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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Our student veterans

As we head into Veterans Day and reflect generally on the public service that veterans have provided to our country, I wanted to shift attention to some veterans that we see every day: our student veterans.  About 7% of the American population has served at some point, and it may be surprising how many of our students are veterans.  At FIU, for example, we have a student body of about 500 and we generally have fifteen student veterans. 

These students are great people with great skills. They have a genuine sense of public service.  They are leaders, team players, disciplined, selfless, and brave.  They have lived demanding, challenging lives.  Many have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and among FIU’s student (and alumni) veterans, we have several with Purple Hearts and one has a Bronze Star for Valor.  I expect people like that are walking the hallways of all of our law schools. 

One of the challenges they face is the transition from active duty to law school. They leave behind a tight social structure where everyone around them has shared the same experiences and where everyone has been pursuing common goals – goals that provide meaning to their lives.  They then join a loose social structure where almost no one around them has shared those experiences and where there is no immediate public-service goal. 

Throughout the history of warfare, that tight social structure has served a therapeutic purpose. Before combat became a 24/7 experience, soldiers would gather around the campfire at night and talk through the day’s trauma with others in their unit.  After our experience in Vietnam, where service members cycled in and out of theater as individuals and the unit social structure disappeared, we saw an increase in adjustment problems.  (See Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay and On Combat by Dave Grossman).  The military has since returned to unit rotations to reconstitute that structure.  Now, the model is for service members to train as a unit, fight as a unit, and recover as a unit.

When service members leave active duty, though, that structure disappears. And for some, the transition can be difficult.

One step we can take is to help rebuild that structure for our student veterans. When they walk in our doors, they have no idea who the other veterans might be.  We do, and we can organize them and put them in touch with others who have similar experiences.   

Last year, we started a veterans student group at FIU (several other law schools also have them) and it has worked out really well. The students make each other aware of the Post-9/11 GI Bill traps and pitfalls.  They have learned that under the GI Bill, they can pursue some joint-degree programs (like picking up an MBA) that will help develop their current leadership and problem solving skills, and ultimately make them more valuable to wide variety of potential employers.  This year, the students have organized the first Veterans Day events here in the school.  And, we have expanded the network by reaching out to our alums who are also veterans.  That's not a campfire, but it is a start.

Posted by Eric Carpenter on November 10, 2015 at 05:54 PM | Permalink


As a former soldier, former law student, and former law professor, I applaud your efforts. I have no idea about the efficacy, but I think the effort alone speaks well of the faculty and the school.

Posted by: R. Glen Ayers | Nov 17, 2015 3:14:57 PM

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