Connecting with Past Generations of Veterans –Leon Valliere

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A lot has happened in the first few weeks I’ve been back in school. I’ve had to adjust from telling my sailors where to be and what to do. I was groomed to be a leader in my service, and yet, when that ended, I had nobody to guide. It’s almost a little unbearable knowing that my friends, my brothers in arms, are still doing the mission without me. They continue to work so that I can attend this school and write this paper. A lot has happened in the first few weeks back in school.

The days leading up to the first day of classes were stressful. I was unsure of my ability to actually sit in a class and learn from a complete stranger. It wasn’t necessarily a foreign concept, but rather I wasn’t sure if I could learn from people who didn’t have the same life experiences. This uncertainty about learning really shook me at my core. I was unsure if I could even learn. Being outside of traditional learning and the pressures of having to fit into a culture of college kids who are fresh out of their parents’ homes scared me. I was constantly questioning whether or not I could succeed in school.

I struggled without really talking to anybody for a few weeks. How could I even talk to anybody about being unsure in myself? It was particularly difficult because my family only knows about the highpoints in my service. They know about how unreal my hours were when I worked. They know about how this drive I had during service. I was unsure with how I could talk to anybody about my problems. I was carrying this heavy weight until my stepdad got home. My stepdad is also in the Navy and is really the only person I can talk to about my service. We’ve had a tradition of going to the garage, getting a drink, and talking. We would talk about all the stuff we’ve done since we were home last.

I remember when I told him about getting accepted into UWSP. I talked about how excited I was and how I was ready to go back to school. It all started out just as superficial with my other family — what I was going to study and what I wanted to do when I finished school. As the conversation lulled, he asked me how I felt about school. It actually caught me a little off guard because I didn’t have any of those preconceived fluff answers. So after a few more drinks and some talking he said it would all work out. I could still feel that creeping bit of uncertainty, but it was less now. Having somebody that had the same experiences and service believe in me was more than I had for weeks.

Those few weeks before school started were tough for me. I had a hard time adjusting to civilian life quickly. I was so uncertain about my abilities to learn in a college environment where I couldn’t connect fundamentally with my classmates and professors. After meeting with the veteran coordinator on campus, I was signed up for the First Year Seminar class “Back From the Front.” Honestly, I wasn’t really excited about the class when I was first introduced to it from the coordinator. I had no real idea on what the class was going to be about. Fortunately the class was going to be all veterans, so I had to give it a shot.

The first Tuesday of classes was actually uneventful. It was just the reading of syllabi and overall class expectations. I was surrounded by mostly kids, 18-year-olds who haven’t done much of anything yet. They had the same eyes as the younger sailors I mentored. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined, because although I didn’t have the same footing in academics, I had more life experience.

When the FYS class met on Wednesday, I was excited. I wondered if I knew any of the other veterans, too. It’s eerily cool how small the service seems — I remember being stationed in Hawaii and finding out two friends from high school were also stationed there.

Unfortunately I didn’t know any of the veterans in the class. That started to change though when we were broken into groups for the first project.

Group work and team building have always been fundamental pieces in any veteran’s past. We had to work with people from all walks of life during our service, and we had to do it well. This skill was typically gained in blood, sweat, and tears. We had to work together or die together, and that universal law is how we push through to complete the mission. When we started this group work, I actually started talking with my peers. We all served in less than pleasant conditions, and that helped me solidify this bond with them. The group I was a part of had to focus on alcohol and drug abuse in the veteran community. We as service members, and now veterans, all had direct contact with this issue.

The work was straight-forward enough. We had to present information on veterans to veterans. We researched how traditions and society played into alcohol and drug abuse. Throughout the research, I felt connected with past generations of veterans. I could understand why they turned to substance abuse because honestly it’s what I would have done. For instance, the research on Vietnam veterans returning home was some of the hardest information I’ve had to read. These men and women served their country and after returning home were broadly hated by the public. Even though there was a draft, it didn’t matter to the public. These men and women were forced to live with war and being ostracized from the public. It’s hard enough dealing with one of these, but not having a solid support system led a vast majority of veterans to substance abuse.

This class has allowed me the opportunity to learn about past veterans and their struggles.

Without this project, I wouldn’t have known about the history of substance abuse in the veteran community. This group project also forced me to talk to my peers. I really don’t go out of my way to talk to people. Working with these other veterans was comfortable. We had a clear mission, and the group work was easy. In a sense, it brought me back to what my brothers are still doing in their service.

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Editor’s Note: Leon Valliere is a veteran of the United States Navy, and he is currently studying physics at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

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