Growing up, I had a fascination with the military. It wasn’t so much about how cool the planes were or how big the explosions could get. My fascination stemmed from the individual itself and how a human being could push the physical and mental limits of the body and become a soldier. How could someone—especially an 18-year-old—leave their family and go on a deployment? And what happens to them when they get back?
For some, joining the military is a chance to do something with their life. For others, it’s family tradition. Regardless, all these men and women are thrown together in a melting pot of their chosen branch and asked to fight as one. And, for a lot of them, it’s their first time away from home. It’s scary. But they are all brought together with one common fear: the fear of the unknown, as well as a shared suffering. Suddenly, this melting pot of soldiers from all over the country becomes a family.
“It’s really about the people next to you,” said one Marine I interviewed. “So many times I thought about giving up, but my buddies to the left and right of me were still going. And I wasn’t about to let them down.”
It’s really the bond soldiers have with one another that is at the core of our military. Sure, superior firepower and advanced technology give us an advantage. And maybe, as civilians, that’s all we see the military is, but it is so much more than that.
I have interviewed many veterans over the years. But they all have the same conclusion about getting out of the military: it sucks. This is hard for me to understand. Why would someone miss the rigorous physical and mental demands, the deployments and a life away from your family? But I have come to the understanding that it is the people you miss and the relationships you make along the way. When that is taken from a soldier, they feel lost.
“You are forced to carry on. That link in the chain is broken and it makes it hard to assimilate,” said Dave Daniels, head of the Veteran’s Department at Maryville College.
What Daniels is trying to accomplish at Maryville College, and beyond, is being a beacon for many vets who are lost in that transition. What makes Daniels different than his predecessors is that he enlisted and has gone through many of the demanding, bottom level jobs and punishments the military can often dish out.
“It’s important to me that we meet on the same level,” he said. “It’s also important to me that I can let them know I’ve gone through the same things they are going through.”
Daniels opened up to me about his struggles with depression. He, as well as eight others at Maryville, are medically retired from the military. In all, Maryville College currently has 42 military connected students, all with whom Daniels wants to have a personal connection.
Daneils explained to me how he operates the Veteran’s Department at the college. First, he wants to let them know they are safe—they may have lost the uniform but not the brotherhood. Second, Daniels allows himself to be vulnerable and open to create that environment where they know whatever happens they are safe with him. And last, but not least, Dave holds them accountable.
“Vets have a tendency to flock and stick to their own,” Daniels said. “Which is a good thing, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t constantly stick to yourself and then cry when you feel like you are invisible. You might have lost the camaraderie, but the civilian population cares. They might not have all the answers on why you feel the way you do, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t help you.”
For Veterans Day, Daniels and his department set up a POW/MIA table with the soldier’s cross and did a rendition of “Taps,” all which took place in Pearsons Hall. The Veteran’s Department is currently in Bartlett 204, and Daniels encourages any non-military students to stop by, hang out and have a conversation.
So how do we, as civilians, understand Veterans Day? What is important to always keep in mind is that all soldiers have fought different battles and at different times, but they are all fighting the same battle right now. The importance of Veterans Day is to remember those battles are still being fought. Currently veteran suicide rates are at an all-time high. Some of them are from PTSD caused from combat related incidents, but a lot of it is due to not being able to adjust to civilian life and being surrounded by people who just don’t get the experience you have gone through.
When you see a vet, don’t ask them about all the crazy encounters they’ve had. They’ll share that if they want. Instead, listen to them. You can’t understand what they’ve gone through, but you can help them by letting them know they aren’t on their own.