By Natalie Fondriest, Contributing Writer
Of the University's more than 8,000 students, only 25 are U.S. veterans — 11 undergraduates, 13 graduate students and one medical student. The University does not actively track international students who have served, either voluntarily or by conscription, in their home countries, according to the Student Veterans and Commissioning Programs Office.
The University's small veteran population creates a disconnect between military and non-military students. Students who have served or plan to serve, said they experience a lack of visibility, stereotypes and a general lack of awareness of military science that can make civilian students hesitant to engage in conversation.
Veterans Day marks the one day each year when an often overlooked segment of the student body is brought to the forefront of campus discussion. Yesterday's celebration included a procession from the Main Green to Soldier's Arch, where speakers, including Providence Mayor-elect Jorge Elorza, and student veterans and alums, addressed the crowd. The event featured a color guard provided by the Patriot Battalion Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps , a wreath-laying ceremony and a National Anthem Performance by the Jabberwocks a capella group.
This year, the University's Veterans Day recognition is more extensive than in the past. A portion of the University's 250th anniversary budget was allocated to the celebration, allowing recognition to expand into a month of veterans-related events, including Professor of English Beth Taylor's presentation 'Letters Home: Brown Alumni at War' Nov. 12 and a symposium "Back to Iraq?" Nov. 14.
While the University's decision to divert 250th funds to the project signals an institution-wide effort to provide greater support for the veteran community, compared to other Ivy League schools, Brown lags behind in offering opportunities for students to engage with the military on campus.
All other Ivy League schools either host a ROTC branch directly on campus, or have partnered with a local institution to host a significant portion of ROTC events, said James Rattner '15, student coordinator at SVCP and an editorial page board editor at The Herald.
ROTC is a college classroom and field program that introduces students to military science and prepares cadets to enter the U.S. military as officers upon graduation.
In 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War, Brown banned ROTC from campus. This ban was brought into question in 2011, when the militar revealed its 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' policy, which barred openly gay and lesbian indivuals from military service. Debates revolving around ROTC's campus presence rocked Brown in fall 2011, the Herald reported at the time. Then, former President Ruth Simmons recommended that the University keep its ban in place.
After the ban was upheld, Simmons reestablished the University's relationship with the Patriot Battalion Army ROTC at Providence College — a satellite-only program that Brown still maintains today.
On campus, SVCP, which was founded in 2012, offers academic and professional support for students involved in both domestic and international military officer commissioning programs.
Spotting the uniform on campus
Though Veterans Day puts a spotlight on military service, to see a student in uniform is an anomaly rather than routine on campus.
"At most you're going to see six people Wednesday … maybe just a couple hours, wearing a uniform," Rattner said, adding that, were the University to launch a full ROTC branch, more students, faculty and staff would be to able connect over shared experiences.
Students in uniform are not necessarily assumed to attend Brown, but instead, "You might just think … they wandered off the nearest base."
Even simple awareness of student involvement in the military can foster great support on campus, Rattner said. He added that when he participated in ROTC drill exercises in uniform, wearing it "gives you a sense of pride and consciousness."
Liberal school, conservative military
Stereotypes can amplify the disconnect between military and non-military communities at Brown.
Walker Mills '15 said he plans to enter the Marine Corps as a second Lieutenant upon graduation. Mills, a Herald opinions columnist, comes from what is "in no way a military family" — his mother melted his toy guns in the oven when he was a boy, he said. Though his childhood "fascination with the military … didn't quite fade," Mills said he did not seriously consider the option until he met the Marine Corps recruiters at a career fair during his sophomore year. He was not surprised to find the recruiters available to talk, he said, as he did not expect many Brown students to approach them.
For the past two summers, Mills has spent six intensive weeks training at the Platoon Leader's Class officer candidate school in Virgina. The "weeding" program quickly fosters deep connections, Mills said, as cadets' character and values are revealed under pressure.
The University's liberal environment may often come into tension with the military's politics.
U.S. Navy veteran Matthew Ricci '16 said Brown's culture "puts you in an odd position when you are sometimes conflated" with the military as a whole, adding that the general public's anger or disagreement regarding military conflict and missions is often misdirected toward individual veterans.
The common misconception of a member of the military as a "drone" is inaccurate. "In some ways, members of the military are the biggest doves you would find because they're the ones that are going to die," Ricci added.
"If you want to see a more liberal military, you can join it. You can do it yourself," Mills said, but he noted this was not part of his motivation for joining.
Mills said he values the notion of the "citizen soldier, like the minutemen in Boston," who were "crucial" to the history of the United States. Whether a liberal student in the heavily conservative military, or a military student at a heavily liberal school, the mingling of diverse perspectives benefits both groups, Mills said. He added that the lack of veterans "in our nation's liberal elite" disappoints him.
Mills added that PLC has allowed him to enjoy job security while having the freedom to pursue the courses that interest him during his time at Brown. Mills said he benefits from his ability to see through the leadership lens he has learned in the military in his positions as captain of the men's crew team and chair of the Undergraduate Council of Students Campus Life Committee.
Students who are not involved in the military often wonder about other students' motivations to join, Mills said. "Everyone wants to know why," he said, calling it "the million dollar question" and adding that he finds such curiosity flattering. "It's a complicated answer because there's no one reason. So I find myself answering that question in different ways at different times." Students are always surprised, but never negative when they learn of his career goals, he said.
A lack of knowledge of or familiarity with the military inhibits the initiation and development of military-related conversations at Brown. While Veterans Day generates some conversation, a sustained commitment to discourse may foster a stronger sense of belonging for military students at Brown.
Ricci said communicating his military experience "requires more than a 30-second comment in class. This topic can be galvanizing, and rightfully so," Ricci said. "But real sort of discourse that is deep and well-thought-out I think is necessary and productive."
When it comes to launching conversations with individuals involved in the military, many students do not even know where to start. Rattner said most of his peers seem to lack enough military knowledge to ask appropriate questions and often assume military interest indicates a specific interest in infantry. Military jobs are diverse — doctors, engineers, linguists and photojournalists all play roles in the U.S. military.
"There are very few kids at Brown whose parents served, and unless your parents served or your siblings served or for some reason you're fascinated by military science, you're not going to know much about it. I think that should be a concern," Rattner said. To help break down military stereotypes, students should be aware of the basics of a military lifestyle, the general structure of the military and its contracts as well as readjustment challenges for veterans such as post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.
Veterans' perspectives enhance discussion of heavy topics in class, Ricci said, adding that he believes his military experience benefits his Brown experience by providing "a greater context (through which) to interpret my education."
Though Ricci said he performed well academically when he first attended college after high school, he felt unfulfilled and in need of knowing what he was going to do with the rest of his life. So he put college on pause to join the military, a decision that Ricci said in retrospect, was "not very well-thought-out." He added, "I'm totally okay with admitting that … and I'm not apologizing either." The decision was personal, Ricci said, rather than patriotic — his patriotism was a result rather than a direct cause of his service.
Originally, Ricci intended to join the Marines, but chose the Navy instead in honor of his grandfather, whom Ricci called "the number one influence" on his life.
Time in service "drastically alter(ed) the way I connected with the people I knew," Ricci said. "You start to think about that stuff too much — it can really weigh you down."
Common ground can be forged between veteran and non-veteran students, with effort and an open mind, Ricci said. Especially for Resumed Undergraduate Education students, accepting and learning to communicate one's identity is an essential step toward connecting with traditional students, Ricci said.
An essential first step in breaking down barriers between military and non-military students is accepting that the more traditional student might not have any context to understand your experiences, Ricci said.
Ricci said he would like to see Resumed Undergraduate Studies become more visible on campus by integrating RUE into the general first-year orientation.
Karen McNeil, program director at SVCP, said she is working to increase the number of veterans on campus in order to strengthen the veteran community. "When it's just a few token students, it's going to be difficult for them to get support as a community," McNeil said.
McNeil cited the anti-military — and even hostile — stigma attached to "schools like Brown" and the logistics of admission for military students as two great challenges in attracting veterans to Brown. She said she aims to reach veterans in the early stages of transition out of the military, which happens on a rolling basis.
The first step in strengthening the on-campus veteran community is to make the military "less exotic" to students at Brown, McNeil said.