The Atlantic has a powerful piece out today on the troubles veterans are finding after coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and using the G.I. Bill to go to college. Months or years in an isolated, far-off land has made it difficult for many to fit in socially—especially because these guys were dodging shrapnal while other incoming freshman were worrying about prom and the SAT. Not a ton of common ground there.
The issue is that many vets obviously don't want to talk about their experiences while overseas. So it's up to others to ascertain why the muscular, often tatted-up older guy is walking around campus and attending classes. And to compound the problem, this is the first time in American history two large-scale wars have been conducted by an all-volunteer army. Other kids are increasingly isolated from what the veteran experience is like.
You might even call them the least visible minority on campus. Though the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that the number of veterans enrolled in college will hit a three-year high, they still aren't a sizable presence. (In sharp contrast with the 1946 numbers, veterans accounted for just one percent of the undergraduate population at Urbana-Champaign in 2011.) Not surprisingly, two long, unpopular wars fought by an all-volunteer force, on behalf of a thankful yet unburdened public, have produced second-order effects. Civilian students are often unaware of their peers who have wartime experience, and veterans often conceal their pasts from those who might not understand them.
Here's our advice for any college kids who share classes with a vet. You might talk a big game about patriotism, you might do your U-S-A chants while drinking, but here's your chance to actually be a patriot. If there's a vet in your class, just be friendly with the guy. Don't be a jackass and ask about Iraq or Afghanistan—he doesn't want to be a mascot for our nation's wars. But he is in a situation where it's tough to make friends. So go out of your comfort zone a bit and do him a solid. It's really not hard.