Humphrey School Students Share Perspectives on Their Military Service
November 9, 2016—It’s not very common to see a person in military uniform in the halls of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The school has only about a dozen enrolled students who are in active military service or are veterans. But for them, it’s important for their fellow students, as well as faculty and staff, to know a bit more about their military experience.
A panel discussion at the Humphrey School in advance of Veterans Day, called “Voices of Student Veterans,” was a step toward that understanding. Several students who are in the military planned the event, and led a conversation with the audience about what it means to be in the military and a student at the same time.
Moderator Kevin Gerdes, a retired brigadier general in the Minnesota National Guard and director of the Humphrey School’s Master of Public Affairs program, noted that less than one percent of the U.S. population has served in the military.
“Because of that, there are misunderstandings about our military, about their experiences, and about Veterans Day. It couldn’t be more appropriate for a school of public affairs to spend some time on this topic today,” said Gerdes.
Brig. Gen. Sandy Best said because so few enlist in the military, many people have misconceptions about what it’s like to serve. “Some think those who join the military do so because they’re broken people who can’t succeed in a civilian work environment,” she said. “That is a fallacy. We have outstanding people serving in the military.”
Best, a 32-year veteran and the first woman in the Minnesota National Guard to attain the rank of brigadier general, was a Humphrey Policy Fellow in 2011–12.
She said her experience in the fellowship program was a positive one, noting the diverse backgrounds of the participants. “As a military service member you bring insights to the table, but so does everyone else in the group.”
Capt. Alan Roy, a Master of Public Affairs candidate, echoed that sentiment.
“My experience in the military has made a world of difference” in the classroom, he said, adding that he has found a lot of commonality with other students in his program. “We draw upon each other’s sacrifices, suffering and experiences. We all can relate to each other. It’s given me some perspective and allowed me to identify with what others are going through, too.”
Renoir Gaither, who served in the Army for three years in the late 1970s, said his military experience “gave him the discipline to keep at it” as he entered the Humphrey School’s Master of Public Affairs program. “In the military, that’s the attitude.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s always smooth sailing. Serving in the military is stressful, the panelists noted, especially for service members with families. And those who are deployed overseas can find it difficult to transition back to their home life.
Sometimes veterans returning to school encounter obstacles arranging their GI Bill college financing, for example, and may need a little extra help or support.
As for other steps the University of Minnesota could take, Roy suggested it recruit more military veterans to teach classes.
Capt. Josh Rud, one of the students who organized the event, said he encourages more opportunities for people to get a look at what military service is really like. “More open dialogue such as this event is key,” he said.
As Veterans Day approaches, these military service members say what they would like to see from their fellow citizens is more than just a “thank you for your service.”
“It’s nice to be thanked, but it’s not really necessary because we enjoy what we’re doing,” said Rud. “It’s better for us to have a chance to talk about what we do. Ask a question about our service, or even about our uniforms. That’s what I would appreciate.”
First Lt. Derek Teed, a Master of Public Policy candidate and another of the event organizers, said he would like people to become more informed about U.S. foreign policy and how conflicts get started. He also noted that the U.S. is not really at peace, and citizens should recognize the “new norm of us continuously being at war.”
“The best way to support the military is to understand the roots of the conflicts, and who the real actors are,” added Gaither. “No soldiers on their own can start a war. Only a government can.”
Another way to mark Veterans Day is to help support service members and veterans in your own community through the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program, transition assistance, job programs and the like, said Best.
She also put in a plug for more people to consider enlisting. “It’s important for the future of our nation that we keep encouraging people to choose the military as a profession.”