As students flood the campus to begin the new school year, there is a group that offers a unique point of view and welcome to discussions on war and peace: veterans who have experienced first hand the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, seen the growing tensions in South Korea, or served on ships sent to the last hot spots in the world.
When wars are discussed in my history courses, veterans can turn a dry conference on Iraq or Afghanistan into an exciting discussion. In addition, they can offer a real world view for other students who have not had the same experiences.
When a student recently complained about finding a place to park on campus, a veteran spoke and said that only a few months earlier he was driving a tank through enemy fire in Afghanistan. He joked that driving in search of a parking spot was almost a pleasure.
He is just one of the nearly 2,000 veterans of the University of Central Florida who offer these different perspectives for students and teachers
Since he started college in 1963, UCF has been a magnet for students. veterans The school immediately attracted active duty personnel from the Orlando Naval Training Center and Patrick Air Force Base south of Cocoa Beach. During the Vietnam War, many universities showed animosity toward active duty soldiers and veterans, and some banned military recruiters from the campus.
But UCF welcomed the veterans, and their numbers here increased. For me, as a child of the 1960s, it is comforting to see the respect they have now of other students.
When I started teaching at UCF in 1987, there were still some older veterans of the Vietnam War, and a few years later they were joined by veterans of the Gulf War, they fought to claim Kuwait from the Iraqi army invaders
The population of Orlando was exploding and thousands of veterans moved to Florida in search of work or to retire. Many decided to start, or in some cases finish, their education at UCF. To accommodate the influx, the school established the Veterans Academic Resource Center to help with everything from coordinating veteran benefits to counseling.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan brought more veterans, and an interesting change for my classes.
The class discussions about the war were no longer limited to dry data on dates and political decisions. Veterans could describe the conditions that stunned other students. One student described seeing his friend killed in battle, and another veteran described being evacuated after being injured.
And if I make a wrong comment about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, I can count on a veteran who points out my mistake. There is nothing like the phrase "I was there" to silence a dispute.
The instructors are used to listening to the students' requests to reprogram the tests, and I thought I had heard all the possible reasons from weddings, vacations, to work requirements. But I was surprised when a veteran justifiably asked him to take a final exam a few days before because he was being sent to Afghanistan, or when another student said he would have to miss class because he was being rehabilitated at the hospital in Virginia because of a wound war.
Unfortunately in our society, veterans sometimes do not receive the services and respect they deserve, but UCF has encouraged and supported a wide range of projects to help veterans and maintain their live stories. The UCF History Department is undertaking two ambitious projects to recognize some of their contributions. The Community Veterans History Project has so far recorded more than 500 interviews with six-war veterans to archive their stories, and in May, the department and the National Cemetery Administration launched a project to investigate the lives of 120 Little-known veterans buried in Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. The project involves more than 200 students and faculty members.
I appreciate having veterans in my classes because they provide a large part of the real-world experience that many other students will never experience. They also tend to be older and more serious students, since they have made great sacrifices to obtain the benefits of veterans to pay for their education and are eager to finish their studies to enter the workforce.
This fall, the university will honor veterans with a series of programs ranging from the "Thank a Vet" letter campaign to participation in various programs open to the public. And hundreds of US flags will be placed on the school's extensive Memory Mall, each representing a veteran attending UCF.
Special ceremonies will be held in November, but it is appropriate to thank UCF veterans for their service throughout the year.
Jim Clark is a professor in the History Department of UCF. He can be contacted at James.Clark@ucf.edu.