Local Military Matters: Bridging the Military-Civilian Gap through College-Community Interactions
The call for papers for the 3rd annual Veterans in Society Conference included a statement made by President Ruscio of Washington & Lee University in which he wondered "whether people with different backgrounds, different experiences and different opinions can address difficult questions and, if not necessarily agree with one another, at least strive, with mutual respect, to better understand each other and to find common ground." Similar questions have been asked by generations of military veterans with respect to the potential impact of their military backgrounds and experiences in their lives as civilians. The oft-cited PEW Research Center's 2011 study of war and sacrifice in the Post-9/11 era draws attention to the "military-civilian gap" and notes that this gap "is much wider among younger respondents." Consequently, as Woll writes, "Reintegration challenges can be particularly pronounced for young service members and veterans enrolling in or returning to colleges, universities . . . where most of the students are younger and lack experience with and exposure to the military." Such lack of experience and understanding on the part of "traditional" college students not only can lead to student-veterans feeling frustrated or isolated in classrooms but also, at an extreme, result in behaviors such as those of the University of Florida fraternity members whose chapter was suspended after an incident in which disabled military veterans were verbally insulted and spat upon.
In an effort to bridge the "military-civilian gap" and to help military veterans and college students "better understand each other," I designed a first-year seminar titled "Meadville's Military Matters" in which first-year college students at a fouryear liberal arts college interacted with, interviewed, and composed profiles and "war stories" (using David Venditta's War Stories: In Their Own Words as a model) for military veterans in the local community. While doing so, the students were asked to develop responses to the questions: Why does the military matter to the local community, to the nation, the world? What military matters have shaped the local community's economy, history, landscape, etc.?