On Wednesday, April 8, UCSB held its second annual Ask A Vet forum, giving student veterans the stage and allowing the student body to question the vets about both their wartime experiences and their reintegration into college life.
Though there are some organizations and resources on campus focused on creating a community for them, many student vets are still faced with the challenge of change as they negotiate military and civilian life, shedding their cammies for board shorts and combat boots for sandals, and reenter UCSB. Some student vets noted how the experience can be disorienting; that they actually experience a sort of culture shock from their own culture. But once back on campus, it’s game time again.
When asked whether school still seemed necessary after serving, Robert Florkowski, who served in Infantry and acted as a Sniper for the Army, stated that for him the need for school did not change. He stressed the importance of going to college and pursuing his personal interests and goals, noting that college is “incomparable with the army, and a real necessity in life.”
He went on to say that though having been trained by the army, the skills he gained are not necessarily applicable to every day life. “With college,” he said, “you have so many opportunities to acquire more skills and purse other life interests.”
But even in the armed forces, it wasn’t always all work and no play. In response to one student’s question, “What was the coolest thing you got to do while serving?” Ross Nolan, who was a Tactical Data Systems Administrator for the Marine Corps, noted that he formed a punk band while serving in Okinawa, Japan. He said that he would wake up at 5 a.m. for duty, and after his workday, would join fellow servicemen playing gigs in town. “It was one of the coolest things I have ever done,” Nolan said. “And it gave the Japanese people an insight on us Americans as well. They had a chance to see that we too can connect with them, even through something as music on the weekends.”
The panel also addressed the dark-side of the sort of celebrity that comes with being a veteran. One panel member addressed the would-be unspoken question of what happens in a combat zone, “Have you ever killed anyone?” This is the one question, he said, that is always inappropriate and unnecessary. He noted that though it was not an issue at this forum, the question has been asked before, by a faculty member.
The veterans further explained the various levels of alienation they are subject to, expressing their frustration with those who write soldiers off as racist, fascist, or heartless people, when those making the accusations have likely never been in a military environment. One veteran actually commented on the humanitarian aspect of being a military man, noting that the opportunity to make the friends that he had during his service was truly giving. “I probably have at least one friend in every state in America, and a place to stay in Japan and Germany,” he said. The entire panel agreed with him.
Diverging from the life of student vets, the forum turned political. One student questioned how the veterans” experiences have affected their perspectives of those regions in which they were stationed, and whether they’ve become more pessimistic. Many of the veterans expressed optimism while discussing the futures of the respective areas in which they served, saying that they were proud to see these areas achieve the ability to govern themselves without the help of America. Florkowski noted that he was pleased to have been able to contribute to Kosovo’s infrastructure and to help solve the ethnic problems that rose within the city.
Nolan, however, expressed his disappointment in media coverage, and how it has affected the way different parts of the world view the war. “The media hasn’t really covered the war appropriately, mostly for political reasons,” he said. “And it’s been reflected in public opinion.”
Hannah Lott-Schwartz contributed to this article.