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Veterans and College Students: A Month of Extremes


I recently heard there are only a few million people in the United States who understand what the military life is like. Most Americans either don’t know, or they might hear a thing or two from a neighbor or a cousin or even a grandfather. Or worse, they create assumptions based on military movies ranging from Rambo to American Sniper.

Despite whatever realism might lurk in those films, they are movies. And one should not try to understand a culture from a movie. Ever.

According to PBS, 40% of Americans now hold college degrees. If we add in those who don’t yet or did not finish their degrees, the amount of Americans who have at some point attended an institute of higher learning is probably nearing a majority.

This month, we have seen two interesting situations when these two subsets of Americans interact.

In mid-April, a veteran interrupted a civil protest at Valdosta State University and ended up being arrested. A few weeks later, a group of fraternity members insulted and assaulted a group of rehabilitating war veterans. While 99.999% of interactions between college students and veterans are without incident, these two situations show we still have miles to go in mutual understanding.

In both of these incidents, it’s easy to side with the veteran. However, in only one situation is that support truly warranted.

Thoughts on Michelle Manhunt and Valdosta State:

I have conflicting thoughts about the actions of Michelle Manhart, the flag-defending veteran at Valdosta State. As the Washington Post eloquently put the situation, it is a debate over everything. The whole situation is very 1960s.

1) I understand Manhart’s intent. She didn’t want to see the US flag trampled on by people she thinks are not worthy. As an adult in her mid-30s, she felt disrespected by the actions of young college students. She didn’t mind the protest, but did not like the means in which the protest was executed.

However, here is what I can deduce. According to news reports, the protest had gone on for several days and a student told Manhart what was happening. Being a celebrity veteran (more on that in a moment), Manhart took it upon herself to “save the flag”. Being on campus without having business on campus can be construed as trespassing. Manhart did not have official business on campus. When the university was not willing to stop the protest, despite her insistence that they stop the protest, Manhart could have protested the university’s actions. She had no right to interact with the students.

2) Seeing Manhart’s point, I support the university’s decision to let the protest continue. Universities are academic laboratories. They should be where people feel safe to push boundaries of ideas, thoughts, and expressions. They are Kent State, Berkeley, and Florida State. They are where young people come into their own and create the voices that lead or struggle against the next generation. That ideal of freedom needs to be protected. Universities should never kowtow to public consensus. Nor should they force their students to.

Universities are not the military. Military units do best when they are isolated from the populace. As Samuel Huntington described in The Soldier and the State, this isolation,  together with discipline and esprit de corps, helps create unity and camaraderie. It is this camaraderie that Manhart was acting upon. She was acting on her own perspective of what the symbol of the flag meant and not the viewpoint of what the flag meant to the protesting students. The cultural isolation of the military is completely opposite, however, to the open liberalness of the university system since the days of Plato. Universities are places where different perspectives should be nurtured, even if those perspectives are counter-culture.

Hell, Timothy Leary experimented with LSD at Harvard. That’s about as counter-culture as it gets.

3) Once her background was revealed, Manhart’s credibility was shot. Although she was once an active duty military member, Manhart was excused from active duty after she posed in Playboy. And while there is nothing wrong with posing for Playboy, her pictorial shows her posing with the American flag on the ground. She also did nude modeling for PETA with a flag touching the ground. So as many other outlets have asked, it is ok for her to drape the flag on the ground for the picture, but not acceptable for the students to put the flag on the ground in protest?

After she introduced ambiguousness to her argument, she should no longer be the one making the argument. She should have gotten a friend who did not have such a controversial background to be the face of her counter-protest.

Unfortunately, her actions have set off a firestorm of people who believe one certain way and are protesting her counter-protest arrest. Their counter-protest forced Valdosta State to cancel classes on Friday, April 25th over concerns of student safety.

When you have to modify your behavior to feel safer, that’s how you know the terrorists have won. When you no longer feel safe enough to engage in controversial speech, that’s how you know the terrorists have won.

Thoughts on Zeta Beta Tau:

According to many news reports, a group of fraternity members from the University of Florida’s chapter of Zeta Beta Tau spit on and insulted wounded veterans on a retreat in Panama City Beach.

This case is much clearer than the Michelle Manhunt flag situation. Here we have a clear case of law violation, no matter if the person spit on was a veteran or not. Already the University of Florida has issued apologies to the veterans’ organization and the fraternity has expelled the members.

Since the actions were taken when the members were representing the organization, they absolutely should be expelled. When even pro-“college life” websites think the former fraternity members went too far, then they definitely went too far.

I would be curious to know what started the incident. Why was the first insult made? It is very possible alcohol was involved, but why did those feelings emerge? College fraternities are not typically hotbeds of anti-American thought.

The situation lacks the underlying motive that the Michelle Manhunt situation has.

Unfortunately, the expelled students have yet to be identified. I believe they should be. I believe they should be shamed and bullied and their names linked to this episode every time someone Googles them. There should be no legacy or family privilege for them. They should be forced to work at Walter Reed Medical Facility or their local VA hospital. They should also help veterans find jobs.

It would be sad if these college students were overly protected by mommy, daddy, or their network and received better care and career guidance than the returning military veterans they disrespected.

These two cases show two extremes. In one case, a veteran disrespected the free speech of college students. In the other, college students disrespected the right to assemble of veterans. Both cases could have been avoided if one side left the other alone. Live and let live.

Hopefully, different elements of society have learned something from the incidences of the last month.

But I doubt it.