AU student veterans share experiences abroad, on campus

Alex Andrew used to spend his days monitoring the movements of the Taliban in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army from 2004 to 2011.

Cedric Johnson guarded embassies around the world with the Marines.

John Kamin served two tours in combat units in Iraq.

Then, the veterans came to AU to complete their undergraduate education, transitioning to civilian life from military service abroad.

“I don’t think it’s for everybody,” said Ron Mattson, a senior in the School of International Service who worked in interrogation and intelligence in Iraq with the Army in 2006 and 2008. “I don’t ever plan on going back. But it definitely helped me to grow up. It got me a lot of experience that will hopefully give me a big boost in my job search this spring.”

Many of the veterans said they gained skills that they were able to use in class.

After Johnson, a junior in the Kogod School of Business, served as a Marine in various embassies overseas starting in 2005, he was able to bring his unique perspective to his Cross-Cultural Communications class.

However, some veterans had trouble readjusting to school life following their return to academia, particularly when it came to student-professor relations.

“I’m still learning that it’s OK to talk to your professors,” Johnson said. “So that’s been a big adjustment, because in the military, if you have a problem, you sort of deal with it.”

Though all of the veterans had only high praise for their time in the military, their transition back in civilian life had difficulties of its own.

“When you get out and you realize nobody really has your back anymore and nobody there’s really depending on you, that can lead to sort of an aimlessness,” said Kamin, the president of AU Vets who was part of the Army’s 2007 surge in Iraq.

Sometimes, the experiences veterans share make it hard to interact with students. Many vets on campus are only happy if they’re busy, said Michael Nguyen, a junior in Kogod who did two tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps.

“That’s the thing about military folk: they’re not happy until they’re complaining,” Nguyen said. “They might complain but realistically, if they wanted to chill, they would chill. But they don’t. They always look for more stuff to do.”

Andrew, a senior in SIS, is a full-time student, works full time at Fort Meade and is raising a 13-month-old son.

When Andrew first left the Army, he was simultaneously looking for a job and helping to move his wife and newborn child into a new condominium.

“It was kind of a lot going on at the same time,” Andrew said. “I don’t know, usually in times like that, times of adversity you just, kind of, focus and get through it and kind of seem to excel.”

The relevant immaturity of veterans’ civilian peers, who are often much younger than their veteran classmates, can be a difficult transition for some veterans to overcome.

“The 18-year-olds I’m used to dealing with [in the military] immediately respond to me as a figure of authority, as a sergeant, so having kids [AU students] run around and not treat me that way is kind of a shock,” Mattson said.

Even veterans’ experiences in college are different from their younger peers, especially when it comes to workload.

Nguyen did not initially sympathize with students’ complaints about workload. To him, college was something to be appreciated merely for the great education and simple amenities provided, such as air conditioning and running water.

“That was the transition, to finally say, ‘Look, you didn’t go the same road I did, but, you know what, you’re just as good as I am,’” Nguyen said.

The veterans often noticed little differences in their lives compared to the lives of their civilian peers, including the way people get around campus.

“Just walking to and from classes around campus, students tend to just kind of meander, whereas you’ll kind of see vets, like, making their way through pretty quickly,” Mattson said.

Some veterans ran into apathetic or negative attitudes about the military.

“It can border on disrespect, and sometimes you want to check them with your fist,” Nguyen said.

But Kamin said he is fine fielding the rare questions from students that challenge his role in controversial wars. He’s more disappointed when he meets students who don’t seem to care about veterans’ concerns.

“Even those bad questions, to me, at least that shows that you’ve spent some time thinking about this, that this is an issue that you’re involved in,” Kamin said.

Most of the time, veterans say students are genuinely curious about their time in the military and respect them for that service.

“Everyone is universally supportive,” Andrew said.

No matter outsiders’ perspectives, the veterans share a common bond, connected by similar experiences.

“You really don’t really find anyone else to be a true peer unless they’re a fellow veteran,” Nguyen said.

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