The Post-9/11 Veteran and Middle East Studies

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When people ask me what my major in college was and I tell them Middle East studies, they almost always follow up with “was it because you went to Iraq?”

The answer is yes. That is exactly why.

I remember very clearly, sitting in decrepit telecommunications building in Baghdad sometime during the summer of 2003, scouting for a supposed truck loaded with rockets while having a conversation with a buddy about “what to do when we get out.” It struck me that had we known more about Iraq, the Iraqi people, and the language, we would have had an easier time getting things done there.

So as a pragmatic solution to a complicated problem, I thought it would be good to study the Middle East in college.

When I left the military I dealt with all of the normal transition issues that most veterans face – getting money, dealing with the VA, interacting with civilians, hyper-awareness. On top of that, I jumped head first into the academic world of Middle East Studies, which has its own subculture of norms and biases that are difficult to navigate, even for the most well-adjusted student.

Over the years I’ve had a number of strange experiences as a post-9/11 veteran Middle East Studies student. These often came in the form of anti-military tirades from both professors and students, but sometimes were more intimate interactions. There was the time a graduate student in a class of mine casually dismissed General Petraeus and members of the military as akin to the Nazis; the time a girl in a history class thought only “thirty or something” soldiers had died in the Iraq war; a very uncomfortable exchange with my Middle East Studies professor in Egypt when she learned I had served in Iraq – she visibly became uncomfortable, shifting in her seat and suddenly ending the converation; being asked by a good professor to talk about my Iraq war experience to add color and context to a class, which was probably helpful for them but odd for me. The list goes on.

Six years ago, when we were still knee-deep in Iraq, Middle East Studies scholar Marc Lynch wrote a couple of articles on the topic (here and here). He was generally optimistic about the idea of veterans pursuing the field.

When they enter academic programs, these veterans will (and already do) bring a great deal of on-the-ground experience to the classroom and to their research. Many will (and do) enter their programs with far more advanced language skills than did earlier generations of students, although perhaps with more familiarity with colloquial spoken dialects than with Modern Standard Arabic (reversing a common traditional pattern). Their point of reference will be (and is) Iraq and the Gulf, not Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, or other areas where a great number of current faculty began their encounters with the region. And they will have much greater familiarity and comfort with military and security issues than do many currently in the field.

In my experience, I think that prediction is accurate. As a graduate student, despite wanting to, it was hard to focus on Iraq because of the lack of source material. In the general Middle East Studies literature, Iraq is often left out, its history put on hold due-to-war.

In response to Marc Lynch’s article, commenters posited other points, which I think are also true.

“I wonder if you are not overly sanguine about the likely result of the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I agree that many will have a tremendous amount to offer. But what has tended to bother me is how instrumental some of their perspectives tend to be. I’ve taught many returning vets as a professor at the National War College from 2004 to 2006 and at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program since 1997 (fulltime 1997 to 2004, as an adjunct since). And for every one who has a rich and granular understanding and an ability to put his experience in some sort of broader analytical perspective, I have three who have great experience but whose insights run to: “here’s how to get Arabs (or Afghans) to do what I want.” They have instrumental knowledge, but not necessarily the kind of empathy that is conducive to kind of positive outcome you envisage.

History is, unfortunately, not always kind to the notion that experience as a occupier translates into durable understanding. The Brits had plenty of career colonial administrators and soldier, as did the French. I am not really sure that their often voluminous writings on their areas always holds up well. Will they be mostly Bernard Falls or Rudyard Kiplings?”

Even in my most recent deployment in 2014-2015, the amount of boiling down that occurs when discussing “the Afghan” in terms of how to get him to do this or that based on very old stereotypes and ideas is prevalent – even among highly educated officers and NCOs.

I think there is one interesting aspect of the trends you describe that you didn’t touch in your very thoughtful post on veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan joining ME Studies. This is that, given the current generational composition of the professoriate in the field (the senior professors being mainly of the Vietnam and post-Vietnam generations) and the ideological and philosophical views that dominate amongst its membership regarding the US’s role in the world, the bias or prejudice these veterans might face in the classroom is most likely to come from their professors, not their fellow students. Like many folks, I sat through a lot of tirades on US imperialism and perfidy in college classes over the years, as well as many manifestations of the denigration of government service and antimilitary prejudices that pervade US academia overall. I never had a reason to take it personally, and of course US policy should be discussed and debated, but for a veteran it will feel awfully personal. So it’s a challenge faculty should keep in mind, to be more sensitive and thoughtful in their dealings with their students, to recognize the value of students’ experiences and perspectives coming from government service, and to avoid alienating this generation of potentially very rich contributors to the field.”

As the commenters above noted, there is an extra challenge for the veteran navigating Middle East Studies precisely because there is – generally speaking – an anti-imperialist bent in the discourse. That’s not to say that veteran MES students are imperialists, but as I once told a professor who asked, for a veteran who fought in Iraq, whether he agrees with the war or not, he or she left something there, and to hear it casually dismissed as a mistake can feel extremely personal.

Over the years, I’ve only met a handful of other student veterans who pursued Middle East Studies. They almost all followed a similar path to myself, interested in learning more because of their wartime experience. Having been out of school since 2011, I’m not sure how many student veterans took this path. The VA could probably produce the number based on GI Bill date paired with their declared majors.

With both Iraq and Afghanistan significantly scaled down in terms of American military action, I wonder what effect that will have on veterans who leave the service and pursue an education. The Middle East is no more well-understood now than it was six years ago, and with the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and the war in Syria, we are no closer to figuring it all out. I finished graduate school in the midst of the Arab Spring, and it was wildly perplexing to students and teachers alike, who spoke in class about long-standing and seemingly intractable dictatorships that were suddenly crumbling. I wonder if current discourse in the classroom is hyper-focused on the contemporary situation. I hope it’s not, because I think understanding “how we got here” is important in figuring out “how to get out of here.”

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The Veteran Back-to-School Reader

It’s back to school time. For new student veterans, that means awkwardly moving between campus buildings at a 120 paces a minute, looking for the seat with either the easiest egress route or full view of all students (my personal choice), and digging deep into regulations on how to fully access education benefits.

I thought that it might be helpful to write a post that links some good reading for the new student veteran. If you know of anything that I should add to this, let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it.

Posts about the technical aspects of college:
A Veteran’s Blueprint for College – The nuts and bolts of going to college as a veteran.
College Success: Leveraging Your Vet-Cred – How to use your veteran experience to your advantage while at school 

Posts about college life for veterans:
From Soldier to Student, a Bumpy Road – The strange life of the student veteran, by Alex Horton
Johnny Get Your Textbook – What it’s like… by Colby Buzzell

Posts about transitioning out of the military:
Life After Iraq: 10 Lessons on Transitioning Out of the MilitaryThis is good general advice on making it work outside of the military.

Posts about studying Arabic as a veteran:
Learning a Language, and Relearning a Country – A former soldier decides to study Arabic and faces some awkwardness and discomfort.

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A Veteran’s Blueprint for College

This post originally ran on VAntage Point, the VA’s blog. Since school is starting, I thought I’d repost it here.

Having just finished school, I wanted to write an amazing article on what that experience was like as a veteran. (Un)fortunately, Alex Horton and Colby Buzzell recently wrote fantastic articles about that strange transition – and did so in a way that I could not. So instead, I’d like to add to the conversation by writing about some of the nuts and bolts of going to college on the GI Bill and ultimately finishing school with a degree.

In the five years since leaving the Army, I managed to squeeze out an undergraduate degree (CCNY, 2010) and a master’s degree (SOAS, 2011) almost entirely covered by the GI Bill. Starting school, it’s important to understand that getting an education is a long and grueling process. I spent as much time in school as I did in the Army. This post chronicles that journey and might act as a light blueprint for a veteran looking to go to school.

Overcome the skepticism and go

During my last six months of active duty, I met with a number of senior NCOs and retention specialists to discuss staying in the Army and my plans upon separating. The conversations usually went like this:

NCO: “You’re getting out? What are you going to do?”
Me: “I’m going to go to college.”
NCO: “Yeah, alright. It’s not that easy, you know.”

Informal conversations with peers about my future as a college student were often met with rolled eyes and skepticism. It was generally assumed that separating soldiers responded with “going to college” as an answer to questions about future plans without actually putting the thought into what going to college entails. College was also shrouded in mystery as a foreign institution far outside of the base gate since most of the enlisted soldiers surrounding me had not attended. This mystery meant they didn’t have a good second line of questioning. A soldier could say they were simply going to college and that was a good enough plan. Most active duty soldiers don’t have much experience with accessing VA benefits, so there is little advice they can offer.

But if you’re serious about going to school – do it. Don’t be discouraged by the skeptics.

Swallow your pride – start at community college if you must

Fortunately, I had a basic plan. I wanted to pursue Middle East studies and Arabic. In order to do that, I needed to go to a school that offered it. I wanted to go to the City College of New York (CCNY), but I was not a good student in high school, so applying directly was not an option. So, I swallowed my pride and enrolled in a local community college to sharpen my academic skills and boost my GPA before applying to CCNY. At community college, I only took core courses that would easily transfer to CCNY by checking the requirements of the degree program I wanted at CCNY and matching up the requirements to courses at the community college I was attending. I had to take a year of remedial math before I could even enroll in a math course that actually counted. It wasn’t fun, but I needed it. And this year of taking courses I didn’t necessarily want to take laid the foundation for future academic success.

I got my first taste of life with the GI Bill at community college. Fortunately, the community college I attended had a full-time representative that handled veterans issues and she ensured I always received GI Bill payments. If your school has a veterans office, lean on it. Hard.

Start with core courses/general studies – they transfer easier

After a year of community college, I transferred to the City College of New York. Because I had only taken core courses, nearly all of my credits transferred – meaning I hadn’t wasted any time. Switching my GI Bill to this new school was trickier, since it required switching regions. I didn’t have any problems with receiving payments though, because I applied for the GI Bill early and checked up regularly. Phone calls and website inquiries are a student veteran’s best friend when it comes to ensuring timely disbursement of funds.

Stay up-to-date on the latest benefit changes

By the time the Post-9/11 GI Bill was introduced, I had nearly exhausted all of my Montgomery GI Bill benefits. I was a little bummed, since I was otherwise fully eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill and would have received substantially more than what I was getting with the Montgomery. Closely reading the rules governing the new benefit, however, I learned that if I exhausted my Montgomery GI Bill I would then be eligible for twelve months of Post-9/11 GI Bill. Knowing this, I was able to continue to receive GI Bill benefits in the final months of my undergraduate program and then use what was left to help pay for a graduate program in London.

If you do something weird (like study abroad), be prepared to work – you might be trailblazing

I chose to continue my education by attending the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers studying at foreign institutions, but the rules governing this are different than the rules governing studying at US institutions. In order to make it work, I needed to get the specific program I was interested in approved by the VA before I could start receiving benefits. This can be a long process and one that requires lots of phone calls to desks in VA offices across the US.

I also needed to get letters from the VA documenting approximately how much money I would receive over the course of the year to apply for a UK visa – not a normal thing that the VA does. Also, all housing allowances for foreign institutions are set at a locked rate regardless of the location overseas, which may be substantially less than what you will need. While studying in London, I had a GI Bill discrepancy, and troubleshooting the issue was a little more difficult since calling back to the US could get expensive. Lastly, administrative staff at foreign institutions may have never processed a US veteran before, so you need to be prepared to teach someone “how to do it.”

Spin your service into more opportunities

The Post-9/11 GI Bill shouldn’t be the only legacy of your military service while in school. Veterans represent a tiny portion of any college campus. That, together with the unique experiences, ingrained discipline, and plethora of stories can easily by marshaled to pursue other opportunities, like prestigious scholarships. By supplementing your Post-9/11 GI Bill with other scholarships, you can extend the life of your benefits and potentially squeeze out another degree before you finish.

Start slow, but stay in the game

Since starting school, there have been two problems that I’ve seen over and over again with veterans and college: the veteran who never starts school because of how long it takes to finish and the one that never finishes because he or she takes on too much at once. The first puts off going to school every semester because it’s going to take forever anyway (“Why bother? I have to take a year of classes that don’t even count before I can even start school for real”). The second starts school and then is in a rush to finish, often taking too many courses while holding a job and taking on too many side projects. Both of these veterans have a hard time finishing college, but their solutions are similar: start slow and build momentum. Even if it means starting with one or two courses a semester. Slowly, the veteran will build momentum and start taking on more. Each course is one course closer to finishing.

Lastly, as much as possible, resist the urge to take a semester off. These breaks often last longer than intended.

Good luck!

Additional tips:

Enroll as soon as possible – the sooner you start, the sooner you finish

Have a basic plan (what do you ultimately want to study?)

Backwards plan – find the job you want – determine what degree or education it requires – determine which school offers it – figure out how to get into that school – execute!

Knock out your core requirements first – this might take a year or more, in which time you can think critically about the end game and make adjustments if necessary. Also, core requirements are usually the most transferable, so if you change schools, they won’t be credits, time, and money wasted.

Know the rules to the GI Bill and stay up-to-date on changes (this can mean more money, or at least, not having to pay back)

Inquiry, inquiry, inquiry (if you have any problems, send an inquiry immediately through the VA website)

When it comes to the GI Bill, apply early and check up regularly

Be on the lookout for other veteran-specific scholarships

Stay in school – even if it means one course a semester

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Life After Iraq: 10 Lessons on Transitioning Out of the Military

Ten years ago this April, I enlisted in the U.S. Army. During that time, I jumped out of airplanes, crawled, marched and ran thousands of miles, blew stuff up, met some of the most amazing people on Earth and served two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne.

Five years ago this week, I got out. Since then, my life has changed dramatically. I’ve gone back to college on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, worked and interned in the private and non-profit sectors, earned a Truman scholarship, studied abroad in Egypt, advocated for fellow veterans on Capitol Hill, married the woman of my dreams and graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in International Studies. Now, six years removed from combat patrols in Iraq, I’m attending graduate school in London.

People say I’ve made a “successful transition” out of the military given the range of problems new veterans are facing as they leave service in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a veteran, however, I don’t like this label. It suggests that once the transition is made, that’s it. All problems are solved. Instead, I would say that I’m “successfully adjusting” to life after military service. And to borrow the title of a couple of good books, this adjustment is a Forever War. I’m still doing it every day.

Looking back, there are key things I’ve learned that every veteran making the adjustment or soon will be should consider. This is the quick and dirty. The bottomline up front. The things to know and do that can make the adjustment a lot less painful. They may not work for every veteran, but they worked for me.

1. Your military service will define you, whether you like it or not. With less than 1% of the population serving, you are part of a tiny minority who have shouldered incredible responsibility. If you served overseas, to many, you are exotic. People around you will find out you served (trust me) and will define you by your service. When you raise your hand in class, people will refer to you as the “military guy” or gal.

2. Adjusting successfully depends on a strong support network. In the military, we succeeded and failed in teams. It’s no different on the outside. Family, friends, and peers will not let you fail if you put your trust in them. I put my trust in IAVA and CCNY’s veterans group. You can do the same joining a veterans organization to learn from your buddies who are on the same journey.

3. Have a plan. This is critical. My senior NCO’s used to laugh at anyone who said they were going to get out and “go to college.” They knew how easy it is to say that, but how it’s a whole separate matter to put the work behind that statement and make it happen. Don’t just get out of the military and take time off. It’s tempting, especially after multiple, yearlong deployments. Strike while the iron is hot. Start applying for school or work before you get out of the service. Plan to minimize ‘dwell’ time to maximize immediate available resources.

4. The little things you learned in the military will make you successful on the outside.Class starts at 0900? Show up at 0850. Iron your clothes. Be respectful to the people around you. These little things will set you apart and lead to success. The most important thing I learned from my service was how to negotiate a bureaucracy. You would be surprised by how many qualifying students won’t apply for financial aid simply because of the paperwork involved. If you served in the military, you have earned a PhD in Bureaucracy Negotiation. Put it to work!

5. Seek out the things that make you uncomfortable. There is a civilian-military divide that exists in this country. What are you going to do about it? Often, veterans come out of their military bubble only to rush into the veteran bubble. Talk to people who share different and opposing views. Dispel stereotypes of veterans by being a respectful, model citizen. Join a club or society. Do the things that give your stomach butterflies.

6. Now more than ever, be humble. Don’t be obnoxious about the fact that you served in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one likes it. Not the military, not veterans, not civilians. Just don’t do it. Don’t be “that guy.”

7. No one is going to do the work for you. Whether it is filing a claim for an injury at the VA or getting your Post-9/11 GI Bill started, there are a host of benefits you earned waiting to be unlocked. The system for getting them isn’t always easy to navigate, and it can be frustrating and infuriating to wait for answers. In the end though, it’s your benefit. Get a cup of coffee, block off an hour or two, and knock out the paperwork and applications.

8. Know when you are taking on too much. Many of us have big plans and, after serving in a combat zone, it’s easy to feel like we can take on the world. Ambition and drive are great, but so are setting realistic expectations and maintaining sanity. If you’re going to school full-time and have a full-time job, maybe you should wait until after you graduate to start that business or non-profit you’ve been thinking about. No one can do everything all the time. Know your limit.

9. Know when to ask for help. At some point or another, you’re going to need someone to talk to. Whether it is about money, health, family, or your service, know it’s okay to open up. The network you have around you wants to help. Let them know when you need it. They will go through hell to help you, but they can’t do it if you don’t let them.

10. Never forget where you came from. Whether you loved serving or hated it, for most of us it was a life-altering experience. Take it, embrace it, and use it to help you get to where you want to go next in life.

After I returned from Iraq, I learned these ten lessons the hard way–but they continue to work for me on a daily basis. Of course, there are countless other great lessons that I’ve left out and I have plenty more to learn in the years ahead. But whether you are a veteran, a military family or a friend, pass them along. We’re all in this adjustment together.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on April 12, 2011.

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