A Positive Force
A professor finds that whether they identify themselves or not, veterans have served the university as well as the country.
By Liam Corley
At the start of my first quarter as an English professor at Cal Poly Pomona, a gray-haired man with a mischievous grin popped his head through my open office door: ¿I¿ll bet I¿m the only professor you¿ll ever meet who¿s been shot in the head,¿ he said. This was my first introduction to the late Ben Siegel, a pillar of the English department for nearly 50 years. Later, Ben brought me a book about his days in the Army during World War II. Ben returned from that war with three Purple Hearts and was indeed shot in the head while leading his unit across the Rhine. Of all the distinctions Ben could have used to introduce himself, I think he chose this one because he had just read my column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, titled ¿An Officer and a Professor,¿ which detailed my reasons for joining the Navy after my graduate education.
Later that quarter, John Maitino, now emeritus professor of English, shared with me his experiences in the Navy during the Vietnam War, also in response to reading my column in The Chronicle. John served as a photographer¿s mate on the USS Eldorado from 1969 to 1970. He had already completed his undergraduate degree in English when he enlisted, so his regular letters to his congressman decrying the war were well reasoned and carefully researched, factors he credits with his early release from active service to continue graduate education.
Both Ben and John were beneficiaries of the GI Bill, which they used to prepare themselves for distinguished careers of teaching and service. Though I had not revealed my military affiliation during my recruitment by Cal Poly Pomona, these two senior and respected members of my academic department went out of their way to share their veteran status with me at the outset of my time here. It was in large part, I believe, to set me at ease that my military affiliation would not be a barrier to my success as a teacher and colleague.
A few years later, I had the privilege of chairing the Veterans Outreach Subcommittee of the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee, a post that put me in contact with veterans all across the Cal Poly Pomona community, from students to staff members and faculty. Committee posts are rarely sought after, but this one had a wealth of volunteers ¿ veterans, relatives of veterans and other earnest advocates who jumped at the opportunity to extend a helping hand to veterans joining the university community. Indeed, my reserve military service lay behind my willingness to be appointed to the committee, and I very much enjoyed the unity in the group that derived from common values.
My experience on this committee underscored important lessons I had already drawn from the actions of veterans in my own academic department, namely that veterans are a varied group of people ¿ diverse in age, interests and abilities ¿ and they often fly under the radar until some need or opportunity to serve arises that draws on their unique experiences as veterans. I think these are important ideas for service-providers and others hoping to reach veterans to keep in mind. It¿s not unusual for veterans to hesitate to announce their veteran status or otherwise affiliate as veterans when on campus. For many, this reticence comes from a humble reserve, while others are desirous of making their future goals more of a point of connection with others than their past experiences.
In 2008-09, I was mobilized and sent to Afghanistan as a researcher and analyst in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Though I mostly worked with the United States¿ international partners in Afghanistan, I also had occasions to travel in the areas surrounding Kabul and the western provinces. After my deployment, more students became aware of my veteran status, and I had the opportunity to meet with students from disciplines other than English. One student sought my advice for raising awareness of charitable needs in the Afghanistan and Pakistan border regions. This student-veteran had translated her military experience into an urge to mobilize others to do good in a part of the world where education and food security were scarce.
When my experiences at war could enrich a class¿s understanding of a literary text, such as when I taught Khaled Hosseini¿s ¿The Kite Runner,¿ I speak openly and candidly. After a year of close engagement with the Afghan present and past, I found myself amply prepared to guide students through the novel¿s troubled landscape of ethnic and religious conflict leading up to the fall of the Taliban and the U.S. invasion. Interestingly, my openness has also helped some nonveteran students come to terms with the experiences of friends or family members, or their own non-combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder.
Thanks to what I¿ve seen in the classroom and in a number of staff and faculty groups, like the Veterans Services Initiative, I know veterans have long been an integral part of Cal Poly Pomona. Whether we become aware of them through the services we offer or through the good they contribute to us, veterans will continue to impact our campus for the better.
Liam Corley, assistant professor of English, also published a first-person perspective article in the National Council of Teachers of English¿s journal ¿College English¿ about his return to teaching and research following his service in Afghanistan. The article, ¿Brave Words¿: Rehabilitating the Veteran Writer, explains how he coped with his new identity as a veteran-scholar.