I spent twenty-eight years teaching active duty and retiring military for Saint Leo University on the Little Creek Amphibious Base here in Virginia. Some became close friends. Some fought in the Gulf War, nearly all spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some never came home. Some came home altered—physically, mentally, certainly emotionally. I have stories I’ve told; I have heard stories I’ll never repeat.
No matter how exhausted I was from teaching twenty-year old community college students all day who didn’t want to learn, my energy returned when I went through the base gates and into the education building where instead of calls of “Hey Dude!” from students I heard, “Good afternoon, Professor. Glad to see you again, sir.” Instead of late papers that didn’t meet the requirements, I collected assignments days before the due date and rarely gave less than an A. I once told my concern about that to my supervisor, that I’m giving all A’s, and she replied, “Welcome to St Leo’s Little Creek Bob. These are the most disciplined and appreciative students anywhere.”
One day at the early job a student who missed almost two weeks came to me and apologized—she couldn’t find a ride and lives nearly two miles from campus. I’m not making this up. That same night a student who had missed three weeks came to apologize (even though I received a letter from her command that she could not be in class); she had been TAD for that time—Temporary Active Duty—in Kabul.
Nearly two miles from campus my ass.
Some significant people in my life are veterans, including but not nearly limited to my two Uncle Tom’s, Uncles Ed and Bob, my cousin Tom among others in the family. Tim O’Brien, Tom Montgomery, Mike Kweder, Jose Roman, Bill Mullis, and Kay Debow, whom I drove to the airport for her flight to Lackland a hundred years ago; it is one thing to know people and love them, but another thing entirely to respect them for their sacrifices which can be quite literally life or death. One of the most emotional moments for me was watching a swearing in ceremony at the airport in Pennsylvania. That’s right, they swear you in right before you get on a plane and leave. Smart. But emotional for all involved. If you’ve never heard or read the oath, it is quite something to watch someone with their hand in the air declaring their lives are no longer their own, but are to be sacrificed if need be. Wow.
We have Memorial Day to remember those who sacrificed everything for the country. Please understand that tomorrow is designed primarily for the living; it is a chance to thank those who put their lives on the line, those whom even when they come back from a warzone fine, they never come back the same.
I’d sit at the front desk before class and listen to them. The first day was always interesting, particularly in both the early ‘90s and then the early 2000’s. Someone would walk in and call out someone else’s name with excitement, and they’d embrace, having last seen each other in Kuwait or Lebanon or Baghdad. Over time I learned military lingo, which consists mostly of a long stream of acronyms. I learned to recognize rank, and I came to see the innocence behind these young—young—men and women who are all at once both skilled technicians and terrified young adults hoping for the best.
Thanks are not nearly enough.
I spent 28 years teaching an average of 220 students a year at St Leo’s. That’s almost 7000 students—all of them military. The cool part was I taught fun courses—not the required gen-ed ones. We laughed through Art History, Fine Art Studies, and Creative Writing. One can better appreciate the beauty of a Mozart symphony or a painting by Pissarro when the class presentation is delivered by a student whose job it was to determine the severity of an injured soldier. And in Creative Writing, tissue boxes were standard since I mostly taught memoir, and stories of a trip across Siberia by train pale in comparison to a run across a compound at night while a sniper is on the hillside.
One wrote of a friend who was told, I mean he was drilled, to never, ever light up a cigarette while on duty at night, but he did. Damnit, he did.
Another wrote of how much he discovered about love and what is essential in life by serving two tours in Iraq. And of course there’s Tim’s The Things They Carried, which if you have read you already know is not a war story—it is a love story.
When I see people disrespect Veterans, or, worse, ignore them completely, I think of my students and those I love and know we will never comprehend their sacrifices or the danger they faced. When I was young, I didn’t quite comprehend someone’s enlistment as anything other than leaving; it took years to understand that this kind of service is nothing short of a calling.
So thank you Veterans of the Armed Forces for your service; thank you for traveling to some of the most dangerous conflicts on the planet without question.
And thank you for coming home again.