Returning veterans stick to basics of readjustment

by Amy Kingsley

Veterans who work and study at NC A&T University gathered on Nov. 10 for a morning panel discussion dedicated to exploring ways to ease the transition to civilian life and then a luncheon celebrating their service.

Concerns about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Democratic electoral victories earlier in the week in an election widely considered a referendum on the Republicans’ handling of those conflicts, remained absent from the official agenda. Instead veterans discussed the advantages of enlistment and strategies for using military skills in academic or career settings. They also talked about the difficulty some veterans face when they try to obtain medical or educational benefits.

A&T counts about 100 veterans among its student body, said Peggy Oliphant, the university’s director of veteran and disability support services. Several student veterans served in the ongoing Iraq conflict; others saw combat in Vietnam or Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The school also hosts an ROTC brigade that serves many of Greensboro’s higher education institutions. Veterans usually make good college students, Oliphant said, but they face a few challenges in the classroom.

“When they come back to school they are non-traditional students,” she said. “But they have to blend into an environment that’s geared toward younger students.”

Reservists and members of the National Guard often must interrupt their educations for overseas deployment, said Penny Torrence, a US Department of Veterans Affairs certifying official. That happened frequently at the beginning of the Iraq War, Torrence said.

Michella Mayo, 24, served in the Air Force for five years and was deployed to Iraq as a medic. Her commitment ended last year and she enrolled in the nursing program at A&T; she was one of about 70 students and staff honored at the luncheon. Mayo recently enlisted in the Air National Guard, and when she graduates from A&T in four years, she will also earn her officer’s commission. Mayo lives off campus and said it is sometimes difficult being in school with students who are younger than her.

A recruiter and army officer present at the panel discussion described military service as an opportunity for adventure and professional advancement. Several of the participants echoed that view and praised their military experiences.

Mayo and Ron Tuck, a Vietnam veteran, said their military experiences weren’t as rosy.

“They don’t talk about racism in the military,” Tuck said.

“Or sexism either,” Mayo added.

In her work as a medic, Mayo witnessed several soldiers die from wounds sustained in combat.

“I did my duty but they lied about this war,” she said of President Bush and his administration. “I was told we were hunting down terrorists. The when we got there they called the mission Operation Iraqi Freedom. What about all the other people who aren’t free? What about Darfur?”

Tuck, who was drafted alongside 52 other members of his high school senior class, compared the current conflict to Vietnam.

The featured speaker for the day’s festivities, Col. James Gorham of the Army National Guard, defended the underlying righteousness of the mission in Iraq.

“We’re defending our way of life,” Gorham said. “And we’re trying to offer a better way of life for people we don’t even know.”

Although extremists account for only 1 percent of the entire Muslim population, Gorham said a military solution to their presence is not plausible. Instead, American forces must focus on winning the hearts and minds of Muslim civilians, he said.

The ages of those honored by the university revealed the shifting demographic of the state’s veteran population. Most of those who received certificates for their service were in their early to mid-twenties.

At the panel discussion earlier that day, they expressed frustration with veterans who failed to take advantage of educational and other benefits.

“After you get out of the military the communication lines break down tremendously,” said Martinez Washington, a US Navy veteran and A&T financial aid officer. “There are people you can go to, but you have to find them yourself.”

In A&T’s veteran’s services office, Oliphant and Torrence often have to work with veterans and service members to determine what kind of benefits they are eligible for. Mayo said military training often breaks people down so much that they become unable to take care of themselves.

“I understand why people become homeless,” she said. “They become so used to taking orders that they don’t know what to do with themselves.”

Washington raised the issue of homeless veterans, whose ranks have swelled since the start of the Iraq War, in the panel discussion. He estimated that more than 100 homeless veterans call Greensboro home, and told attendees it was their duty to speak up for more veteran-friendly legislation through service or political organizations.

“The only people who don’t forget about the veterans are other veterans,” he said.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at