Times may have changed
Talking to veterans on campus today, their stories have a different ring to them. Candace Newcomb, who served two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps before enrolling at CU in fall 2005, says she was a bit worried about coming to a campus that had a reputation for being chock full of left-leaning war protestors, so at first she didn’t broadcast her veteran status. But she says everyone she has encountered has been supportive, and she has gradually become more willing to tell people that she’s a veteran, in part because the environment feels different now than it did in 2005.
Newcomb knows that one can support the troops and still oppose the war.
“I’m against the war,” she says. “I had to fight in it; it sucks. Nobody likes war.”
She said most people she has encountered at CU seem to be “anti-war, but not anti-service members. … We don’t make the policies, we just do the best we can. … I hate the war more than anyone else. I lost friends there.”
Newcomb attributes this ability to differentiate between supporting the troops and opposing the war to the fact that Boulder is an intellectual college town where most people are smart enough to know not to blame the soldiers for war.
Other veterans agree the reception they have gotten at CU today is a far cry from some of the war protestors who lashed out at soldiers returning from Vietnam and called them “baby killers.”
Paul Harris, who served in the U.S. Army from 2005 to 2008 before enrolling at CU this fall, said one of his commanding officers told soldiers about the hostile reception he and others received upon their return from Vietnam.
“This is nothing compared to what Vietnam vets went through,” he says. “Most people have been supportive, but I have to bite my tongue sometimes when I hear 18-year-olds complaining about this, that or the other.”
Sean Moleski, who served with the Marines in Iraq and Japan from 2003 to 2007, acknowledged that he was slightly nervous about his peers’ reactions to his veteran status. “Boulder has a bit of a stigma for being a bit of a liberal town,” says the Iowa native. “But people have been friendly; it’s been a nice surprise.”
Moleski agrees that people seem to be more tolerant and supportive of returning troops than they did after Vietnam, possibly because many know someone who has served in the military.
As for CU officials, Provost Stein Sture acknowledges that some in the state may think CU “would likely not be welcoming of veterans. We clearly are of the opposite opinion.” Associate Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Education Michael Grant, who helped spearhead the creation of the veterans affairs office on campus, agrees that such perception is misplaced.
“That is not true,” he says of the assumption. “We have about 600 ROTC students on campus … so we would like to dispel that.”
That was one reason for creating the veterans affairs office on campus two years ago.
“It’s definitely been ramped up,” Newcomb said of the office and its services.
Another component of changing that perception is to trumpet the contributions that veterans make on campus.
Several veterans and campus officials say that veterans tend to take college academics more seriously than other students because they are older, more mature and more disciplined — and they have an appreciation for what it costs, for the sacrifice they made to receive college funding through the GI Bill.
They also contribute to the education of their peers.
Moleski, an international affairs major, said being able to share his experiences abroad allows him to “shed a different light on the subject that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise get to see.”
Newcomb — a corporal whose primary job was to maintain weapons systems such as guns, missiles and rockets on helicopters — says she tries to help educate her classmates and others that not all soldiers return from action with mental issues. “Some need a bit of extra help, but a lot of us don’t.”
“[Veterans] are a special element on campus. They bring a lot in terms of diversity to the campus,” says Akers. “They’re bringing their life experiences into the classroom. That’s very helpful in the learning process.”
Harris credits the CU administration with providing him something quite significant in return: an advance. Harris says the university has not yet received money from the federal government for his tuition under the new GI Bill, but has been covering those costs since the beginning of the semester anyway. “I think CU has bent over backwards,” he says. “They could have said, ‘No, we haven’t received the money yet from the government.’”
Harris traveled with soldiers as a public affairs photographer and writer, documenting the stories of medics, infantry, tankers and cooks for internal newsletters as well as international wire services like the Associated Press. “I knew when to put the camera down and pick up the rifle, let’s just put it that way,” he says, when asked about his combat situations. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and was treated at Fort Carson and the Veterans’ Medical Center in Denver.