Veterans Studies as an Academic Discipline

I gave this presentation, an extended version of the article I wrote for Veterans of Foreign Wars Magazine in September 2013, at a workshop hosted at the 2014 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Indianapolis on March 20th, 2014. Among those in attendance were educators, veterans, and veterans’ advocates interested in new approaches to teaching student veterans and veterans’ issues. Inside Higher Ed did a feature on the workshop, created by MEA’s Katt Blackwell Starnes. My goal is to inform people of the importance and feasibility of establishing “Veterans Studies” as an academic discipline. Below you will hear my story, as well as those of students I’ve taught in Eastern Kentucky University’s Veterans Studies Program. I was a student veteran when I approached faculty and administrators with the idea. And it will take that kind of grass roots activism to get Veterans Studies established as a discipline at institutions across the country. Here’s some info to get you started.

–Travis L. Martin

Veterans StudiesIn 2010, I offered a group of student veterans the opportunity to produce short stories, poetry, and artwork as an alternative to exams in their orientation to college course. Their bravery, both in uniform and in their willingness to share stories of hardship, left me with a question: “What made them willing to tell those stories, to expose themselves, to drudge up all those painful reminders?” It wasn’t a particularly hard class. The exams were open book, covering the basics of what they could expect in college. And, even after telling them that they didn’t have to write about trauma and loss, the vast majority chose to anyway. What’s more, they later decided to include their works in a publication, The Journal of Military Experience. Why?

As a sergeant in the army, I learned to weigh the consequences of emotional release as any other factor capable of impacting mission success. I learned to turn those emotions on and off as needed. My students, in a very crucial time in their college careers, reasoned that it was worth the risk to tell their stories so that they might educate their peers, professors, and loved ones about what they’d been through. Media, colleges, and larger society weren’t getting the job done; so my students took the role of educator upon themselves. If they were willing put forth that effort, I figured, the school could respond in kind.

On September 15, 2010, I brought together a group of professors and administrators from throughout the campus community and proposed the idea of a “Veterans Studies” minor and certificate program. It would be the first of its kind, a program that introduced non-veterans to military service, allowed veterans to contextualize their experience, and bring both groups together in scholarly analysis of those issues relevant to veterans of different generations. Eventually, the school’s Director of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Brett Morris (USA, Lt. Col. Ret.), opened the right doors and got the right people to listen. I was a second semester MA student when I did this. And, as other programs emerge around the nation, they are rarely founded by individuals who aren’t willing to devote a considerable amount of free time and labor to the task. So, I’m here to call academia out. We’re quick to take student veterans’ GI Bill money and other educational benefits. We’re quick to tout “Veteran Friendly” status. But, for some reason, with all the smart and socially conscientious occupants of the ivory tower, we’re slow to streamline this new field to our campuses.

Why do we need Veterans Studies programs? Well, in 1947, veterans comprised up to 49% of all college students. Professors from that era will tell you stories of makeshift camps and barracks built to accommodate them. In the wake of WW2, the option to pursue higher education helped America avoid a catastrophic influx of unemployed veterans into the job market. School became synonymous with service. However, a rift formed between the military and academia when the anti-war movement found a home on college campuses during the Vietnam War. While veterans have come a long way since then, those returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan still deal with many of the same stereotypes.

One famous example, a training video intended for new instructors entitled, “I Deserve a Better Grade… Or Else,” appeared briefly on one unnamed, top-tier school’s website before it was removed. The video included a young instructor and an aggressive student veteran unhappy about his grade. As the title suggests, the student veteran character reacts with threatening overtures, appearing on the edge of violence throughout the short film. Whereas the school apologized and removed the video, it became clear that an undercurrent of stigma and myth about veterans still exists. These stereotypes will persist until they are addressed openly and college curricula include the perspectives of veterans.

Distorted views of service are often reinforced by well-intentioned administrators hoping to attract veterans based on their campus’s awareness of war’s consequences. Many college initiatives latch onto the hot topics found in the news media. The worst case scenarios—PTSD, TBI, MST, physical disabilities like amputation and severe burns from IED blasts—are worthy of attention and scholarship. But they are mistaken as the norm when separated from knowledge about military culture as a whole. My colleagues, Alexis Hart and Roger Thompson, comment on this fact in the results of their 4Cs funded project, “An Ethical Obligation: Promising Practices for Student Veterans in College Writing Classrooms:”

Campus trainings about student veterans tend to be based on a deficit model … Trainings that focus on the deficits of student veterans likely perpetuate already established stereotypes of the ‘veteran,’ often calling on the simplistic narratives of veterans as heroes, or as wounded warriors, and they rarely acknowledge the complex histories of medical traumas such as TBI and PTSD. In other words, they fail to engage the nuances of military service, wars, careers, and disabilities in favor of, interestingly, a briefing model whose effect is to perpetuate one-dimensional narratives about what it means to be a ‘veteran.’

In another article by Hart and Thompson, “War, Trauma, and the Writing Classroom,” one finds a precise and accurate critique of my own work with student veterans. Specifically, they call into question the lack of female veterans’ perspectives and the shaky grounds on which writing as a healing intervention stands.  In my own defense, I only had two female veterans in those two semesters resulting in the Journal of Military Experience, and neither chose to produce short stories. Further, as literary trauma theorist, my training does not lie in the medical field. The article I wrote, and that Hart and Thompson responded to, was largely without context, without a burgeoning field in which it could be considered, suggesting that their critique is more of academia as a whole than of my personal efforts. And that’s the way I took it.

The first Women’s Studies program was founded in 1970 at San Diego State. This program sought to undo the stereotypes that held back the advancement of women in society for centuries. Today, there are more than 900 Women’s and Gender Studies programs throughout the world. Likewise, the first program to examine the culture of African Americans originated at San Francisco State in 1968. Today, there are more than 300 programs. Similar stories can be found about programs ranging from Appalachian Studies, to Irish Studies, to Jewish Studies, to programs for about every underrepresented, misunderstood population on the globe. Why are veterans excluded from these initiatives?

This problem is one driven by too much lip-service and not enough action. In 2011, $9.9 billion had already been spent on tuition assistance. Student veterans are big business. While this money is certainly a welcome relief for those institutions of higher learning struggling with low enrollments and government budget cuts, those benefiting do not seem concerned with investing it in long-term initiatives designed to transform the societies in which their veteran graduates live and work.

Veterans Studies is not just about teaching veterans. It is about bringing non-veterans and veterans together at a common center rooted in scholarship. Non-veteran students take my courses to complete “diversity of experience” credits and, if they choose, go on to earn a minor or certificate in a field that prepares them for work within military and veteran communities.

Katie Andrews, a college senior working on a degree in psychology, is one example: “When I first started the psychology program, I knew I wanted to work with those who’ve served in the military. VTS has turned out to be one of the best programs I have ever been a part of; it has strengthened my knowledge about veteran culture in ways I never could have on my own.” Veterans take the course to get the “bigger picture” of where and why they served, learning to translate those experiences for their peers and talk about what they did in uniform with a knowledge that transcends the trenches.

Benjamin Congleton, a veteran who served two eight-month deployments in Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, says he felt more like a teacher than a student at times: “It’s hard explaining what it is like to be a student veteran. I was given the chance to talk in front of the class and chose to speak about a short poem I wrote. [The instructor] showed some pictures I took while I was in the Marines and it really meant a lot to me.” His poem and pictures from his deployment were used to talk about his own battle with PTSD. This lesson was not planned; rather, Congleton felt compelled to undo some of the stereotypes brought into the class by students who had not served: “I was able to show them that some wounds aren’t physical—that some veterans silently carry the burdens of tough choices made in the line of duty into their classes. VTS should be in every college around the nation,” he later said.

That both veterans and non-veterans take the course is vital. The two groups learn to communicate by framing veteran experience in three key ways: the institutional, cultural, and relational dimensions of Veterans Studies. The institutional portion of the course teaches the students how the different branches function as a hierarchy and together—in the past as well as the present—to keep America safe. The cultural dimension exposes them to works of literature, films, and the typical ways in which veterans are depicted by the media. Finally, in the last portion of the course, students learn about how veterans assimilate into society after taking off the uniform.

Many of the students, both veteran and non-veteran, are surprised to learn that veterans, on average, return from war to be productive members of society. Most importantly, perhaps, are those opportunities where non-veterans and veterans get the chance to interact one-on-one. Students are required to partake in at least three out-of-class experiences per semester. Many choose to attend meetings held by the campus student veteran association, the VFW, or other VSOs. Veterans, especially those recently discharged, are encouraged to travel to the nearest VA facility and learn about the benefits they’ve earned. The VTS program also sponsors special events throughout the year.

Katie Andrews commented that “Volunteer opportunities and participating in events like ‘The Combat Paper Project’ and ‘ArtReach: Project America’ allowed to me to learn alongside students who had served in the military. These experiences will be a great asset to me when I start my career,” when asked about her out-of-class experiences in the fall 2012 semester. Events like these are instrumental in helping veteran and non-veteran students come together. Just as non-veterans struggle finding the right words to use in a conversations about military service and war, veterans can experience anxiety in relating those experiences to individuals who’ve never served. Benjamin Congelton reflected, “The non-veterans were great! I had no idea people still cared about the troops. Some people thought they knew what the Marines did, but talking with them helped me give them a better idea of what really goes on.” At the same time, Andrews thinks the one-on-one time helped her better understand the materials covered in the class, “Having veterans in the class and a veteran instructor allowed me to learn from people who had actually experienced what we were discussing—instead of just reading from a book. It was a bit intimidating trying to understand things that are pretty much impossible to understand unless you have lived them, like some of the veterans in my class.” What does all this have to do with the Conference on College Composition and Communication?

Veterans Studies, as it exists in the courses I’ve designed, integrates oral, written, and visual communications skills in projects requiring critical inquiry and research. Students, taking Veterans Studies courses for a variety of professional and personal reasons, must cross disciplinary lines in order to make the first forays into this field. Further, group work, specifically, the kind of group work that asks veteran and non-veteran students to collaborate and produce work relevant to all parties, is foundational in both composition and the future of Veterans Studies.

I was an instructor in the University of Kentucky’s Division of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Media before I volunteered to forgo my assistantship and work part time at EKU developing the Veterans Studies Program. I took a pay cut and worked time and a half because I believed in the program, but also because what I’d learned in the composition classroom was essential in that program’s development. Multi-modal projects that asked Veterans Studies students to communicate their arguments about veterans’ issues to an audience outside of the classroom was the result. Everyone here has the experience and the tools necessary to create Veterans Studies Programs at their own schools.

Schools benefiting financially from the sacrifices of service men and women have a responsibility to create veteran-friendly environments and produce graduates capable of interacting respectfully and knowledgeable about veterans issues in the workplace and their day-to-day lives. The time has come for Veterans Studies Programs to claim their rightful places within the walls of academia. 

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.