michael's speech, he's been told he knew what he was getting into — even though he was drafted.
Blatant hatred of veterans is largely a thing of the past, but Wendorf doesn't believe the current generation properly respects his peers either. In the 54 years since he was discharged, he said there have only been two times where he was thanked for his service; one of them was at this breakfast. Because of this treatment, Wendorf was appreciative of the efforts of groups like MSU's Student Veterans of America chapter, who provide support for the struggles student veterans face.
"I think (veterans) go unnoticed," Wendorf said. "I think we need to give the attention to this fallacy that they don't exist and if they do, they're on their own."
While MSU is consistently named a veteran-friendly school by various agencies, a panel of student veterans at the breakfast brought up many ways the university could have helped them better adjust to campus life.
Michael, a graduate of the University of Michigan, was initially hesitant to compare the two schools, but brought up many ways in which Michigan helped make her transition out of the military fairly easy. In addition, many on the panel thanked Sarah Mellon, MSU's veteran resource representative, for being the driving force in turning around a struggling program.
"I had gone to two smaller community colleges previously that happened to be very vet-friendly, and the transitions were very smooth," Brittney Beavers, former Army intelligence collector and fisheries and wildlife senior, said. "I was kind of expecting the same thing at a huge university that promoted being very vet-friendly. And honestly, the advisers didn't know anybody that I could talk to for my veterans benefits, I had the runaround trying to find somebody, and I almost decided not to go to MSU because it was such a stressful time for me."
Issues still remain, with arts and humanities sophomore and former Army combat medic Mj Haynes likening the basement placement of the veteran resources center to a dungeon. Yet those in attendance applauded Mellon and the SVA's efforts to better integrate veterans into campus, with the Veterans Day breakfast being an important part of that initiative. During the breakfast, Mellon walked around the room, speaking with veterans like Wendorf about her efforts as they enjoyed their french toast or scrambled eggs.
Even with improved administrative support, it still can be difficult for student veterans to feel as if they "belong" on campus. Haynes said age and cultural differences between student veterans and the typical MSU undergrad makes it difficult for her to befriend her fellow Spartans, something that rarely proved to be the case while she was serving abroad.
"If you met another American or English-speaker out there, that was enough in common that now you officially have a new friend," Haynes said. "Transitioning to civilian life ... you chat with strangers, you're hitting it off, you have plural common interests, and then it just comes to this end, and they just part. And it's like, 'Oh crud, I thought I put in all the work to make some friends.'"
For those in attendance, a solution to this problem is simple: students just need to have some empathy for those who have served. Whether they have PTSD and struggle every day to live down their experiences at war, or never saw combat and adjusted back to life at home relatively easily, taking the time to listen to veteran can be an eye-opening experience for civilians and cathartic for veterans.
This is especially true for Wendorf, who was visibly emotional as he spoke about what events like the breakfast meant to him. He pointed to a previous dinner, during which veterans were asked to stand and be applauded, as a proud, yet rare moment in his life. Wendorf wishes more civilians — young people especially — would appreciate that all veterans are essentially signing their civil rights away in service to others.
"I think sometimes we've lost the sense of what it takes to serve your country," Wendorf said. "I think the veterans in any military branch is one of the best examples of what we can do for our country."