Voices from Afar: Bethel Veterans Speak

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When this project first began to coalesce in the summer of 2014, I knew I wanted to attempt at least a modest oral history, particularly for the War on Terror. Toward that end, I drafted a survey that tried to tease out the experiences of Bethel’s veterans and publicized it using the project blog and Bethel’s Communications and Marketing Department. While the response was not overwhelming, it was enough to merit inclusion in this project. Even if the surveys are largely anecdotal, it is comforting to be able to including the experiences of some of Bethel’s veteran students, particularly in light of their near-complete absence from the Vietnam portion of this history.

While the survey covered a number of different aspects of the War on Terror (among them biographical information, September 11, experiences at Bethel, feelings about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, questions about broader themes, and a section specifically for veterans) I am particularly interested in examining how these students navigated the transition from military life to Bethel. Of course, several joined the military or saw active duty after graduating, and one never served at all — after graduation, she served in a federal agency doing health work in combat zones as a non-combatant. Because of the small sample size, the value of these survey responses is less for their ability to offer a rich and nuanced picture of Bethel’s veterans than for the snapshot they offer into the lives of four Bethel students whose lives were more intimately tied to the War on Terror than most Americans’. My goal is to let their words speak freely.

Amy Williams

Amy Williams

When Amy Williams joined the Minnesota Air National Guard in June of 2003, it wasn’t entirely out of patriotic feeling. Two years earlier, in the wake of September 11th, she had entertained the idea. But as a junior in high school at the time, it would be at least another year before joining the military was an option. In the end, the National Guard’s tuition assistance program allowed Williams to attend Bethel from 2003–2007, earning an English degree.¹ Unlike Williams, Jane (name changed for reasons of anonymity) felt no desire to join the military after the terrorist attacks: “I had a plan to graduate and go to graduate school in medicine.” Besides, Jane “felt sheltered in the Midwest, as though the events [in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania] didn’t quite reach far enough to be pervasive or actually cause me to react in an active way.” Jane would eventually go on to join a federal agency and serve medical needs extensively overseas, including combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.²

Samuel Espey’s reaction to September 11th was typical of his classmates in rural Iowa. “Immediately I wanted to join up and go fight,” Espey remembered, “however, being only fifteen at the time, I could only watch as others in the school who were eighteen joined the local National Guard.” Espey thought at the time that “we needed to go put some warheads on foreheads. We needed to be the awakened sleeping giant as we were after the attack on Pearl Harbor.” When he turned eighteen, Espey signed papers to join the Navy, becoming the latest person in his family to join the military; Espey waited a year to go to boot camp because his sister was in Iraq at the time.³ For Charlie Lochner, joining the Navy in 2007 was the result of a religious conviction: “I felt God was calling me to do so. […] Sure, I had an inkling of patriotic duty and a part of myself felt that this was a way for me to protect my family as well.”

After basic training in 2005, Espey deployed four times between 2006 and 2009, each time stationed aboard the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier where he helped launch jets on bombing missions. Espey served in the Persian, off the coast of North Korea, and twice in the Gulf of Oman. Those were the “years of disenchantment,” Espey remembered, “It hurt deeply watching news commentators discuss how we were wasting our time, as we were fighting.”⁵ Williams remembered feeling that sense of isolation as well during her freshman year at Bethel. New to the National Guard that year, Williams saw her father deployed to Iraq as she waited for basic training that summer. Around this time, Williams remembered reading “that the Marines had spray painted this quote on one of their [forward operating bases], “America is not at war. The Marines are at war. America is at the mall.”” Although not in the military, Jane reflected on similar themes:

Being on the inside of government service, I see how broken our system and society are. There are good people, hard working people, in the government and military, [but] they are constantly pulled down by the politics and media of the day. I work every day to ensure that I can be proud and motivated by my contribution, only to see how disinterested and judgmental American society is, which can be defeating.

380th AEW

380th AEW

Williams served with the 133rd Airlift Wing as a student and after graduation, deployed to Southwest Asia with the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Between 2008 and 2009, she was in a Force Support Squadron and managed the base fitness centers and programing during the overnight shift.⁷ While neither Espey or Williams saw direct combat, Lochner did. As a Navy medical corpsman, Lochner was attached to the Second Battalion Ninth Marines, Second Marine Division in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He deployed to Ramadi, Iraq in 2008–09 and to Marjah, Afghanistan in 2010–11 for seven month deployments, much like Jane, who spent nearly two and a half years “all over” Afghanistan and Iraq.⁸ Although Lochner saw combat on many occasions, he declined to provide details, saying simply that

there is nothing in the world like being in combat.

When Charlie Lochner returned from his first deployment, to Iraq, one of his cherished memories was drinking real milk for the first time again:

We stopped in Ireland and there was a place in the airport that was reserved for us gents on the way home and there was a snack shop. Most of my friends bought candy or something to help them sleep on the plane ride home to the States. I bought a real, American, bottle of Coca-Cola. I didn’t think anything would taste as good, at least until I got onto the plane and we had our meals served. This was where I had the most marvelous milk and piece of cheese I will ever eat. It was Irish milk and was therefore unpasteurized and it tasted creamy and fresh and bright like the sun on the green fields near the airstrip we had just taken off from.¹⁰

Charlie Lochner

Charlie Lochner

It is perhaps unsurprising then, that when Lochner returned to the United States for good and enrolled at Bethel in 2013, one of the biggest differences he identified between the college and military life was the food — Bethel’s won hands down. Despite its culinary advantages, Lochner found the transition difficult. “The biggest difference [between the military and Bethel,” Lochner wrote, “is that the collective priorities and perceptions of what is difficult and stressful are extremely different. School worries and combat worries are two completely different animals altogether.”¹¹

Espey reiterated Lochner’s point in his survey response. After four years of deployments, Espey found that

most of the students at Bethel were spoiled brats who had no idea what the words sacrifice and serve meant. I felt most of the faculty lived a life I never knew and really did not understand how hard it was to blend into the college world and focus on studies.¹²

Espey’s education was financed by GI benefits, without which he would not have been able to attend Bethel. That realization, and the awareness that his education was earned by four years of personal sacrifice, gave Espey the “drive to be the best student I could be and learn as much as possible.” Most students with non-military backgrounds lacked this drive.

Even as Lochner felt that most of the faculty did not understand his experiences, Amy Williams encountered one professor who did:

I came late to my first semester of my sophomore year because I was in advanced training. Dr. [Daniel] Ritchie, [an English professor,] bought the first few books we’d be reading in his course and sent them to me (I had never met him), along with a syllabus and prepared notes. In a letter, he said I could prepare the best I was able ahead of time and then he’d assist me in catching up when I returned, then thanked me for my service (only the second time I can remember someone doing that). It really impacted me – I felt so grateful.¹³

Samuel Espey also noted how taken aback he was by “how little of an impact Christ had in most of” Bethel students’ lives. The school, he wrote, was “like Chapel and Jesus were kind of an added extra.” Especy remembered

the first time I seen a fellow Iraq vet worshiping in chapel. I knew immediately he was a veteran by the way he freely and excitedly praised God. I knew it because that is the same way I did. Seeing God while on deployment changes your life… I introduced myself after chapel and called him out as a veteran and he confirmed. His name was Ryan T. and he had a great impact on helping me feeling comfortable at Bethel. Ryan and I agreed that attending Bethel as a veteran was difficult.¹⁴

USS Ronald Reagan

USS Ronald Reagan, Espey’s ship

While the causes of that difficulty were multifaceted, a significant reason was that military service itself occasionally caused tension for how veteran and non-veteran students thought about faith. Espey was dismayed to realize that many Bethel students believed that it was un-Christian to fight in a war or even support the military. That didn’t square with his experience; while Espey had been fairly non-committal in his faith before the war — “my faith didn’t have a prominent role — it was just something I did on Sundays” — on deployment he “came to know the real Jesus.” The military, Espey wrote, had “given [him] a faith for life and motivation to carry out the task at hand.” Finding Jesus in combat, Espey was perplexed by his “neighbors [in the United States] being content with having a flat screen TV and doing nothing but watch it.”¹⁵ That dismay certainly carried over into his assessment of his classmates who, from Espey’s perspective, lacked a sense of purpose.

Espey

Espey

Amy Williams ended up largely thankful for the role the military played in her life, “despite the sacrifices that I and my family have had to make.” Still, she found it occasionally difficult to reconcile her military service with her faith. “I wrestled,” she wrote, “with what it meant to be both part of a ‘kill chain’ and ‘the tip of the spear’” for the military. She never was able to reconcile that tension perfectly — “I don’t have a succinct answer to it; I remain uncomfortable with it.” — but she did conclude that “in some ways, that is what it is to be a Christian in the military.”¹⁶

Espey was able to reconcile his faith and military service more cleanly, largely because he saw the good in what the military was accomplishing in Iraq as outweighing the evil:

In Iraq and Afghanistan we were not fighting in some desolate far off battlefields. It is in the streets and backyards of people’s businesses and homes. These people are just like you and me. They have spouses, kids, and dreams. They want the same thing that you and I want, a better life for their family. […] It pains me to think that a so called Christian nation would have people preaching against the war in Afghanistan when we are being Jesus on the frontlines. The military is building schools and hospitals and providing a safe haven from the Taliban for the local people to live fear free lives.¹⁷

The predominant reason for the difficulty veteran students had in coming to Bethel was the simple fact of readjustment to civilian life. For Espey, “it was difficult getting used to the ‘slow’ lifestyle. It was even more difficult being in classes with younger students who really had no clue what the world was and what it meant to live. I had just lost four years of my life to the military that was now paying for my education so I took it very seriously.” The transition was also difficult for Lochner:

I found out perhaps too late that military experience only matters in the military and life experience really doesn’t get one a job. This has made getting a job and getting into certain schools quite impossible. I also found that certain behaviors and vocabulary patterns are unacceptable in the civilian world, especially at Bethel. Even the way a person thinks while in war is not conducive to proper function in the civilian world. The problem here is that this combat mindset gets so deeply ingrained, it really never leaves, often along with the various forms of poor mental health that often characterize combat veterans. Quite simply, the military is not designed to prepare someone to function properly in the civilian sector.¹⁸

Dissatisfaction with the ordinariness of civilian life was something Espey encountered as well, particularly, like Lochner, in his job:

There were times when I just wanted to quit and go back to Afghanistan. There was one time that I told my wife I made a better sailor than a civilian. […] In Afghanistan I was important and was recognized for how much of a bad-ass I was. At my civilian job nobody cared. I was just the new guy.¹⁹

mobile-vetsBethel’s lack of support for veterans caused Samuel Espey and his friend, Ryan, to promote the creation of a veterans office that “would be a one stop shop for veteran information.” Paul Iverson, a student in the Adult Studies program, joined the effort and the three eventually created the Bethel Veterans Resource Center (BVRC). In 2012, the BVRC invited the Minnesota Mobile Vet Unit, a thirty-nine-foot trailer that travels the state to raise awareness for veterans issues, provide support, and explain veterans benefits, to Bethel. The van parked in Kresge courtyard during the third week of September.²⁰

In addition to the BVRC, Bethel has provided Reserve Officer Training Corps service to its students. During the Vietnam era, President Lundquist had declined to begin the program, citing its controversial nature among students at the time. However, by 1981, his successor in the presidency, George Brushaber, initiated Bethel’s first participation in ROTC.²¹ That year, students were eligible to enroll in U.S. Air Force ROTC through St. Thomas University in Saint Paul. At various times over the next decades, Bethel offered Marines, Navy, and Army ROTC through partnerships with St. Thomas and the University of Minnesota. In 2015, Bethel presently has an Army partnership with the University of Minnesota and an Air Force partnership with St. Thomas.²² The school has never hosted its own program, however, although the current University Strategic Plan calls for the creation of a Junior ROTC program in the near future.²³ If that effort comes to fruition, it would be the first time Bethel had hosted its own military training program.

Clarion CoverWhile I wish I could have produced a more extensive survey of Bethel’s veteran population who fought in the War on Terror, the memories of Espey, Lochner, and Williams are nonetheless independently valuable. They do shed light on what it was like to be a Bethel student and a veteran, even if the result is only an impressionistic sketch. What is clear, however, is that Bethel consistently attracts veteran students. I’ve been unable to pin down precise numbers. College Factual, a rankings website which pulls data from the Department of Veterans Affairs (data I’ve been unable to find independently), suggests that of Bethel’s current undergraduate population, 101 students are receiving GI Bill benefits. The same website ranks Bethel as “a good choice” for veterans. In my own time as a student between 2011 and 2015, I have known at least a half-dozen of my peers to be ROTC participants. And if veteran visibility suffered in earlier years, it has perhaps improved of late. An April 2015 Clarion ran a profile of four of Bethel’s ROTC students as a cover story.

— Fletcher Warren

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Citations
¹ Amy Williams, Survey Response, Summer 2014, Author’s personal collection (hereafter WPC).
² “Jane,” Survey Response, Summer 2014, WPC.
³ Samuel Espey, Survey Response, Summer 2014, WPC.
⁴ Charlie Lochner, Survey Response, Summer 2014, WPC.
⁵ Espey, Survey.
⁶ Jane, Survey.
⁷ Williams, Survey.
⁸ Jane, Survey.
⁹ Lochner, Survey.
¹⁰ Ibid.
¹¹ Ibid.
¹² Espey, Survey.
¹³ Williams, Survey.
¹⁴ Espey, Survey.
¹⁵ Espey, Survey.
¹⁶ Williams, Survey.
¹⁷ Espey, Survey.
¹⁸ Lochner, Survey.
¹⁹ Espey, Survey.
²⁰ Suzanne McInroy, “Mobile Veterans Center Visits Bethel,” Bethel University News, September 26, 2012.
²¹ 1981-83 Academic Catalog.
²² 2015-16 Academic Catalog.
²³ Bethel University Strategic Plan

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