Letter to the Editor: I am an American Veteran, Not a Carnival Sideshow

“What’s wrong with you?” Don’t just think those words to yourself. Say them out loud. Tweet them. Share them with your friends and let the world know. Then ask each other why anybody might think it’s acceptable to ask them to a combat veteran.

Because here’s what that veteran is hearing: “we know something’s not quite right with you, that something broke you over there. Now tell us. Give us your name, let us take a picture or at least be descriptive enough that we can imagine the details.” 

I realize the writer of the six-part series on veteran students was, like many Americans, unaware that question such as “Any injuries or wounds?” can be extremely off-putting, painful even, to veterans. That’s why I sought him out to discuss his series in person, to explain that while he had noble intentions—introduce Fordham’s growing population of veterans to the rest of the student body—the question implied some newsworthy element. But as far as I can tell, there was none. What was accomplished by asking?  

I spent eight years as a Marine combat correspondent, and I can promise your readers there are countless veterans among us with interesting and inspiring stories. There’s the infantryman studying to become a journalist or the intelligence analyst who could probably be a guest lecturer in his Middle Eastern studies class. Instead, we have awkward questions about injuries— a carnival sideshow approach. 

Fordham has one of the deepest military connections of any American university. The patron saint of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius, began his meditations as a wounded soldier lying in bed after a cannonball struck his legs in the early 1500s. Fordham’s reserve officer training program has been training future military leaders since 1929. Among the distinguished alumni are three Medal of Honor recipients and more than a dozen general officers, including Marine Lt. Gen. John A. Toolan, Jr., who served as commander of all coalition forces in southwest Afghanistan in 2011. 

There are more than 150 student veterans attending class at the Lincoln Center campus. I urge everyone to reach out and begin a conversation with one of them, and maybe do some digging on your own about the military and veterans. As I write this, there are more than 68,000 troops still deployed to our 12-year-old war in Afghanistan. We don’t need to agree on the war, politics or the decision to serve, but we should agree that deeper understanding of each other doesn’t start with, “Any injuries or wounds?”

— Randy Clinton