The changing face of veterans: military students discuss reversing stereotypes

Correction: Sarah Sell is in the Air National Guard. Erin Rust was a sergeant in the Army. An article in the Nov. 9 paper had incorrect titles. We regret the error. 

Jerald Ashton wore a black leather vest adorned in badges and pins representing his 12 years spent serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, the Kansas Air National Guard and the U.S. Army. 

Ashton, a Wichita State senior, became quiet and his eyes grew sorrowful as he recounted his return home from deployment. 

“I’ve had a lot of experiences where people who’ve never been in the military or had never been to war don’t understand there are certain things that are very touchy to me, such as them asking me if I’ve ever killed anyone. That’s something I don’t want to think about. They don’t need to know.”

He paused a moment, and the large room grew eerily silent. 

“I know a lot of people nowadays are welcomed home as heroes,” he said. “When I came back, I was not.”

The six military flags behind him, aligned in a perfect row, resembled his demeanor — structured, yet colorful. However, at that moment, they seemed to bring the only colorful relief into the Military and Veteran Student Center at WSU. 

The center, on the first floor of Lindquist Hall, provides a space for veterans and active-duty military to support each other by providing mentoring, tutoring and camaraderie. With Veterans Day nearing, the veterans on campus shared their stories.

Combating sterotypes

Sarah Sell, director of Veteran Student Services, said the center was created to provide a space where veterans can connect like they did in the military. Sell served 14 years as a 1st Sgt. in the Air National Guard.

“A lot of times people join the military and stay in it for the camaraderie and brotherhood that it brings,” she said. “We wanted to bring that same feeling to campus so that they can have a comfortable place and a way to connect.” 

Sell said because of the unique challenges student veterans face, they have a high dropout rate. 

Like many returning veterans, Ashton said he suffered from the stereotyping of military personnel. 

Throughout history, service members have faced stereotyping. Bobby Fleetwood, First Class Petty Officer of the U.S. Navy, said over time, veterans have become reclusive, avoiding civilian interaction in fear of a negative confrontation.

Fleetwood, a senior majoring in business, said the stereotyping stems from ignorance on the part of civilians.

“[People are ignorant] about the military service members, ignorant about what we’ve done,” he said. “It causes most of us to clam up, keep to ourselves and stay within our circle. But we’re in a new age of swearing off ignorance, so the first step is getting out there and making people know who we are.”

To combat people’s misconceptions about veterans, Fleetwood has made it his goal as president of the Student Veteran Organization to help veterans become more active in the campus community.

“By becoming more involved with the community, when people see us, they won’t think, ‘Here’s this reclusive combat veteran,’” he said. “They’re going to think, ‘Here’s a guy that’s seen things and done things and wants to bring his knowledge and education back into our community to help us grow.’”

Fleetwood said he expects increased campus involvement to reduce the dropout rate because it will motivate veterans to stay on campus longer and allow them to develop lasting connections.

That is why the Military and Veteran Student Center was created.

Ashton experienced a personal increase in his student involvement and connections since the establishment of the student center.

Before the center opened, Ashton said he was on and off campus as quickly as he could. 

“I felt absolutely no connection to this school,” he said. “With those [veteran] organizations, I was able to start developing more of a connection.”

Supporting veterans

Now, there’s been a shift in the attitudes of student veterans, Sell said.

“I think a couple of years ago, our student veterans were almost invisible on campus,” she said. “They basically came here, completed their mission and left. Since we’ve opened the center, what we’ve seen is this community develop where students are supporting other students and vets are supporting other vets, which is exactly what we wanted to see.”

With the added support, student veterans are more visible on campus. They have the opportunity to prove their value to people, Sell said.

“I think they bring a lot to the table, and I think that is something I would love our traditional students to engage more with our vets to really understand all the strengths they bring with them into a classroom including a different perspective and strong leadership skills,” she said.

Sell said the best way to combat misinformation about veterans is to talk to them, engage more with them and hear their stories. 

 “The face of veterans is changing,” junior Erin Rust said. “People see me driving my car with veteran tags, and they think it’s my dad’s car. ‘There’s no way that she’s a veteran.’”

Rust is a veteran E5 Sgt. in the U.S. Army. She became a veteran when she was 22 years old.

She said the military prepared her for college by teaching her discipline, respect and responsibility. 

“A lot of kids don’t seem to take school very seriously,” she said. “I am here for a reason, and I want to get something out of it.”

Sell said veterans’ sense of drive and ambition makes them an important asset on campus.

“They’ve been put in positions where much was expected of them and they were able to rise and perform to that level,” she said. “I think it gives them a different background and attitude about school.”

 Rust said the Army gave her a different perspective in life.

“[After] going to places like Iraq, you really get the feeling of what’s really important in life, and you appreciate every day [and] little things a lot more,” Rust said.

Although transitioning back into civilian life proved difficult for some veterans, Ashton saw the differences between traditional students and himself as a learning opportunity.

“Hopefully I can give some of the knowledge that I’ve gained from my life experiences onto the traditional students so they can have a better understanding of the world,” he said.

Fleetwood said he wants everybody to know that veterans are normal people who have goals, dreams and ambitions like everyone else.

 “We want to dispel the stereotypes about vets being hard, mean, rude, leave-me-alone types,” Fleetwood said. “Some of us may be, but not all of us. We want to dispel those stereotypes, become involved, and let the university know that veterans can be very, very contributing to the community.”