Between Academia and the Armed Forces

by Allison Niebauer

Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Communication Arts & Sciences

At the height of the Iraq War, my Dad deployed to the Anbar Province. I was a high school senior and though Dad had deployed before, it was one of the first times I was confronted with a seeming tension between supporting a defining characteristic of the Second Amendment—a “well-regulated militia”—and the freedom of speech guaranteed in the First Amendment. In an environment where my friends threw red paint on the local recruiters, while the sounds of mortar fire punctuated my infrequent phone calls with my Dad, I found a polarizing disjunction that many military families feel between a responsibility to uphold our freedoms, and the privilege of exercising them. This tension only grew after I joined the Air National Guard immediately following my freshman year of college, and eventually deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Trying to adjust to college life after deployment, I found myself alternating between extreme apathy and frustrated rage. The ideas generated in the classroom either seemed so esoteric as to hardly matter compared with the sharp reality of deployment, or vapidly convenient—arguments about the war, politics, and what it meant to be a citizen—without any skin in the game.

I was lucky to be among the roughly 50% of veterans who have used their GI Bill to go back to school, and graduated. To my surprise, I’ve ended up in the academy, oftentimes leading the discussions that I fear will seem out of touch, or worse yet—cheap—to the vets in my class. While acknowledging that everyone’s experience is different, I try to make my classroom a place where twenty-one-year-old me, fresh off deployment, would have wanted to be. I focus on application, attempting imperfectly to tie theoretical concepts to the immediacies of our shared life. I try hard not to let one political culture take over in the classroom, and ask everyone to support their arguments to the best of their ability—disagreeing with the ideas, but still respecting the experiences, of their classmates. I’m cognizant of the ways being out of the classroom during deployments can make it hard to return. I try to emulate my French professor, who, recognizing the signs of reintegration from her own experience as a missionary kid, invited me to her office, served me tea, asked me about my experiences, and thanked me for being a part of her class. I’m reminded that freedom of speech is a privilege best nurtured by a deep well of respect and civility.

For more information on the resources available to veterans at Penn State, visit the Office of Veterans Affairs. More information about the national program to help veterans with reintegration can be found at the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon website.