John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Veterans’ Day 2015: What Did I Derive from my “Service” Experience and How Did That Compare to my College Experience?

November 18, 2015huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

John Gardner copyToday, Veterans’ Day 2015, I went, as is my custom, to the recognition ceremony for veterans in my adopted town of Brevard, N.C., a small, rural, mountain town of about 6000. While I don’t need this day and ceremony to remind me of the impact on my development of military service, it is certainly a moving reminder each year.

Today’s ceremony could not have been held on a more beautiful late fall day. The turn out was about 200, give or take, almost entirely older white citizens. The majority of us vets were Vietnam era, but there were a few Korean War era survivors left standing. The occasion is one for grandstanding by local elected officials who can’t resist the allure of air-time in front of voters and this best opportunity of the year to demonstrate their patriotism. The ceremony is a mixture of patriotism, martial fervor, jingoism, religious invocations and blessings, ethnocentrism, claims about how much better we have made the rest of the world, music, overuse of sexist language recognizing the “men” as if no women had served, coupled with powerfully sincere respect and gratitude for those who served, and especially those who lost their lives in service to country. In spite of the elements I find objectionable, I wouldn’t miss it.

For one day of the year I feel all the differences between me and my fellow local residents do not matter. We are all one. We all have one thing in common. We are all bonded. We are family. We are connected. We have a set of common experiences, values, shared memories of similar rituals, and sacrifices.

Much of my mental professionally related time is spent thinking about the impact of college. What difference does college make in the near and long term now for students, and their families who are paying so dearly for higher education? Some of the outcomes that I would hope come about as a result of the college experience could also be realized from military experience.

My own experience was that I had already been to college and graduate school before I went on active duty.

I started my tour late in my 22nd year. That meant I had a head start on maturity as compared to a beginning college student.

The outcomes of my military experience were these:

  1. The Air Force gave me my life’s vocation: that of higher educator. That happened because my squadron commander on my first day on duty at my permanent base, gave me a direct order to perform “community service” by which he meant adjunct teaching for the University of South Carolina. And that was how I got my big start. So in this case, the military ordered me into my life’s work. Usually in the higher education culture we are not nearly so directive with our students. We don’t have the same abilities to give them “direct orders.” If we do they can refuse and we can’t court martial them. We can simply deny them academic credit or degrees.
  2. The Air Force sent me to work and live in a part of the world and my country where I never would have chosen voluntarily to be, the Southeast. It was a game changer. And when I finished my tour and was honorably discharged I voluntarily decided to remain in the south.
  3. The Air Force taught me what it means to “serve” and perform “service.” I had not learned that in college. In my era, colleges weren’t into the business of teaching such concepts intentionally and experientially.
  4. The Air Force exposed me to an incredibly wide range of “diversity”, much more broadly and powerfully than I had ever learned in college or at home. I met, served with, lived with, ate with, socialized with, a range of fellow citizens that I would otherwise have been socially isolated from were it not for the Air Force.
  5. The Air Force taught me to put the needs of my country before my own. I certainly never learned that in college.
  6. The Air Force taught me how a large and complex organization and bureaucracy, Catch 22 and all, worked—or at times didn’t work. And how to function very successfully in such an environment. I certainly never learned that in college.
  7. The Air Force taught me a level of tolerance of people and their views that were vastly different from mine, particularly those with more conservative notions about foreign policy and the Vietnam War, that I had not learned in college.
  8. The Air Force taught me the concept of “mission.” I had to understand what was the “mission” of the US armed forces, the Air Force in particular, my “command” in the Air Force (the Tactical Air Command), my base (Shaw AFB, S.C), my squadron on my base, the 363rd Tactical Hospital, and my unit in my squadron—the hospital Psychiatric Clinic—(I was a psychiatric social worker) and finally MY mission in my unit, squadron, base, command, and branch of service. No one in authority during my college years had ever asked me to think about, let alone develop, my mission. But by the time I was discharged from the Air Force, I had a mission. It was to serve my fellow citizens and country as a higher educator, and in particular, doing what I regarded as a kind of missionary work in the civil rights era South Carolina.
  9. The Air Force taught me a body of knowledge and a set of skills. The knowledge was in the field of applied mental health and psychiatry. The skills were those of listening, interviewing, clinical observation, empathy, counseling, therapeutic interactions, and understanding of human behaviors, including deviancies and mental health disorders. These outcomes have proved so valuable for me as a professor, administrator, parent.
  10. The Air Force taught me the power of what we now call in my line of work in the academy as “peer leaders.” In the military context these were the Non Commissioned Officers, the squad leaders, those in positions of key unit authority but who were closest in age and educational attainment to the most junior troops in the unit.
  11. The Air Force taught me that the most powerful way to develop disadvantaged citizens was to give them responsibility and to teach them how to handle that responsibility. I saw some of the most unlikely citizens turned into outstanding leaders and contributors when they were given responsibility combined with high but reasonable expectations.
  12. The Air Force taught me the importance of “basic training” for new entrants into a new subculture—in our higher ed context the analog to “orientation” for new students and transfers. Unlike many colleges, orientation/basic training was not an elective experience. It was mandatory. As my Drill Sergeant used to say: “There are three ways to learn things and if you want to survive Vietnam you will learn the right way, the wrong way and the Air Force way.” Today we still are not teaching enough college students how to “survive” in the college/university way. And many of them are not surviving and hence not thriving.
  13. The Air Force showed me how a government “program” could provide levels of equal opportunity for people from very diverse backgrounds, opportunities that were unequaled in the civilian society. While I was based on a totally racially integrated base from 1966-68 in the deep south, the society immediately outside the “back gate” remained totally segregated.
  14. The Air Force helped me to understand the important role the military played, and still plays in providing upward social mobility for generations of poor, rural and urban, disproportionately southerners and minorities.
  15. The Air Force introduced me to how organizations could intentionally create “leaders” through “officer training. It helped me to see that just as with professors, the best of us are not born that way we are made, we are developed by our employers.
  16. The Air Force showed me how to take responsibility to educate your citizens about a variety of subjects that were still taboo in the larger civilian society, such as in particular, sex education and prevention of pregnancy and disease.

Oh there was so much I learned in my military experiences.

No doubt about it, I am very clear as to what the outcomes were for me from my military experience.

So when I gather each year in front of our local courthouse on the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour, I know why I am there and what my experiences in common with my fellow vets did for me and made me whatever it is that I came to be. The jury is in on me. And I owe the US Air Force a great deal. It is a balance due, of further service.

I am not suggesting that my military experience was more important than my college experience. It was just different. The two were complementary. The two were hugely influential. I reflect often on both and apply what I have learned from both. Both made me more complete, whole, mature, wise. I am grateful for both. I made the most of both. And I wish more of our country’s young people today could have both. But in the era of the volunteer army that is not going to happen.

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