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The Uneasy Civilian: Taking Responsibility as a Former Military Family

January 9, 2013

The Uneasy Civilian: Taking Responsibility as a Former Military Family

Written by Professor Sue Doe and Dr. William W. Doe III, LTC, U.S. Army (Retired)

It was September of 2004 when we awakened to the voices of long-time friends Lieutenant General Mark Hertling (then a Brigadier General in the U.S. Army, now retired) and his wife, Sue, who had granted an interview to National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep, as part of a series on national service, “Military Family Reflects on Sacrifices of Iraq Service.” 

That morning, Sue Hertling’s voice was unmistakable and we were shocked to hear it, not least because it was early in the morning and this was the radio alarm that had awakened us, but also because in so many ways we were ready and waiting to hear this interview, although at the time we did not know why.  Sue and Mark’s voices were soon joined by the voices of their eldest son, Todd, who had recently completed a first tour in Iraq, and Scott, who was attending West Point. The focus of the interview was on the sacrifices of military families at what was then still an early stage of the Iraq War.

We had been a military family, too, although Bill’s 22 years of Army service were completed entirely during the Cold War era.  Retiring long before 9/11, in 1996, Bill’s final assignment had been as an academy professor at West Point. We might have stayed there for a longer career, but in the peacetime context of 1996, with drawdowns going on throughout the services, we chose to leave the military, hoping to move our three children into a civilian community, buy our first home and allow Sue the opportunity to pursue the line of work for which she had been educated. We moved to a university town and both began new careers in higher education.

By 2004, when we heard the Hertlings on NPR, one of our children was in college and the other two were more or less thriving in the civilian community. However, Bill and I were struggling to understand our role as a one-time military family listening to accounts of war.  With Operation Iraqi Freedom well underway, and many friends involved, we were living among civilians who had been urged by their commander -in-chief to go out and spend their way to patriotism.

We felt a strange sense of vertigo as we conducted our daily lives, and increasingly our civilian work seemed less and less relevant as we were haunted by thoughts of our friends who were in harm’s way. Bill, in particular, coped by reading everything he could get his hands on as a way of staying on top of the war. Sue did her best to explain the role of the military to her university friends.

So, you might say that we were primed to hear the NPR interview when it came to us.  We were, in fact chastened by it, as it confirmed something we already suspected–that we had become rather fully separated from the military community we had known so well and at the same time we didn’t really fit into the civilian community either,  even eight years after we had joined it. 

At the end of the NPR interview, Sue Hertling said something that really put a fine edge on what we were feeling. She was asked about her initially difficult adjustment to military life, and she confessed that in war time her views had shifted and it had actually become harder to understand the preoccupations of some civilians whose concerns often seemed trivial in light of war, as well as dismissive of the larger world and its cultures.  She did not use this word, but what she was describing was a kind of civilian parochialism, a limited and limiting view of the world. She and her family no longer shared such a perspective, not only because of her family’s experiences abroad, but also because of her family’s experiences of war. 

The message was not lost on us. Rather, living in the civilian community and enjoying a protection being bought by those on active duty, we suddenly knew that the stakes had become impossibly low for us.  In fact, in 2004, it would be fair to say that people in our community, including ourselves, were mostly consumed by the great myth of our time, the housing boom, and only when a local youngster would (shockingly) die in the line of service, did we even see accounts of war in our local newspaper.

We set out to understand what it was that we could do, and one of the things we landed on, which we believed ourselves especially well-positioned to address, was the idea of translating between the military and civilian sectors. Translation became an important way of looking at the challenge, because these two demographic groups seemed so clearly to share a national identity but little else. In fact, much has been made of this so-called military-civilian gap, particularly well-articulated by the Pew Institute’s 2011 study on war and sacrifice in the post-9/11 era, which shed light on the differences between the two groups. The study points out (page 2, executive summary) that 83% of civilian adults acknowledge the sacrifices of military families, but 43% also argue that the general, non-military population has also made sacrifices that are commensurate with those in the military. Furthermore, only 26% of civilian respondents believe the burdens borne by military families are unfair and 70% say that those burdens come with the job.

Having had our sensibilities awakened by the NPR interview, what we saw in our civilian context was suddenly unmistakable: innumerable opportunities were being missed to address the burden of military service, which was so clearly misunderstood.  So this once-military family began to think of ways we might address the service blindness that was prevalent in our community. We began our work on campus, with Bill getting the university’s teaching and learning center to sponsor a working group that would examine the needs of student veterans as well as those of staff and faculty long before the student veterans began arriving. This was 2008, months before passage of the new GI Bill and longer still before the half a million student veterans using the new GI Bill by 2011 had arrived on campuses throughout the U.S.

Our efforts on campus yielded several important innovations, such as the creation of student veteran cohort classes, in which certain core curriculum courses would be offered as veterans-only sections. Additionally, hybrid classes comprised of 50% civilians and 50% student veterans would be offered to expressly address the need for cross-cultural conversation.  In general, our campus efforts sought to amplify the standard efforts of the student services sector by addressing classroom and faculty needs.  We strove to make our campus worthy of its veteran-friendly designation. 

In 2010, after 15 years on the job, the last few of which were at the level of associate dean, Bill left the university altogether and began to focus his professional efforts on veterans’ issues. As CEO of Veterans Green Jobs, a national nonprofit putting veterans to work in the green economic sectors of energy and the environment, he seeks to addresses the rampant high unemployment of the Operation Enduring Freedom/OIF veteran cohort–the more than 2.5 million who have served since 9/11 and are reported to have had a 10% unemployment rate for the last several months of 2012 (more than two percentage points higher than the average national unemployment rate). Bill works daily with many other veterans of all eras, as well as many non-veterans who care about the circumstances of our returning veterans and want to make a difference in their lives. 

What have we learned from all of this?  First, there are plenty of opportunities for us as military-turned-civilian to serve our nation and its veterans. In particular, the importance of inter-generational support among veterans and their families cannot be overstated. With some 23 million living veterans in America, these individuals and their families, who share the common bonds of military service–be it in peacetime or war–have a unique opportunity to mentor and assist our newest generation of returning veterans. Specifically, older veterans and their spouses work in corporations, higher education, government and non-profits, and should embrace this opportunity.

Furthermore, while there are generational differences, these should not deter us from “reaching across the aisle” to mentor our returning veterans who number over half of a million on college campuses and tens of thousands more attempting to go to work within our communities. As these new veterans reintegrate, they need the wisdom and support of those who have gone before them. Those of us with some degree of understanding of military culture have a special responsibility to address these needs.

As uneasy civilians, we now know that you can take the family out of the military but you can’t take the military out of the family. 

Dr. William (Bill) Doe is the CEO of Veterans Green Jobs, a national non-profit organization with Headquarters in Denver. Their mission is to connect and place military veterans in meaningful jobs in the green sectors of our economy. Bill is a career Army veteran having served on active duty in the Army Corps of Engineers from 1974-1996 and retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. He was commissioned from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and holds graduate degrees in Civil Engineering from the University of New Hampshire (M.S.) and Colorado State University (Ph.D.). Bill grew up as an Air Force brat (the son of a career officer) living stateside and overseas with his family. He has been active in veterans and student-veterans affairs in Colorado and at Colorado State University, and routinely speaks at veterans-related functions in his community, including Veterans Day and Memorial Day. His hobbies include competitive running, sports, travel and outdoor activities with his wife, Dr. Sue Doe, an English professor at CSU, his three adult children and grandson.

Sue Doe teaches courses in Composition, Autoethnographic Theory and Method, Research Methods, and Graduate Student Preparation for Writing in the Disciplines at Colorado State University. Sue does research in three distinct areas—academic labor, writing across the curriculum, and student-veteran writing in the post-9/11 era. Coauthor of the faculty development book Concepts and Choices: Meeting the Challenges in Higher Education, she has published articles in College English, College Composition and Communication, and Writing Program Administration as well as several book-length collections. She serves on the Board of Directors of the New Faculty Majority Foundation and represents the National Council of Teachers of English on the Coalition of the Academic Workforce. Her forthcoming collection on student-veterans in the Composition classroom, Generation Vet:  Composition, Veterans, and the Post-911 University, co-authored with Professor Lisa Langstraat, is under contract with the Utah State Press.

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