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The Dartmouth
April 14, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Panel discusses veterans' concerns

Alumni, family and friends crowded into Oopik Auditorium on Saturday afternoon in the Class of 1978 Life Sciences Center for a panel discussion titled "Hometown Heroes: Perspectives on the American Military Experience." The lecture included presentations by former College President James Wright and trustee Nathaniel Fick '99 and was moderated by Rockefeller Center Director Andrew Samwick.

As the scale of America's military conflicts continues to grow, it becomes increasingly important to reflect on the people who fight in these wars and their role in American society, according to Wright.

"We need to make certain that those who fight wars recognize that these are real human lives," he said. "They need to be more than names simply chiseled in stone. They need to be remembered for who they were."

War has increasingly become an abstraction as America's armed forces become less representative of the society as a whole, according to Wright. Less than 1 percent of the American population has served in the armed forces, he said.

As a member of the armed forces, Fick said he sometimes felt a sense of separation from civilian society.

Fick said that his first mission after 9/11 was a secret mission into Afghanistan, which he was unable to speak about with his friends and family. The New York Times published a front page article about the mission two days later, but the story did not disclose personal information and no one knew that he had been involved with the mission, he said.

"It just heightened, in a very visceral way, the sense that I was somehow living on a different planet," Fick said.

Because he returned from Iraq by plane, the transition period between combat and civilian life was very brief, he said. Fick noted that reintegration under such a short time frame was a difficult process.

"I felt viscerally like I'd come back to a society that just didn't understand what was going on," Fick said. "I felt that we heard from journalists, and we heard from generals and we heard from politicians, but we never heard anything from the people who actually fight the wars."

Fick said he wanted to write about combat from the perspective of someone who had firsthand experience fighting in a war. His book, "One Bullet Away," was published in 2006 and later became a New York Times best-seller. Wright, a former Marine, said he has also gained firsthand experience working with severely wounded veterans since 2005. He said that these veterans would benefit from a greater investment in helping them pursue careers and further education.

Veterans' initiatives should focus on jobs, Fick said. Aside from providing a source of income for individuals, employment also builds stronger communities, he said.

"A job is about so much more than just a paycheck and health care," Fick said. "It's a sense of worth. It's why we wake up in the morning. It's a community. It's all these other things."

Successful reintegration of veterans back into civilian life happens at the individual level, not through government agencies, according to Fick. While government programs can provide assistance, local communities are ultimately the ones that help veterans develop skills to find viable and sustainable employment, he said.

Civilian leaders should be more cautious about involving the U.S. in military conflicts, Wright said. America's pride in its military can make politicians use military force more readily, without necessarily envisioning the consequences of extended conflict, he said.

Although audience members agreed that the lecture discussed important issues, they had questions about how these ideas could translate into actions or policies. This remains unclear because veterans' reintegration has not been discussed frequently during this year's election, according to Marie Ramm, who was visiting Dartmouth with a friend this weekend.

The presentation's message resonated with John Dinan '55, who served as a Navy surgeon for 42 years in both Somalia and Kuwait. One way to bridge the gap between the military and civilians is for more young people to get involved in the armed forces, he said.

"My personal feeling is that young Americans will benefit from military training," Dinan said. "They learn about leadership, they learn about patriotism and they learn about sharing."

Director of Alumni Leadership Lynne Gaudet '81 organized the event as part of the weekend's Alumni Continuing Education program.