Students and faculty gathered in the Daniel Family Commons for a discussion panel entitled “Preconceived Notions” on Tuesday, Nov. 5 to engage in thoughtful reflection about dominant narratives surrounding veterans, and how they impact the experiences of student veterans and military dependents on campus and beyond. Panelists included Noel Salvador ’20, Dani Rodriguez ’20, Rebeca Martinez ’20, Kaitlyn Thomas-Franz ’20, Jordan Agricula ’21, and Jake Meyer ’21. The annual event was sponsored by the Wesleyan Student Veteran Organization (WESVO).
In an effort to highlight different voices and perspectives, the panel featured both student veterans as well as a student whose father served in the military for over 30 years. All of the student veterans on the panel are a part of the Posse Veterans Program, which strives to support veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces interested in pursuing bachelor’s degrees at high-ranking colleges and universities. According to the Posse Veterans Program website, participants engage in training prior to arriving on campus and receive mentoring once enrolled in one of the partner institutions, which include the University of Chicago, University of Virginia, Vassar College, and Wesleyan University.
Reflecting on the organization of the panel, Agricula—who was in the army for four years as a Satellite Communications operator maintainer—spoke to the desire to provide an opportunity for the Wesleyan community to engage with student veterans and military dependents in meaningful discussion.
“With this event, we decided to focus on having only Junior and Senior military related students in order to cover topics that didn’t relate solely revolve around our transition to Wesleyan and allowed us to dive into some deeper topics that we haven’t been able to cover before,” Agricula wrote in an email to The Argus. “The main goal of the panel is to provide an opportunity and space that would allow the broader student body, faculty, and staff at Wesleyan to know some of the student veterans on campus, as well as help paint the picture that there really isn’t such a thing as a ‘typical’ veteran or even a typical veteran experience.”
Panelists opened the discussion by asking attendees to share their preconceived ideas of veterans and military-dependent families. Panel attendees and speakers raised notions such as veterans being considered heroes, as well as veterans often being regarded as broken. However, reflecting on the diversity of experience and background among veterans, many panelists, including Meyer, who served in the Marine Corps for four years, voiced that these notions are not applicable to every veteran.
“At least for me, I really don’t think that there is necessarily a typical veteran, just how the country is diverse in its people,” Meyer said. “I feel like even the military is diverse in that regard as well, where I don’t think everybody that has served in the military are cut from the same cloth.”
In further discussion, a panel attendee raised a question about mental health in relation to military masculinity and the pressure to suppress emotions.
“I would even say that that pressure exists even just beyond mental health,” Agricula said. “It’s any help because you seeking help takes you out of the fight or out of the unit and that’s just frowned upon in general since now someone else has to pick up your slack. If you sought help with your mental health, it wasn’t something that was a secret. You have to first go see the medic and that gets approved…and then your commander knows that you’re going to see a medic, so then everyone in your command knows you’re seeking help and getting medication. They say this does not impact promotions, but I don’t know.”
Panelist Martinez elaborated on the difficulties of addressing mental health by drawing upon her experience in the Air Force. Martinez critically spoke to how the tolls on mental health are not restricted to men in the military and how the gendered dynamics add subsequent pressures for many in male-dominated spaces.
“Everybody gets pushed to the edge and unfortunately because there are these gender stereotypes…people will say, ‘Don’t be a girl’ or ‘don’t be a wuss,’” Martinez said. “So then everybody gets pushed to conceal their emotions to just push forward because you don’t want to be that person, or that weak link. That’s established from very early on since during basic training we’re always compared to the men. We will always hear questions and comments like, ‘Look at all the guys how they’re doing it…. Why can’t you be stronger?’”
Meyer also voiced that this existing stigma surrounding seeking help made the transition to asking questions in academic environments a challenge.
“I remember there was one time in calculus class my freshman year where the teacher was writing stuff on the board and she posed a concept and asked the class if we had all seen this before,” Meyer said. “The majority of the class nodded their heads and I felt that it would be a burden to stop the class by asking a question…. I had to learn that it’s okay if you don’t know something and say, ‘Hey, I don’t understand can you explain something to me?’ Whereas before, in the military, if you received orders, you just had to execute that. And if you were confused, you just had to figure it out. So a big thing for me was how to navigate talking to professors and engaging in class…because students could spit out quotes of things I had never heard before on the spot, and I had none of that to go off of.”
Responding to a question on how forefront the veteran experience is to the panelists’ identities, Martinez said that, while she is proud of her work, her experience in the military does not constitute the totality of her identity.
“I am proud, but that doesn’t mean that’s always the first foot I want to lead with,” Martinez said. “I don’t think that is what solely identifies me as a person. So sometimes I don’t feel the need to immediately say, ‘Yes, I was in the military.’ That could also be because I don’t see myself as a typical veteran…. I’m not a male, I’m not white…. While I was in the military, I was always looked at first as a female and then second is like Hispanic…. Of course, going into the military right after high school made a huge impact in my life, but that isn’t what solely defines me.”
Many panelists also spoke about how these issues of navigating identity and experience with the military were especially pertinent at Wesleyan. Particularly, panelists engaged with the question of whether or not they conceal or share their military experiences at Wesleyan.
Thomas-Franz, a military-dependent student on the panel, expressed a hesitancy to share about her experiences given campus demonstrations that took place on Veterans Day in 2016.
“I mean, coming to Wesleyan, that was not something I would often share openly,” Thomas-Franz said. “I was definitely hesitant to share about it because I remember my freshman year during Veterans Day, there were major protests with the American flag.”
Other panelists also referenced the climate on campus and the tendency to relate the military identity to Republican opinions and Trumpism.
“I figured people would see me big guy with a beard and immediately think I was a conservative veteran Trump supporter,” Meyer said. “That’s the sort of thing where that’s not really who I am at all if you get to talk to me, and so I felt that if I were to introduce myself as a veteran, I would immediately be judged on the spot.”
Toward the end of the panel, panelists and students engaged more with questions of military service and the ethics related to lasting effects of the American military on the rest of the world. In an email to The Argus, Agricula expressed further reflection on these important questions raised during the panel and the hope that others also continue to think critically and thoughtfully about them as well.
“I have this weird dual standard or viewpoint where I am definitely against the military industrialized complex and believe that it has gained way too much power and influence within our country on so many levels,” Agricula expressed after the panel. “Yet, at the same time, I really appreciated the opportunity that it gave me to change the trajectory of my life, to make lifelong friends from all around the world, as well as the opportunity that it has given others. I guess another way to put it is that I will continue to support those who have been a part of it, however, I also want to see the institution as a whole become more accountable for the amount of money that it spends and the impact it continues to make around the world. For me, making that distinction between the two is very important.”
Serena Chow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.