Veterans Day After Afghanistan

A lot of friends and colleagues wondered about the first Veterans Day following the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Would we just let the twentieth anniversary and end of the war go by in silence? In September, the Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies orchestrated a panel of veteran-scholars to discuss the matter. A common refrain: we hope Americans pay attention to what came before, during, and after this war and learn from it.

Peter Berres, a Vietnam Veteran who teaches Veterans Studies at Eastern, suggested, “A more appropriate legacy than winning or losing may very well be how we treat the post-9/11 generation.”

We recorded the panel if you would like to watch: Today’s Afghanistan and Those Who Served.

For me, Veterans Day 2021 began exactly as it did a decade ago. EKU’s Office of Military and Veterans Affairs hosts the “National Roll Call” and members of the community read off the names of all those who lost their lives in the line of duty since September 11, 2001. 7041 names, to be precise.

There were fewer names to read when, as a graduate assistant, I helped organize the 2010 event. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were approaching their decade anniversaries and the American public as a whole was beginning to lose interest. I remember at some point CNN stopped scrolling the number of dead across the bottom of their broadcast throughout today. The absence of this solemn reminder likely stood out to a lot of veterans.

I was about four years removed from war at that point in my life. It was very much on my mind, both because of my own experiences, and because I was teaching cohorted classes of veterans how to be successful in college. Their transition experiences were a real part of my every day.

In 2021, I find myself a full-time employee of the university, directing a program in Veterans Studies that hopes to educate non-veterans about the meaning of service and the aspects of veterans’ lives they many never stop to consider. A good number of my students were born after 9/11. Lives represented by names on the list we read each year were extinguished before these students were ever born.

A few days prior to the event, our class had finished a particularly moving chapter in our course textbook about veteran suicides, and the class ended early following a presentation of SAVE, the VA’s suicide prevention gatekeeper training. With time to spare, I asked the students to grab their belongings and follow me to the Powell Memorial Plaza.

If you haven’t been to Eastern, this plaza is home to a number of veterans memorials, each containing names of individuals with direct ties to the campus community. In particular, there is a memorial dedicated to those who “lost their lives because of their service, but not while serving.” Many of the individuals memorialized there, including the author of our textbook and a former student who had been in my 2010 class, died by suicide.

The word itself – suicide – is still taboo enough in our culture that it is not mentioned in descriptions of the memorial or on the memorial itself. And so the causes of these deaths are left to the imaginations of many students who walk by everyday, unawares. They seem alarmed each semester when they learn about the estimated 17-22 veterans a day dying by their own hands. Yet, they knew very little about the epidemic taking place in their own community.

“Suicide is not just a veteran problem. It is a human problem. And among veterans it is not some abstract issue that only experts can solve,” I told the class as we stood at the Fallen Soldier’s Cross. “You may very well find yourself in a situation where you will need to use what we just learned in that classroom. I hope you never do. But you need to be prepared to step and say something.”

Many of the students did not know about the National Roll Call or understand its symbolism. They did not know the meaning of the memorials they walked by everyday on their way to the dining hall. In the Intro to Veterans Studies course, they are shocked when they learn about things like veteran suicide, Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome, Military Sexual Assault, “atomic veterans” — the list goes on, as does the theme of veterans returning from service dealing with these problems only to face a new battle, one for recognition. I like to think that of the thousands of students we have put through that class by now, each one is a bit more educated and able to vote appropriately and advocate for veterans when the opportunity arises.

It’s not that our young people lack conviction. It is not that they do not care about veterans. They simply are not taught these things in school. For a generation that grew up with yellow ribbon bumper stickers and American flags on every front porch, the treatment of the Vietnam War generation is baffling. They can’t imagine an age where “thank you for your service” wasn’t the first thing said to a veteran. They can’t figure out why these words are not enough.

But they want to help. In fact, two of my students put together a Veterans Day outreach to recognize veterans at the Saint Andrews assisted-living facility here in Richmond, KY. They began by organizing a letter writing campaign. Abigail and Allie worked with the facility’s therapeutic recreation specialist to procure bios on each veteran. So the letters were unique. One letter, written by a student from South Korea to a Korean War veteran, was particularly moving.

The campaign brought together a number of campus groups, including volunteers from the Veterans Studies Alliance, Alpha Lambda Delta Academic Honor Society, Alpha Omicron Pi Fraternity, Kappa Delta Tau, and EKU’s Student Alumni Ambassadors.

So, my morning began with a commemoration of those veterans from my generation who had given their lives. And that night and we found ourselves celebrating with a group of veterans who had barely been allowed visitors since the start of the pandemic. In the photo below, you will see a woman in the front row. She is 102-year-old Navy veteran. I was the only one who could hear her sing every word to the “Star Spangled Banner” as I gave her my arm to help her stand.

To culminate their internship, I asked Abigail and Allie to write about their experiences for the campus newspaper, the Eastern Progress. Abigail wrote in her article, “Once the program was over, I was able to talk with one of the veterans. He explained to me that he had lost his wife many years ago to cancer, eventually marrying his second wife whom he loves dearly. So much hurt and joy over the years, so many moments lost because of the sacrifices that were made to keep us safe. Hearing him speak about his life and his service, the importance of seeking conversations with those who fought for our freedoms, became amplified. This event was fun, and I loved giving the gifts to the veterans, but I suppose my favorite part was being reminded of the need to listen to those who came before you and me.”

In her article, Allie wrote, “Witnessing the pride that everyone in the room had during the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem. Watching the veterans trying their hardest to stand while they were honored. Hearing about veterans’ experiences and seeing how grateful they were to receive the gifts and have someone to talk to about their lives and memories. This event was both inspirational and humbling.”

Words like these give veterans like me hope. If my students do not know about the National Roll Call, veteran suicides, or how Vietnam Veterans were treated it is because the generation tasked with teaching them these things failed. Many young people are looking for ways to listen to veterans and help them in meaningful ways. They aren’t looking to distribute platitudes. They are looking to build authentic relationships, and it is our job to provide them with the knowledge and opportunity they need to succeed.

Travis L. Martin, PhD, is founding director of the Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. He has established several nationally recognized programs to support returning veterans in higher education and the non-profit sector. A scholar of American literature, psychoanalytic trauma theory, and social theory, Dr. Martin presents frequently at conferences and universities. He has published dozens of research articles and creative short works on veterans’ issues. A former sergeant in the U.S. Army, he served during two deployments in the Iraq War (2003-04 & 2005). His book War and Homecoming: Veteran Identity and the Post-9/11 Generation was published with the University Press of Kentucky in 2022. He resides in Richmond, KY.