Each day in this election season there were articles and stories aplenty that highlighted our veterans and military. It feels like they are being used as a political football these days. It got me to thinking about the new crop of student veterans on campus this fall who are looking to navigate their way through college. But I am most reminded of a veteran who was missing, a student veteran who would have been in his senior year on the way to finishing his BA.
Let me start back at the beginning of a summer session in June. It was interesting to see just how many of our student veterans decided to take classes in summer session 1 and/or 2. After two grueling semesters, why would anyone want to take classes in NYC during our typically hot and humid summer?
The answer to that question may be purely monetary for some. As you may know, the Post 9/11 GI Bill does come with a substantial living allowance (BAH) for anyone who is enrolled in a full-time accredited academic institution. What some people don’t know is that that BAH is only paid to the student veteran for the months that they are in classes, it’s not a year-round benefit…unless you take classes year round. Many student veterans can’t afford to go without their BAH so they find themselves in summer school. And in order to receive full BAH you need to be enrolled fulltime, which means two courses in summer 1 and two courses in summer 2. That’s two courses each session, 4 days a week. That is a lot of work.
In any event, summer session(s) are intense and folks end up spending many hours at school, which I found has led to spending many hours in the Student Veteran Resource Center (SVRC). Many hours translates in to lots of time to talk, more so than during the fall and spring semesters.
So how does all this tie in to new student veterans on campus, elections, controversy around the military, and my thoughts about someone who is missing? Well, one of the student veterans who was taking summer session (intensive Arabic) was D.V., a disabled, OIF/OEF veteran and former Army Scout. I did not have much contact with D.V. during the spring. He was new to campus after moving to NYC from Florida but for all his “newness” D.V. made an impression. The first week of the Spring Semester found him a key player in the intra-CUNY game of Family Feud during our Annual Welcome/Welcome Back event and a “frequent flier” as I like to call the regulars in the SVRC. I knew what he looked like but I didn’t have much interaction with him. I just kept hearing about him from the other student veterans, our student veteran mentors, and our graduate student interns. And what I was hearing were strong feelings about him. He was outspoken, controversial in his stance about systemic racism, colonialism, and imperialism, that he was provocative, passionate, articulate, and polarizing but most of all, he was present. I heard from my interns that he was generally mistrustful of social workers and other mental health professionals but he tolerated them because they helped him out with some concrete needs. So when summer session rolled around I found myself in a room with D.V., listening to him and interacting with him for hours at a time for 6 – 7 weeks. Slowly as I got to know him, and he got to know me, I was able to help him out with some stuff that was really standing in the way of him having a smooth and successful academic journey, most significantly with his housing situation for the fall. Trust was developed and I grew to appreciate his presence more than I ever imagined.
At the end of his intensive Arabic course, D.V. was heading home to Florida to regroup/rejuvenate before moving into the dorms at school and beginning his second full semester on our campus. Before he left, I told him that he better stay in touch while he was away and he said of course he would. He would write and ask me to look in to some things at school for him, deadlines and such, and I would get back to him.
Then, two weeks ago I got the most surreal phone call from our campus certifying official. “Did you get the email about D.V.” he said. “What email?” He told me to check and call him back. And there it was, on my IPhone…D.V. was killed in a car accident. Disbelief, shock, horror, sadness, disbelief again. Disbelief still.
D.V. was involved in a car accident in Florida. It happened at 2 am. No drug or alcohol involvement was suspected. Excessive speed was involved. He died instantly at the scene. And just like that, this huge presence was erased from our campus fabric. The next few days involved lots of phone calls and emails to his fellow student veterans to alert them to what happened before they got the official email that the school sent out. I heard anger, sadness and matter-of-factness from the varying veterans I spoke to. Veterans are uniquely qualified to respond to loss as most of them have experienced comrades dying in horrifying ways, so I know that while they will miss him, and they will notice his being gone, many of them have already moved on and are not talking about him anymore. I find myself, at times, not talking about him too. But then I think about that first student veteran that came in to the SVRC and said “hey, where the &(*&$@ is D.V.?” and how I responded (…”I’ve been dreading having to tell you this but I’m so glad I can do it face to face…come, sit down…). And how the other student veterans responded (stunned, angry, questioning and then asking “what can we do for his family?) We lost DV’s voice. I lost DV’s voice. His loud, angry, righteous, infuriating, inspiring, invigorated, exhilarating, smart, pained, sad, helpful, strong voice. So as Veterans Day and this election cycle fade in to the background, I still feel the lack of D.V.’s presence. And I wanted to honor his memory by writing about him this November as we honor all our veterans.