As Veterans Day nears, our news feeds will be filled with stories of valor and of the many challenges surrounding military service. But during political seasons in particular, often with good intentions, our culture also focuses on the way veterans are “damaged” – post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, homelessness and the daily struggles of navigating the Veterans Affairs system among them.

As important as they are, however, such scenarios do not tell the complete story of the veteran experience. In particular, the “damaged veteran narrative” conceals stories of veterans’ resiliency and strength, their capacity for leadership and time management and the goal orientation they maintain when they leave the service. We don’t talk about their passion for excellence and commitment to mission. At the University of Southern Maine, I am surrounded by veterans, some even on full disability from combat injuries, who are as determined to complete their education as they were to serve their country.

We often hear that public universities should be “run more like a business,” but the private sector actually has much to learn from universities on veterans’ issues. If the story of America in the 20th century was the story of the original GI Bill and the movement of hundreds of thousands of the greatest generation of vets, mostly men, into the middle class, we just might be able to tell the same story about our ever-more-diverse population of 21st-century vets and the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

Fifty-seven percent of the nearly 350 students using VA benefits at USM use the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the most of any university in Maine. In response, USM created an Office of Veterans Services, which is designed to ease the transition of veterans into the university.

It established “Green Zone” training to help familiarize staff and faculty with the military experience, a space was created on campus specifically for veterans, and last spring students founded a local chapter of Student Veterans of America. This year, USM was one of 30 schools selected to join the grant-funded PAVE program, a peer mentoring initiative pioneered at the University of Michigan that has proven results.

Contrary to the stereotype, student veterans tend to be more focused in their pursuit of a degree than non-veteran students. According to Jared Lyon, head of Student Veterans of America, the average GPA for student veterans is 3.35, compared to an average of 3.11 for non-veteran students. Furthermore, 31 percent of student veterans surveyed study science, technology, engineering or math subjects, the most challenging fields that universities have to offer.


Student veterans also bring to the classroom a wealth of knowledge and experience that is often unmatched. It is commonly thought that service members lack imagination and just do what they’re told. And our “Green Zone” training does emphasize that veterans often struggle to adapt to higher education’s lack of explicit structure.

But although a liberal education purposefully teaches students to challenge authority and question conventional assumptions, the modern military also teaches problem solving, individual initiative and teamwork – and these are dispositions that we carry with us to civilian life, including the classroom.

As Geoffry Norfleet notes in “See Me For Who I Am,” civilians, when encountering vets, should focus not on “whether (they) ever killed anyone,” but on the range of experiences they’ve had and how we can tap into them so we can grow together.

It certainly doesn’t take much to find a successful veteran around you. Roughly 1 in 10 Mainers is a veteran, so it’s no surprise that Maine is ahead of many other states when it comes to employing our veterans. Maine is in the middle of its second Hire-A-Vet campaign, which last year connected nearly 260 veterans to 135 employers.

Beyond employment, veterans’ service experience gives them a drive to be “part of something bigger,” and many take the lead in community service initiatives like park cleanups, fundraisers and food drives and much more. Organizations like Team Rubicon use veterans and first responders on a volunteer basis to help clean up and rebuild after natural disasters.

Still, while it is becoming the norm to be military friendly, we aren’t always military supportive. Many companies offer military discounts, but few see the true value of hiring veterans. We need more companies like Bath Iron Works, Idexx and Bangor Savings Bank – three local businesses that have taken part in the Hire-A-Vet campaign – and fewer 10 percent discounts.

Veterans deserve to be honored, but we do that best by making them an essential part of civilian society. To do so, we must remember that their service has undeniably resulted in many challenges, but it has also forged within them many more talents and gifts.

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