Given as a homily for Logan Isaac’s#VirtuesOfWar course, which was not picked up for future semesters.

In May 2015, a noose was found hanging near the Bryan Center, left by a student with a self-professed “lack of cultural awareness.” The following November, our President convened a “Town Hall” with the University Provost and the Trinity College Dean to discuss “frustrations that people of color and other marginalized groups feel as if they don’t belong on campus.” The Taskforce on Bias and Hate Issues (TBH) was formed that same month “to carry out a broad review of Duke’s policies, practices, and culture as they pertain to bias and hate in the Duke student experience.” That review began with an “intensive and inclusive” series of “listening sessions” and an emailed survey sent to 4,544 students, approximately “one third of Duke’s student body.” (p.19) In April 2016, the TBH published a Final Report after five months of collecting information. You will be expected to read this report later in the course, but I encourage you to familiarize yourself with it now.

The Prevention and Learning working group insisted that “curriculum is the currency of an educational institution… an important avenue to knowledge and skills can be the infusion of topics of identity and inclusion into the curriculum.”(p.53) In particular, the Taskforce emphasized the importance of curriculum which “teaches about historic and current inequalities… relevant to the specific history of Duke as an institution.”(pp. 37 & 53) As Georgetown has recently done in reference to its prior exploitation and sale of enslaved people, Duke is beginning to “acknowledge its complex history and examine its potential to reinforce societal inequality.”(pp. 38 & 54)

The Prevention and Learning working group recommended that Duke curate and distribute “a list of specific courses related to culture and identity.” This course is one such course, which I hope I can continue to offer to undergraduates here, startlingly few of whom have served in the military.

The aggregate percentage of soldiers and veterans in the wider American populace is nearly 25 million, or 7.3 percent of the population. Places of study and employment, in a basically unbiased system, would reflect this distribution of veterans among their civilian counterparts in higher education and the workforce. Though we will not dwell on it other than to situate ourselves in terms of our current social location, if there is a statistically significant lack of veterans at Duke, it would suggest that soldiers and veterans are somehow dis-incentivized from studying or working here.

According to Inside Higher Educationscreenshot-2017-01-17-20-40-02, Duke currently has 2 undergraduate student veterans. Based on GI Bill usage statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs, there were 158 individuals using the GI Bill across all Duke’s graduate and professional schools in the Fall 2016 academic term.[1] If these numbers are accurate, then as many as 160 student veterans are currently enrolled at Duke, out of a total student population of 14,950, or 1% of total students.[2] The direct comparison to total veterans in the wider American populace may not convince math majors, however, as there are multiple factors in play (including the overall greying of America, and a range of other sociological variables). But such disproportionately low representation does merit special attention and affirmative action, and in fact Duke lists veterans among “people who are traditionally underrepresented” as a result of what Duke cites as “a variety of social and historical barriers.” (p.15) To be fair, this is associated with the workforce, not student population. So, let’s turn our attention to veteran employment for a moment.

Increasing cultural competency in underrepresented populations at the university is a primary concern for Duke’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE). OIE is the office responsible for reporting employment data to the Department of Labor, including obligations under the Vietnam Era Readjustment and Assistance Act of 1974, or VEVRAA for short, which was recently revised by Congress. Its new provisions went into effect in March 2014. VEVRAA provides federal nondiscrimination protection for veterans who are disabled, have been recently separated from service, served during wartime, and/or who have received either a service or campaign medal. (click here for a breakdown).

Private contractors with the federal government are required to report the number and classification of veterans employed in the workforce if they receive more than $100,000 in government funding, as Duke does. During the twelve-month period ending August 31, 2015, Duke University and Health Systems employed 30,254 individuals. According to the NC Department of Commerce, Duke is the third largest private employer in the state. In 2015, the most recent year with data, 650 employees, or about 2 percent of Duke’s workforce, were protected veterans. As we’ll discuss in greater detail later in the semester, the Department of Labor requires contractors to take affirmative action to recruit, train, and promote veterans when their representation in a workforce is below 7%, which reflects the average number of veterans in the wider civilian workforce.screenshot-2017-01-17-21-21-43

Whether soldiers and veterans are somehow dis-incentivized from studying or working at Duke can be debated without end. The data does help us get a picture of our own social location at an elite college in the American South. The low number of student and employee veterans at Duke suggests either a recruitment or a retention problem, and this course is one way in which Duke is trying to adapt to their responsibilities not just to their contract partner, but to veterans in particular. “Developing expertise necessary to recognize and critique military cultural appropriation and identifying biases and stereotypes about the military,” one of the course objectives, is important in a state which nearly one in ten residents is a military veteran and which has two of the top five highest concentration of veterans, in Fayetteville and Jacksonville. It is also important in a nation whose outgoing president was the first in our history to be at war each and every day of his eight year tenure.

But all this is quantifiable, formal, pseudo-legal justification. Does Duke really need to be talking about veterans, and if so, why?

It is significant that the Town Hall meeting convened by President Brodhead occurred when it did. Or at least, it is significant to 1% of the Duke community. To veterans, November 13th is not just November 13th, it is one day “and a wake up” after Veterans Day. The noose hanging on east campus was an obscene and repulsive symbol that is rightly condemned, but it has a meaning hidden to all but a few of the other one percent at Duke. I say “a few” not only because, at less than one percent, veterans are a minority of a minority, but also  because the veteran community is not monolithic; I don’t want to speak for other veterans, because, dead or alive, I hope they’ll speak for themselves.

The question, then, is if we are all ready and willing to listen…

screenshot-2017-02-01-14-06-54CBS News broke the veteran suicide story back in 2007, featuring a family who lost their son to suicide after coming home from war and receiving inadequate care from the VA. The timing of the report, published on November 13th, was strategic; the author fully aware of the connection our nation makes between early November and military veterans. Jeffrey Lucey enlisted as a Marine Reservist less than one year before I signed a contract to become an Army artilleryman. He deployed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, writing to his girlfriend from the field “I have done so much immoral shit during the last month that life is never going to seem the same, and all I want is to erase the past month, pretend it didn’t happen.” On June 22, 2004, Jeff was found by his father in the family’s basement, hanging from a garden hose. He isn’t the only one for whom a noose signifies a final end to their suffering;

  • On January 27, 2015, Marine Gulf War veteran and African American mother of three, Kisha Holmes was pregnant with her fourth child when she killed her family in a murder-suicide in which she hanged herself with a belt.
  • On February 20, 2015 Richard Miles went into the forest where he overdosed on medication prescribed to him, and froze to death. He had made multiple attempts to hang himself in 2008 and 2009 after he had deployed to Iraq.
  • In 2016, “Army Sgt. John Toombs was booted out of the Alvin C. York VA medical center in Tennessee.” Just a few days later, on a Tuesday evening, he hanged himself at the same facility. His body was discovered on November 23.

The list could go on… Firearms carry too many other symbolic functions to be easily reducible. But a noose represents little other than suffocation, the third most popular method of suicide by veterans. (p.39)

Duke veterans, an organization I led for two years before I graduated and began teaching on Fort Bragg, is the only campus-wide student veterans association at Duke. To my knowledge, no single veterans group was represented at the Town Hall meeting two days after the only national holiday recognizing living military personnel. In the numerous Task Force “listening tours” that followed, and which informed the its final report, no single veterans group seems to have been engaged.  This is significant because of the embodied story that Duke veterans inhabits, and which the university inherits by its existence.

Details are hard to come by, in part because I am afraid to ask. I learned how Duke Veterans began from President Brodhead. One day, on my way to study, I passed by him and asked how to make the organization, which I was then serving as president, more robust and effective at connecting with all student, staff, and faculty veterans. As soon as the word “veteran” left my lips, he interrupted me. “Oh yeah, I remember that young man. Such a tragedy.” He went on to tell me that, just a few years prior, a young student veteran had killed himself just off East Campus. He couldn’t remember this man’s name, but he knew that he had a family and that the suicide occurred in the home he shared with his wife and young child. President Broadhead gave the names of several people to whom I should reach out, which I did.

None of them knew this young man’s name.

One administrator told me that this young man’s suicide was the reason the Office of Student Affairs hosted a free tailgate party for veterans during a Duke versus Army football game. The veterans who showed up became the first officers of the student veteran group that I inherited a few years later.

As for the man whose extinguished life provided the tragic spark necessary to create the first community on campus for this protected population, that so few involved in the initial formation of the group could recall a detail as simple and central as his name strikes me as a profound tragedy.

If we want to speak about soldiers and military experience with any intellectual rigor, then we must grapple with the difficult and painful reality their story often discloses. We must be prepared to be indicted by the moral nihilism or emotivism that plagues our society and which is utterly destroyed in the moral density of combat and military service. Critical attention demands that we question those stories about soldiers that do not arise from, or align with, the stories that they tell about themselves or their experiences.

This is never to say that civilians cannot tell soldier’s stories, rather that the length from which those stories depart from actual lives, or socially embodied stories, directly correlates to the distance from reality and truth such stories have strayed. If a story is not true in any empirical way, then it raises questions about the purpose of those stories if they do not adhere to basic facts. Civilians should tell soldier stories, and one of our assigned readings does just that, but what has too often been passed over is the quality of the storytelling, and how taking poetic license can too easily serve interests contrary to those of the military community.

[1] According to Student Veterans of America Director of Policy, in a phone interview in Spring 2016.

[2] Retrieved on November 30, 2016. The page has been removed or is being updated at the time of this writing.

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