According to a recent National Public Radio report,American colleges have experienced a 400 percent increase in the number of student veterans on campus since passage of the post-9-11 GI Bill in 2008. That sort of influx is not new in the United States as a similar bill passed in 1944 to assist World War II (WWII) veterans as they returned from their service; millions turned to higher education as the next stage in their lives. WWII America realized the contribution that veterans could make to society and the original G.I. Bill provided veterans educational benefits that covered college tuition. That support arguably helped to fuel our society’s prosperity for the next 50 years. But today, that educational investment – paying tuition– as vital as it is, is not enough.
Today’s educators must also invest time and money in building a body of research to understand how to meet veterans’ overall needs effectively, both in and out of the classroom. If we do that, both our country’s veterans and society will be stronger. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “For-Profit Group Suggests Best Practices for Serving Military and Veteran Students,” Michael Dakduk, executive director of the Student Veterans of America, observed, “a lack of reliable data on military and veteran students is problematic.” Such information could assist many veterans materially as they return to civilian society.
Indeed, my personal experience suggests Dakduk was right. My transition from the Marine Corps to the University of Virginia was the biggest culture shock of my life. When I took my place among that university’s incoming first-year students, the strong sense of camaraderie, responsibility, and purpose I had experienced in the Marine Corps was replaced by feelings of isolation, confusion, and uncertainty. Although I was only 22-years-old when I departed the service, my previous position had been command of a Marine detachment charged with the security of the American Embassy in Oslo, Norway. I provided weekly security briefs to the U.S. ambassador and his team. Perhaps more important, I was an integral part of a close-knit team with a clear mission and strong sense of purpose. That changed when I became a student. I was no longer a part of a group with a single purpose, and while I did have a goal, it did not feel as immediate or urgent as my missions in the Marines during that service. It took me a year to make the transition to full-time student. Meanwhile, I became used to being known in class as “the guy who could kill you with his pinky finger.”
I was lucky. Although I had been deployed to a forward operating area, I was never in combat. The majority of my brothers- and sisters-in-arms who are currently returning home have experienced combat. This group of veterans is larger than the population of Hawaii. The transitional problems I experienced were significant, but largely cultural. But tens of thousands of veterans are coming home following experiences in combat, which add immeasurably to the stresses of reentering civilian society, whether on campuses or in communities. Their collective needs as they return should be an issue of national concern.
I am currently a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech in its School of Public and International Affairs. My experience and those of fellow veterans I know lead me to undertake my doctoral research on the question of whether and to what extent military training can prepare veterans to serve in their communities. My sense as I begin my effort is that veterans possess many capacities that may benefit their hometowns. Nonetheless, we need to know more about what those capabilities are, how they arise and how they can positively assist both veterans and their hometown populations.
This work has already begun and I hope to contribute to it. In 2009, Mary Yonkman and John Bridgeland published a report entitled, All Volunteer Force: From Military to Civilian Service. All Volunteer Force (AVF) was the first nationally representative survey of United States Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) veterans and it aimed to share their perspectives on their civic lives as they transitioned from battlefields abroad to communities at home.
Existing research has appropriately focused on the importance of health care, employment, and family support in aiding veterans’ transitions to civilian life. What has been lacking is an understanding of ex-soldiers’ civic lives and the role that community organizations can play in their shift from military to civilian life. Veterans acquire values and skills while serving in the military that arguably are valuable in the workplace and in communities. However, only 13 percent of OIF/OEF veterans responding to the AVF survey strongly agreed that their transition home was going well. Meanwhile, 9 of 10 veterans completing the national survey strongly agreed or agreed that Americans could learn something from the example of their military service.
AVF survey respondents identified many skills they believed they possessed that would be valuable to their communities. Sixty-four percent of responding OIF/OEF veterans cited their management and supervision skills; 61 percent referenced their ability to lead diverse groups of people; 63 percent cited their team-building skills; 57 percent noted their operational capacities; and 40 percent pointed to their logistics capabilities. According to Yonkman and Bridgeland,
Nonprofits across the country need these very skills to fulfill and expand the basic services they provide every day. Whether they are operating food kitchens in a large urban area; helping at-risk youth clean up a polluted river that runs through their neighborhood; leading a home-build in a community struck by natural disaster; or driving a wounded veteran to a doctor’s appointment; skilled volunteers are desperately needed to both coordinate and execute these essential services (Yonkman 2009, pg. 26).
Virginia Tech is one of six nationally recognized Senior Military Colleges and has a strong military culture based on its outstanding Corps of Cadets. With its proud tradition, Virginia Tech has committed to help veterans transition to higher education by implementing a campus-wide Veteran and Military Support Initiative. The effort is designed to assist veterans’ reintegration into academic and professional life at the university by providing support networks and a central resource for information. Efforts like Virginia Tech’s initiative are critical to veterans’ success in transitioning to a civilian life. Higher education is vital to the futures of many of the nation’s post-September 2001 veterans. The nation must recognize the sacrifice of its own via effective reintegration programs. I hope in my own research to explore new ways in which veterans can give back to their country following their return home.
 Abramson, Larry. (2012, December 5). Vets flock to college…but how are they doing? NPR.com. Retrieved April 13, 2013 from, http://www.npr.org.
 Dakduk, Michael. (2013, February). For-Profit Group Suggests Best Practices for Serving Military and Veteran Students. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
 Yonkman, Mary and Bridgeland, John (2009). All Volunteer Force: From Military to Civilian Service. Civic Enterprises.
Eric Hodges is a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech in its School of Public and International Affairs. Eric is also a former Marine, serving tours in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Beijing, China, and Oslo, Norway. Eric’s current research focuses on how veterans can benefit civil society.