“A mixed bag of s–t”: For student veterans, school can be another warzone

veterans - widdoe 1 with grey
Samantha Ford/THE REVIEW

BY
Development Officer

Every time the fire alarm in Caesar Rodney Residence Hall went off, Carson Widdoes would wake up in Afghanistan.

Almost nightly, Widdoes’ freshman year would transport him into a warzone. Noises from nearby parties — screams, thumps, blasting music — were difficult, through the crusty-eyed fog of sleep and then war, to distinguish from the distant yells and live rounds that would keep him alert and anxious through his guard shifts. “We talk about ‘owning the night,’ but today it’s not too far off from World War Two,” Widdoes says. In the heat and vastness of southern Afghanistan, there wasn’t supposed to be life — animals were rare, and humans meant trouble. Getting caught sleeping while on guard meant, at best, a slit throat from the enemy. Getting caught by a fellow soldier meant worse.

When Widdoes thinks about Afghanistan, he thinks of sweat and sleeplessness. Caesar Rodney, unlike his base, at least had air conditioning. But the residence hall reminded of his time in Afghanistan in other ways. Like an Afghani looking at the foreign invader in a U.S. uniform, Widdoes’ floormates would stare at him as though he were a “zoo animal.” At 22, his arms covered in tattoos, he was hardly the average freshman. “Kids would see me and go the other direction,” Widdoes recalls. And his RA was no better, having received no training for residents who have seen combat.

Months before, Widdoes’ floormates, fresh out of high school, were making their deposits to UD. Years earlier, himself two weeks out of high school, Widdoes was off to basic training. It took one night there for him to realize he’d made a mistake, but the contract he signed meant it would be four years before he’d have his own shot at a college degree. And that was only if he himself didn’t get shot beforehand.

Every veteran on campus knows Brooks Raup, whether they want to or not. Widdoes, and hundreds of others, interact with him regularly. From the time a veteran expresses interest in attending the university until they graduate, Raup alone is responsible for advising these students and working to coordinate their benefits with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), a frequent source of anxiety for students attending the university on military money. Last year, for instance, a nationwide failure at the VA meant that student veterans didn’t have their G.I. money — used to finance basic needs, such as housing and tuition — until late October. And smaller, more individualized problems arise daily. “We’re on [the VA’s] time,” Raup says, noting that he’s on the phone with the VA nearly every day.

When he’s not on the phone, he’s working with prospective and current students who have received misinformation about their benefits, or is reaching out to students to help ensure that their university accounts don’t get frozen. Raup, the only veteran’s coordinator on campus, oversees these matters, among others, for the nearly 270 student veterans currently attending the university on benefits, a campus minority with some of the slimmest numerical representation. Despite the disproportionate coordinator-to-student ratio, Raup insists that he has adequate time and resources to do his job.

veterans - raup Samantha Ford/THE REVIEW

According to Meaghan Davidson, assistant dean of students and Raup’s new boss, however, Raup’s role is not limited to administrative work. With the veteran’s coordinator position now under the Division of Student Life, recently moving there from the Registrar’s Office, it is Davidson’s hope that the university can do more to build “a community of veterans.” The terrain is mostly uncharted. The Division of Student Life, though housing no shortage of “communities,” is more accustomed to conscripting 18-year-old freshmen from the suburbs. “[Veterans] aren’t your typical students,” Raup says. Davidson says that, while she has no past experience overseeing groups with student veterans, she has been speaking with Raup and “reading” to familiarize herself with the student veteran experience.

There is no standard student veteran experience — as Raup puts it, “I could have 10 students walk into my office with the same VA benefit and have 10 different concerns, issues, or questions.” And the benefits are earned in different ways. While some combat veterans attend the university on the G.I. Bill, many others receive similar benefits, but come from non-combat service backgrounds, or from the Reserves and National Guard. Ages and ethnicities span the entire spectrum. Understanding veterans well enough to generate policies that accommodate all veteran needs is a feat shadowed only by getting traditional students to sympathize and talk with their veteran classmates. On that topic, in principle within the Division’s purview, neither Raup nor Davidson have a complete answer: “That’s a good question,” Raup replies. The current administrative focus is on connecting veterans with each other, rather than bridging divides with traditional students.

The plans are vague, couched in the language of the Division’s other, more familiar diversity and inclusion efforts. The hope is to get student veterans “more connected,” to put them in positions to “advocate for themselves.” “We build umbrellas,” Davidson says, speaking about the Division’s “holistic” approach and the ongoing “strategic planning process.” She, along with other members of the Division of Student Life, hope to achieve a “synthesis with multiple dimensions of the student experience.”

A number of concrete changes are, however, on the horizon. After consultation with the Blue Hens Veterans (BHV) club, a frequent partner in veteran’s advocacy and the only student veterans group on campus, the department is moving forward with plans to relocate both Raup and the BHV’s offices to a centralized space, to be accompanied by a new student veterans lounge, the “biggest” need at the moment, according to Raup. Other plans, if distant and at this point only “hopeful,” involve establishing scholarships to assist veterans unable to pay for basic needs, or who get stonewalled by the VA and stuck in a mid-semester pinch. A website renovation, consolidating the pages of several current, and dated, student veterans resources pages, is in the works.

Overall, both Davidson and Raup are optimistic. They cite the university’s “veteran friendly” rankings, in publications such as U.S. News and World Report. With more “feedback and response,” Davidson says, along with acknowledging the “multiple identities” of student veterans, the university can help them “feel supported and heard.”

“I would absolutely say [that UD is a veteran friendly place],” Raup says.

Asked about student veteran retention rates, Raup says he has “no idea” how many veterans go on to graduate after enrolling, and, in turn, how many drop off.

Like most veterans of America’s 21st-century wars, Widdoes doesn’t come from money. He grew up in a military family, and recalls moving frequently, throughout the south, always the only white kid in all-black neighborhoods. But, across the moves and years growing up, the commitment to a military future persisted, even against the warnings from his father, a Vietnam veteran.

At the time, though, he couldn’t understand that they were warnings. “I grew up with GI Joe, with the 9/11 attacks,” Widdoes says, influences that gave him an idea of military life that he quickly learned was “warped.” He figured all along that he would end up in Afghanistan, but it didn’t feel real until the week before deploying. The anxiety and fear were only heightened when he arrived on the ground, for his first tour, where the lack of purpose and enthusiasm was palpable. “You see why,” Widdoes says. “You’re fighting an attritional war with the reaper hanging out with you every day.”

Widdoes says that his classmates can’t understand this. But the guys at the Elkton, Md. Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) chapter do, or at least came to. Widdoes sits across from me, swirling the ice in a glass of Fireball, purchased for several bucks at the VFW bar, “the cheapest place college kids can go to pregame,” and the VFW’s financial lifeline. A woman bartends while another plays the slots behind us. Nearby, an older guy, a Vietnam vet, fumbles around with a speaker, followed by a sudden blast of fiddling. Most of the members, Widdoes says, are Vietnam veterans, and most of them met him with a cold shoulder early on — until they saw his service record.

The parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan — decades-long conflicts, low morale, no clear purpose, disillusionment and disgrace upon return — are hard to ignore. When Widdoes arrived for his first deployment, in 2014, he was entering America’s longest war, then in its 13th year. He recalls, above all, the blistering heat, the conviction that nobody back home was thinking about him, and the perpetual fear. “[The Afghani fighters] don’t give a fuck,” Widdoes says, noting that they had nothing to lose. Today, back home, he can hardly them for fighting back and killing his friends. “But it’s a different thing when they’re trying to kill me.” From roadside bombs to spontaneous firefights, the threat of death was constant. Like many Vietnam vets, Widdoes talks about the military’s efforts to “dehumanize” him before and during deployment, an unfortunate but necessary perquisite for that kind of war, he says.

Unlike many of his friends, Widdoes escaped the reaper, but only narrowly. When he walks down The Green, he carries metal in his leg, a combat injury, and deals with hip pain, the result of a training injury and intensive surgery at age 21. (His friend, Jeremy, who sits with us, notes that the university, particularly with the current construction, is a “disabled person’s nightmare.”) If Widdoes listens to the doctors, he’ll need another surgery before he turns 30. He’s currently 25 and on disability. And the scars Widdoes brought home aren’t just physical. Like many veterans, he suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

When Widdoes returned home, he tried to forget and resume his life, spending the next six months “fucked up constantly” and “not doing anything good.” When searching for jobs, he found his veteran status to be a liability. “People are afraid of what they don’t understand, and I get that,” Widdoes says of would-be employers. And the stigma of being a veteran followed him beyond job applications. One night, out on a date in Chicago, in his uniform, Widdoes recalls getting spat on by a “nerd” outside of a bar. He didn’t spit back. “It didn’t feel good,” Widdoes says.

veterans - widdoe 2 Samantha Ford/THE REVIEW

The next summer, intent on getting his life on track, Widdoes enrolled at UD. The G.I. Bill, which funds higher education for veterans, was one of the remaining sources of opportunity. At UD, the pay was better than elsewhere, and it was close to his dad, in Elkton, who was aging and needed somebody around. (Before we met, Widdoes had just finished mowing his dad’s lawn.) Back home, without a computer, and without any advisement, Widdoes enrolled at the university from his phone, intending to study history.

Since then, his life has plummeted into misery on par with Afghanistan. Just when he thought the worst was behind him, and just as things, with a new girlfriend in his life and school as a new outlet, began looking a bit brighter, they got worse in ways he couldn’t have foreseen. His girlfriend, a former student at the university and “the most like me I’ve ever seen outside of me,” committed suicide after over a year of dating. His grades plummeted. Widdoes was dismissed from the university, on academic grounds, and he enrolled at Cecil College, in Elkton.

“I lost my fucking mind.”

When he sits, alone, in a lower level Perkins Student Center office space, Todd Glessner fears that the organization he currently leads, Blue Hen Veterans, will not outlive his time on campus.

“I don’t want to be the last person in this position,” Glessner says, noting that there are no other student veteran groups on campus. Though there are student veteran advocacy groups, such as Blue Hen Veterans and Friends (BHV&F), and the collaborative Campus Veterans Working Group, BHV is the only group specifically for student veterans. This is why, several years ago, when Glessner, an Iraq veteran, found himself alone and unable to connect with others on campus, he joined the group, if for no reason other than that it was the only place with “veterans” in the name.

Glessner, 34, says that the real purpose of BHV is to provide for others what it gave him — a group of older students with shared experiences, people who he could relax with and didn’t need to be “PC” around. But, particularly in recent years, BHV, in coordination with groups like BHV&F, has been instrumental in pushing vet-friendly campus policies. Glessner recalls his first year on campus, in 2014, when there was no on-campus administrator to oversee student veteran procedural needs, such as G.I. Bill processing, a void filled by Raup. Today, unlike when Glessner entered his first year, a separate orientation is held for veterans. Though these changes nearly exhaust the list of recent, concrete improvements, Glessner has noticed more attention coming from Hullihen, even if it occasionally misses the mark. And he credits BHV, at least in part, for these successes.

But, if the group’s membership continues its current decline, the successes could end, and student veteran needs could continue going unnoticed and unattended. When we meet, Glessner is alone in the BHV office, as he often is, preparing miniature American flags — 7,028, representing the number of post-9/11 American military deaths — to be placed across The Green on Veterans Day. Mid-conversation, he flinches, remembering that he needs to print more materials for the event. “There have been times this year where I just wanted to quit,” Glessner says. Over the past two years in particular, filling BHV’s leadership positions, not to mention seats at meetings, has proven increasingly difficult. As a result, Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) students, who haven’t seen combat or been deployed, have undertaken leadership roles in BHV, and the membership crisis has cast the organization’s long-term viability into doubt. Only four veterans, aside from Glessner, returned to the organization this fall, with previous members graduating.

To Glessner, the solutions aren’t clear. Most student veterans, he admits, are like Widdoes, often living off campus or with families, and aren’t interested in joining a Registered Student Organization (RSO). Nor are they interested in finding out about BHV at the Student Involvement Fair, usually overrun by traditional freshmen. Others, he thinks, don’t know about the group, despite increased outreach efforts. And some, he believes, are just trying to forget war, and don’t want to be around other veterans. Many veterans, for instance, would want nothing to do with the Veteran’s Day event, with the stock speeches and inevitable “thank you for your service” platitudes. Glessner gets it, and he doesn’t fault anyone. But he worries about what the BHV’s declining membership could mean for veteran representation on campus. “If we disappear, [the university] isn’t going to see people and think ‘we need to worry about veterans,’” Glessner says.

veterans - glassner Samantha Ford/THE REVIEW

Without numbers, the group can’t successfully communicate veteran needs. For one, Glessner says, these needs are hardly uniform. Though there are core, basic needs shared by all student veterans — such as ensuring that G.I. money is processed in a timely manner — particular veteran predicaments and needs span virtually every demographic. With no systematic outreach methods, BHV is generally the only source of student veteran input sought from Hullihen, and without wider representation, Glessner feels that he and the group’s ability to respond is limited.
For these reasons, Glessner struggles to generate ideas for improving the “veteran experience” on campus.

And it’s difficult to see the more general problems he does cite — experiences with identity theft and financial mismanagement during and following deployment, resulting struggles to afford books and parking, difficulty connecting with students and acclimating to campus — becoming administrative priorities. Though he is “at least being positive about things,” it’s hard to do so without caution.

But administrative apathy is only half of the battle. Recently, Glessner was invited to sit as a member on the Student Life Advisory Board (SLAB), where student leaders from campus organizations gather monthly to put forth concerns before peers and administrators. He’s found that general student worries and priorities diverge wildly from his own, as well as those of other student veterans. (He cites a recent, central discussion, about “e-sports” on campus, at the most recent meeting.) Though he appreciates and takes advantage of opportunities like this, they hardly put dents in the larger obstacle of getting traditional students to listen and try to understand. “How many of these college kids do you think saw somebody die, or get shot, or had to bury a friend?” Though Glessner “wants to share [his] stories” and help teach his classmates, he often meets flat, uninterested ears.

Sometimes, Glessner doesn’t know why he continues trying, why he continues to clock hours in the BHV office, to spend his evenings in the Perkins basement, a step away from the Henzone gaming room and Student Government Association offices, when he lives in Wilmington and is trying to graduate with a construction engineering and management degree. But then he thinks about his predecessors, and the obligations he feels toward them. And he thinks about what could happen, to present and future student veterans, if he stops.
“I know there’s still a little bit of hope to keep us going,” Glessner says.

As he exhales a cloud of cigarette smoke, on the VFW patio, Widdoes talks about his future, which is brighter today than it was when he was slaving through classes at Cecil. “I didn’t give up,” Widdoes says, for probably the fourth time in our conversation. With grades to show, he rematriculated to the university in fall 2018, and has been taking courses year-round since.

These days, he’s out of the dorms, living alone in an apartment across the state line, and taking the bus into Newark for classes, where he can live comfortably with his medical card, used to manage pain from his injuries, and doesn’t need to purchase expensive meal plans. Previously, after rematriculating, he’d been off campus but around it, and even then, he couldn’t stand his surroundings. While he’s hesitant to fault his classmates for their behavior, going to bars and skipping classes, he doesn’t feel like he can understand them, either. “There’s nothing to talk about,” Widdoes says. “People will say ‘I failed my exam,’ or ‘My car broke down.’ That’s inconsequential. I know it’s not going to kill me.” And, even with the distance from campus, the differences between he and his classmates continue to plague him. In a recent conversation with his advisor, who asked him what she could do to help, Widdoes’ response was blunt: “You can transfer me somewhere where I don’t get treated like an 18-year-old.”

Right now, finishing school is Widdoes’ priority. Upon completing his bachelor’s degree, he intends to pursue a PhD, ideally in European military history. The end-goal is to teach. “If I could be in a position to influence kids, that would wake me up every day.” He looks to campus mentors, such as history professor Guy Alchon, as examples of how to engage young people with serious topics, like war. Widdoes — having taken a military history class on campus and leaving disappointed, clear to him that the professor, though knowledgeable, didn’t understand war and couldn’t connect with the students — sees teaching as a way to bring depth to history through his own experience. “War doesn’t change, much,” Widdoes says.

Widdoes hasn’t waited for his PhD to start teaching, though. He attends Alchon’s classes as a guest speaker, where he talks candidly about his experiences in combat and upon return. He says that, when he comes to talk, the students write papers about him, and he thinks he resonates with them in a way other, older veterans can’t. “I’ve made an impact,” Widdoes says.

Alchon can confirm. According to Alchon, who has been inviting veterans into his classroom for over 35 years, veterans offer a way out of the “general American climate of carelessness, and inattentiveness to the things that matter,” offering critical lessons for younger students. “I [invite veterans] because I’m impressed by the moral seriousness of so many of them, especially the combat veterans,” Alchon says. “They have confronted not just other people’s capacity for evil, but their own capacity for wrong and evil, and they know the world is a much more complicated place than the rest of us do.” Alchon can’t know for certain how much his younger, traditional students take away from the veterans that speak in his classes, but notes that students consistently find them “impressive.” Of Widdoes in particular, Alchon says that his “relative youth” and “sobering testimony” make frequent impressions on students.

veterans - widdoe 3 Samantha Ford/THE REVIEW

But sometimes Widdoes misses the mark. Nothing infuriates him more than seeing kids on their phones, wasting an education they didn’t work for, and occasionally, students find him impressive in the worst ways. “Sometimes they’ll come up and say, ‘You seem like a special agent,” Widdoes says. “But it’s not enviable. That’s why I’m standing there.”

And his current situation, if improved, also remains far from enviable. Relying on disability checks and G.I. money for his month-to-month needs, the endless bureaucratic hurdles can be debilitating. Moving away from campus hasn’t changed what Widdoes considers “severely lacking” institutional support for veterans on campus. To Widdoes, the first steps toward helping student veterans are simple. “What if there was a dorm for only veterans?” Glessner proposes something similar — a student veterans center to centralize veteran activity, on both the social and administrative ends. He cites a center at West Chester University, which offers these services and others, such as veteran counseling. Anything that would help himself and other student veterans avoid feeling anonymous would be an improvement, Widdoes says.

Widdoes also thinks that the university needs another veteran’s coordinator. Not once has he felt that anybody on the administrative end understands student veteran needs. This failure, among others, has turned him from campus, and, he says, turned other student veterans from the university altogether, even within days of enrolling. “Once they get you on board, you’re on your own,” Widdoes says. “It’s all a mixed bag of shit.”

In the meantime, he’ll keep taking the bus to campus, and keep appearing in Alchon’s classes and attending his own. With his body wrecked, Widdoes says his mind is all he’s got left, and that, like in the military, it’s his greatest weapon. Since his girlfriend’s death, he hasn’t sought any long-term relationships, but he says he’s “content” alone, a situation where nothing can go wrong. Once a month, he goes to buffets at the VFW, and he’s been spending his free time around Elkton.

For now, he’s focused on getting his degree above all else, something that “they can’t take away from you,” even if that means he has to keep dealing with the university. Just like in Afghanistan, he says he’s making the best decisions with the options he has, which are seldom ideal.

Above all, Widdoes’ hope is that he can teach, so others don’t have to fight our wars to understand them.
“If I had known what I know now, I wouldn’t have been [in Afghanistan],” Widdoes says. “I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”

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