Ninety-eight years after the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, ended World War I, “support our troops” has become a common phrase for Veterans Day celebrations. Despite honorary yellow ribbons tied around trees and outpourings of thank-yous from well-meaning civilians, veterans often face difficulties relating to their civilian counterparts, especially after returning home from deployment.
“People’s perception of soldiers comes a lot from the media, and they have these images of what a soldier looks like. They don’t know any different,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Ahn, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, Germany and Italy. Now 34 years old, Ahn is majoring in justice studies and minoring in criminology. He is also in the ROTC program.
“There’s not much the community can do besides just being understanding,” he said. “[Soldiers] have these demons that we have to fight within ourselves. The only thing that could help is having more organizations to support veterans who are struggling.”
Staff Sgt. Darwin Cruz, 26, immigrated from San Pedro, Honduras, and enlisted in the military at age 18. He served multiple tours in Mississippi; San Antonio, Texas; and Okinawa, Japan.
“The military molded me from a stubborn, irresponsible adolescent to an ambitious, hard-working man,” Cruz said. “The core values it instilled me will run through me for the rest of my life.”
Cruz said becoming a civilian again wasn’t easy.
“Some of the biggest struggles veterans face when transitioning to civilian life are having zero to little support as they transition over,” he said. “Most veterans, even if they join at 18 and only serve for a minimum of four years, come back to the civilian world at 22 with no plans.”
As they transition from military to civilian life, veterans often struggle to be accepted by their civilian peers.
One ROTC cadet, Jennifer Castro, 19, joined the National Guard after graduating from high school in 2015 and transferred to Loyola this fall. Although Castro found the transition to be challenging, she said she sees some support from the Loyola community.
“When I got back from basic training, I went from having my days fully planned out, doing something every minute of every day, to not having any structure and having a lot of free time,” said the first-year criminal justice major. “I think Loyola is a pretty accepting community. They’re pretty open and, especially this week, people are coming out and showing support, but I remember the first week of school, I met a lot of people who had never interacted with the military, so it was difficult for them to relate to me.”
Many ROTC cadets at Loyola also struggle to overcome the disconnect between themselves and their fellow noncombatant citizens.
“Wearing a uniform makes you much more visible, especially on campus,” said Vanessa Huerta, a second-year international business and political science double major who joined ROTC because the military provided the discipline she sought. She also joined to help pay for school.
“I’m Hispanic and a first-generation student from a low-income family,” Huerta said. “My mother moved to Florida, where she had more family support and worked in agricultural fields as a migrant worker. I had to be independent and matured quickly, which led to me becoming a very dedicated and self-motivated person.”
Huerta agreed that there can sometimes be a disconnect between the military and civilians.
“A lot of people don’t see anything past the uniform,” she said. “There are lots of those little things that people ignore. There’s a student [in ROTC] who does ballet, and my roommate and I are learning Russian. These things are sort of camouflaged by the uniform, in a sense.”
Necko Fanning is a second-year student at Loyola who joined ROTC because he was offered a good position in the military and had the opportunity to receive a free education.
ROTC students at Loyola get a free education, as do students from most schools with ROTC programs, under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
Now 25 years old, Fanning is double majoring in film and digital media production and English with a concentration in creative writing. He works full time at a fitness company and is working on his fifth manuscript in a series of science fiction and fantasy young adult novels.
“The military, more than anything, gave me the resume I needed to get the job I have right now, the experience to excel in anything I set my mind to and knowledge of what I truly wanted out of my life,” he said.
Fanning said people should talk more about the subtle challenges military personnel face.
“I’d say some of the bigger issues are the alienation felt by service members, as well as many behind-the-curtains issues that service members deal with,” said Fanning. “I’m often asked how it was being ‘out’ as a gay soldier in the Army after the repeal of [‘don’t ask, don’t tell’]. I’d rather people ask me whether there is something civilians can do to benefit service members, especially those LGBT service members who struggle within society for acceptance before, during and after their service.”
At Loyola, the Military Veteran Student Services department provides support for student veterans. It helps student veterans reintegrate into the Loyola community by directing them to communities of Veterans in Chicago and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Military Veteran Student Services also ensures that student veterans are able to pay for school by seeing that benefits from the Post-9/11 GI Bill are paid to students and that these veteran students can access the up to $22,500 available to each student as part of the Yellow Ribbon Program.
For Fanning, community support of veterans must go beyond paying tuition bills and providing safe spaces.
“Service members are still human beings,” he said. “We want nothing more than to be accepted and understood. Don’t thank me for my service; it creates a society where service members are put on [an] unnecessary pedestal and makes civilians feel indebted. Instead, talk to me about issues I experienced while I was in [the military] and how we can work together to effect reforms. The civilian populace drives the social heart of the military: What you say goes.”