U.S. soldiers maneuver an M-777 howitzer, so it can be towed into position at Bost Airfield, Afghanistan, in 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Justin T. Updegraff, Operation Resolute Support/AP) (Sgt. Justin Updegraff/AP)
Reporter

The release last month of a 177-page report by President Trump’s Federal Commission on School Safety sparked controversy with its recommendation that school systems consider arming teachers and other personnel, and that an Obama-era initiative meant to reduce racial disparities in school discipline be rescinded.

The commission, led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, also had dozens of other recommendations that got less coverage, including one that urged schools to hire more military veterans and retired law enforcement officers. It said:

Military veterans and retired law enforcement officers often have the leadership, experience in high-stress environments, and essential training to help ensure the safety and security of our nation’s schools. Many will also possess pedagogical skills—classroom management and real-world experience training others—that can make for highly effective educators. Former service members and police officers stepping into roles as principals, administrators, teachers, counselors, school resource officers (SROs), and other school-related positions could help foster safety in our schools.... School safety would benefit from more veterans and retired law enforcement officers leveraging their knowledge and experience to serve our nation’s students in a variety of school roles.

While some people may question that recommendation, Brian M. Thompson says it is spot-on.

Thompson served in the U.S. Army, 82nd Airborne Division and then became a history teacher in the D.C. Public Schools. Today he serves as a liaison on military and veterans issues at the U.S. Education Department, and he believes strongly in the commission’s recommendation about veterans.

Thompson wrote the following post, explaining why he thinks it is important for more veterans to work in schools, drawing from his personal experience as a teacher.

By Brian M. Thompson

Veterans know a thing or two about safety and security. Many of us were once part of surges into dangerous areas to secure neighborhoods and protect the local population from terrorists and insurgents.

Because of veterans' “leadership skills, experience, and essential training,” the Federal Commission on School Safety has provided veterans with a new mission, “to help ensure the safety and security of our nation’s schools.”

Based on my previous experience as a soldier and teacher, I have no doubt veterans can help protect students and teachers, but there is a far more important reason to have them working in schools across the country.

Before I taught high school history for five years at a high-poverty public school in Washington, D.C., I served my country as an infantryman with a combat deployment to Afghanistan. While I taught students the causes and effects of the Industrial Revolution, my unit was over there fighting again.

As my students worried about grades and my fellow teachers and I fretted over lesson plans, my Army buddies were trying to avoid IEDs and ambushes. Every day at the start of my planning period, I did something few Americans ever do. I visited the Department of Defense casualty identification website to see if the war had claimed the life of another friend. I didn’t have to scroll down too far to realize my fear had transformed into a harsh reality.

On the afternoon of Sept. 14, 2009, I read the following message on my computer screen:

Sgt. Tyler A Juden, 23, of Winfield, Kansas, died Sept 12 in Turan, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his unit using rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fires.

The news was devastating. Juden was a good friend and a great soldier, and his death was all the more tragic because he wanted to become a teacher when he transitioned out of the military.

At that moment, I felt so alone in my classroom. At times, I thought I was the only one in the school who knew America was even at war. I became angry as I looked at those rows of empty chairs in my classroom, and in my mind, I saw it as a metaphor for how my fellow citizens concerned themselves with this war — they didn’t have any skin in the game, cutting class to shop at the mall while America’s warriors shed blood in the mountains of Afghanistan and in the streets of Iraq.

Juden’s death made me aware that there is a growing military-civilian divide in this country. Active-duty military now make up just 0.4 percent of the U.S. population, down from 8.7 percent in 1945 at the end of World War II and 1.8 percent in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War.

Not only are fewer Americans serving in the military today, but the veteran population is steadily declining. A 2011 Pew survey revealed more than three-quarters of American adults, ages 50 and over, have an immediate family member who served in the military, but that percentage drops to only one-third for adults ages 18 to 29. Because of these factors, many Americans are becoming disconnected from those who serve in the military.

When my students learned I was once a soldier, they fell for many of the pervasive stereotypes of veterans produced by movies and video games. Some thought I was nuts because everyone who served in Afghanistan comes back with PTSD; others felt bad for me, as if I joined the military because I didn’t have any better options. I was surprised that even some of my fellow teachers shared the same misconceptions about veterans and military service.

During my time in the classroom, I was able to share my unique experience that my war did not transform me into a hero or leave me a broken man, but it did change me. In many ways, it made me stronger. And this is the case for many veterans, who return from war eager to continue serving their community and country.

According to the 2016 Veterans Civic Health Index, “veterans are more likely than non-veterans to vote, contact public officials, volunteer, give to charity, work with neighbors to fix problems in the community, and attend public meetings.” Veterans are not victims dependent on charity or government for their livelihood, but a strategic resource for solving some of the most complex problems facing this country.

My time as a teacher helped bridge the military-civilian divide. The student body and faculty at my school gained a better understanding of the military and veterans. They learned that the stereotypes mentioned above are not true. Even though I was a combat veteran, I didn’t suffer from PTSD; in fact, most combat veterans are not suffering from PTSD. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 11 to 20 out of every 100 veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan in any given year have PTSD.

I didn’t join the military as a last resort, but I volunteered out of a sense of duty, a desire to serve my country and an eagerness to join an exclusive organization — 71 percent of youth are not even eligible to serve in today’s military for reasons of physical, medical, educational and moral shortcomings.

Ignorance of the military and veterans is a symptom of the growing military-civilian divide and it can only be cured through education. The solution could be changes in curriculum, but more youth need to be connected to veterans and their real stories of service, not some manufactured caricature out of Hollywood telling us what veterans are like.

We need a new type of surge, one designed not only to keep schools safe but to educate people about the military and the veteran experience. We need large numbers of veterans working inside schools not only as volunteers but also as teachers, principals, administrators, deans, counselors, nurses, aides and other support personnel.

And more veterans working inside schools will have national security implications. The recent news that the Army failed to meet its recruiting goal for the first time since 2005 is often blamed on the strong American economy. I don’t see it that way.

My time teaching hundreds of teenagers made me aware that the military faces a recruiting challenge that is more cultural than economic. The next generation of potential recruits has perceptions of military service that negatively impacts their propensity to serve.

They fear military service will likely result in physical injury and psychological trauma, and there is nothing being done to correct this damaging belief. If we fail to connect youth to veterans as a way to bridge the military-civilian divide, the military will no longer need recruiters and will have to return to the old way of raising an Army — doing so through a draft.

Veterans working inside schools is not only about safety in schools and national security. It’s about creating informed citizens who can sustain a free society. Such citizens need to be familiar with the military and those who serve and sacrifice in it.