When my high school history students learned that I had deployed to Afghanistan as an infantryman, the classroom transformed into a scene more appropriate for a presidential news conference, with students playing the role of reporters asking all sorts of questions about my service.
“Are you crazy like that dude in ‘Hurt Locker’?”
“Yeah! Do you have PTSD?
“How many Arabs did you kill?”
When the interrogation ended, I remember thinking I had my work cut out as a teacher preparing lessons on improving my students’ geography and cultural awareness skills. And it was clear they didn’t know much about veterans.
Hollywood movies and video games left these teenagers with the faulty impression that veterans fit in one of only two categories — a broken-down mess suffering from the external and internal wounds of war or a Navy SEAL/Delta Force/Ranger superhero earning accolades for taking out an entire battalion of insurgents. As a teacher, I helped my students understand that veterans are more complex than that. I wish some adults could have visited my classroom when I was teaching, so I could have corrected them on a common misconception about our military.
In 2006, then-Sen. John F. Kerry told a group of college students that if they didn’t study and do their homework, they would “get stuck in Iraq.” Many saw it as an insult to those who serve, as though our nation’s military was for idiots, not intellectuals, and Kerry later apologized for his remark.
At the time, my unit was doing its homework, preparing for a combat deployment. We brushed off the remark with a little soldier humor. When we learned we wouldn’t be going to Iraq, we joked that the Army must have thought we aced our homework assignment and sent us to Afghanistan instead.
Over a decade later, some Americans still mistakenly believe that members of our military are a bunch of knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. Case in point – a California teacher, Gregory Salcido, grabbed headlines this week when he disparaged members of our military during a history lecture. Salcido said the men and women who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan were “the lowest of our low” and used a vulgarity to describe them. As White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly – a retired Marine general – succinctly put it, Salcido “ought to go to hell.”
During my military service, I met some of the finest men and women America has to offer. Sgt. Zachary Tellier was one of them. We were both college graduates who shared a love for history. He was a natural leader who inspired his soldiers with his skill, dedication to duty, and bravery. Early in our deployment, he pulled two soldiers to safety from a burning vehicle hit by an IED. That courageous action earned him a Bronze Star for valor. Sgt. Tellier was destined to rise in the ranks, but he didn’t make it home. He was killed on Sept. 29, 2007, when enemy forces attacked his unit with small-arms fire on a dismounted patrol.
I doubt Sgt. Tellier would be as angry as many of my fellow veterans are by Salcido’s comments. He loved people from all creeds and backgrounds and could turn anything into a teachable moment. I will honor Tellier by doing just that.
First, let’s address the ridiculous myth that our warriors are, as Salcido says, “dumb.” Many enlistees join the military not only to serve their country, but also for the education benefits. By enlisting in the military, they become beneficiaries of the GI Bill, thereby helping them avoid the trap of crushing student debt that limits the economic mobility of their civilian peers.
And how do veterans perform when they go to college? According to Student Veterans of America’s National Veteran Education Success Tracker, veterans are more likely to graduate, have a higher GPA, and earn degrees in the fields of business, health, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. That doesn’t sound so dumb at all.
So how can we bridge the growing military-civilian divide? I believe it is best done through education.
School districts need to hire more veterans as teachers. Students and teachers can learn only so much about the military from a textbook or a movie. As the veteran population declines, awareness and understanding of today’s military could also fall. We should also take time during the school year to emphasize military service around national holidays, such as Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
Teachers should be provided with professional development opportunities on how to teach military-related topics and best support military children, who often deal with educational challenges that most children never contemplate, let alone experience. These challenges include frequent moves and uncertainties about a loved one deployed overseas. This type of instruction is often missing from teacher-training programs. When I made the transition from soldier to teacher, I never received any training related to the military even though I taught in a military-impacted community, Washington, D.C.
As I contemplate Salcido’s comments to his students, I am reminded of words of Theodore Roosevelt: “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” Education is not just about building skills in such subjects as math and reading; it’s about preparing citizens to help our democracy endure. Citizens must learn about the purpose of our military and those who are selfless enough to serve in it. If not, the future of our democracy, and those who protect it, is at risk.
Brian M. Thompson served in the U.S. Army, 82nd Airborne Division, and as a history teacher in the District of Columbia Public Schools. He currently serves as policy adviser on military and veterans issues at the U.S. Department of Education.