Teaching (about) Veterans

This semester I’m back to the classroom to teach a large, general education course, Veterans in American Society (SOCY120 here at UMD.) I spent a lot of time designing and pitching this course as one that would meet the i-Series requirements here at UMD so I could teach a class that could broadly connect undergraduate students to veterans issues. I’ve taught the course once before, and thoroughly loved the experience.

What I love most is getting to expose both civilian and military-connected students to the diversity of questions raised when we think about veterans. The course is broadly centered on answering the question: what do we owe those who serve in our armed forces? And what should we do to ensure they get what they are owed? We first have to grapple with questions of deservingness and whether and why military service might generate a debt to be paid by society. Fundamentally, to do this involves identifying whether we should have veteran policies built around a “do no harm” or “compensation for loss” perspective or a “privilege/reward” perspective. In short what outcomes do we want for veterans—on average, should veterans be no worse off because of their service, or should they be better off than those who did not serve? How to approach answering that question is what I try to help them build to through reading about the history of veterans policy, changing means of staffing the military, the demographics of who serves, an overview of the average outcomes of different kinds of veterans compared to their peers, and more.

In the second half, after students have developed their own perspective on deservingness of veterans, they work in groups to develop a policy white paper. This project demands that they identify a problem facing veterans (even if only a subset of them), identify already-tried solutions that aren’t working, and to offer a new policy or program to better address the issue. We read about past policies or programs to benefit veterans and think about how and why they were developed as they were.

This semester, the course has attracted a relatively large number of student veterans, MILSOs, ROTC cadets, and other military-connected students. I’m really looking forward to the semester, and am already encouraged about the future of veteran policy if the students in this class are any indication of the next generation who will advocate for and serve veterans and their families.

The weekly reading list are below-follow along with the course if you are interested!


Course Schedule: SOCY120 Veterans in American Society: What does America Owe Its Veterans?

What does society owe those who have fought in the nation’s wars, or who have served in the nation’s armed forces? And how should policy ensure veterans have access to the full set of resources they deserve? Students will engage these fundamental questions and those that arise in considering them through an examination of current and past policies toward military veterans, data and evidence on current and past veteran’s adjustments to life after military service, historical variations in the mechanisms for staffing the military, and trends in the contours of the lives of those who do not serve. Students will actively engage these questions through personal reflections on the meaning of military service and the diversity of those experiences, and through primary and secondary research for a project that culminates in a public presentation of findings open to the campus community, veterans’ advocates, policymakers and stakeholders, and the broader public.

A Special Note about this course: the subject can provoke deep-seated feelings, emotions, and opinions. Some in this course will have served in the military and seen combat, some may have grown up in military families, some will be strong pacifists or anti-militarists. Most of you will have little connection to or knowledge of the American military, absent your grandfather’s possible military service. All views are welcomed in the class, BUT you must treat each other with respect, civility, and an open-mind. The veterans among us will have unique insights, but so will military “brats”, anti-war activists, and regular civilians. I expect the course material to challenge your assumptions, no matter what your political views or connection to the military. This is neither an anti-war class, nor a jingoistic celebration of military superiority. We will be engaging with important ideas, not all of which you will agree with. But the class demands that you figure out what you think and especially why you think that, and can make a compelling argument for your position based on something other than emotion. You should also be able to understand how and why others think differently on the same issue. Any opinion you might hold (positive or negative) about issues in the course MUST be debated and discussed in relation to theories, concepts, and evidence from scholarly sources, rather than appeals to emotion. The overarching goal of this course is that you gain a balanced understanding of the military experience in terms of who serves and why, under what conditions, and with what consequence to themselves, their families, and society so that we as a society can best identify what to do for veterans today and tomorrow. I look forward to a lively and engaging semester talking about a subject that is incredibly timely and newsworthy!

First half of the course key concern:

What are the frameworks for understanding the experiences, concerns, and challenges facing veterans?

Main text: Wright, James E. (2012). Those who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America’s Wars and Those who Fought Them. Public Affairs. ISBN Paperback 9781610392440 [Wright]

Week 1: Introduction to the course and overview of military culture and structures

Who is a veteran?

How do various stakeholders and organizations define who is a veteran? Data/measurement concerns, Self-identification concerns, Diversity intersections


Optional: additional summary sources for information about varying definitions of veteran status and eligibility.




http://www.benefits.va.gov/WARMS/ especially the section below


Week 2: How do people become veterans, and what are the varieties in veteran types? Those who have served had to enter the military, and the path into military service has varied over time. Begin history of veterans’ benefits and VA. Who serves and under what rules/regs, Conscription vs volunteer and different implications of that selection. Who gets out of the military and when, and under what circumstances? What are the differences between “1 termers”, careerists, retirees, wounded etc… and how if at all does/should that matter for policy?

  • Wright, Ch. 2&3
  • Segal, David R., and Mady Wechsler Segal. 2004. America’s military population. Vol. 59. No. 4. Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau. http://www.prb.org/source/acf1396.pdf

Week 3: What is the long history of how the government and society have treated veterans?

The fight for rights/benefits has been ongoing from the revolutionary war to Iraq/Afghanistan wars, and will likely continue for all future veterans. This week includes background material for understanding the foundations of the current constellation of veterans’ benefits and policies. A key question to consider–Do we ever cut benefits and programs? Why?

Week 4: How does military service affect health and well-being?

Military service is often associated with health—healthy strong bodies are required to serve, but fighting often injures bodies and minds. This week we consider the physical and mental consequences of service and the distinctions between combat and non-combat service. What are the social stratifiers of harm caused by military service? How does veteran health affect policy? Should the nature of the injury or service matter, or be taken into account in devising benefits and policy? Consideration of selection bias in thinking about long-term effects: where did one begin?

  • Wright, Ch 6.
  • Alair MacLean. 2010. “The Things They Carry Combat, Disability, and Unemployment among U.S. Men.” American Sociological Review 75(4) 563–585.
  • Seal, Karen H., et al. 2007. “Bringing the war back home: Mental health disorders among 103 788 US veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan seen at Department of Veterans Affairs Facilities.” Archives of Internal Medicine 167.5 (2007): 476-482. http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=769661

Week 5: How does the experience of serving in the military change people?

What ways might that change be bad, and merit compensation, and what ways might it be good, and itself be a benefit of serving? We will look at the formal and informal means of changing those who serve: Bootcamp socialization, training, combat and its aftermath. What are the tensions between good and bad changes, post-traumatic growth, recovery?

MIDTERM: in-class shorter test to give you and us quick and early feedback about your performance in the class.

Week 6: How do we evaluate what anyone deserves, or is owed?

In preparation for finalizing your midterm reflection paper, we will discuss some basic moral philosophy to give you a broader sense of arguments about who is owed, or who deserves what and why. This isn’t a complete treatment of uch ideas, but should get you thinking more deeply about the WHY behind your arguments for your papers. How does philosophy think about deserts and entitlements, and the critiques of these ideas and other theories of justice?

Week 7: Take stock, identify and review key themes, turn in Reflection paper

This week you will submit your major paper synthesizing the material so far to answer:

What do you think we [society, government, VA, DoD, individuals] owe veterans? WHY? What is the empirical, theoretical, and moral foundation for your position?

In addition, we will have a guest speaker on Thursday, Philip Carter of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He recently published what I would consider his response to these questions. He can talk about how he came to his ideas, and how he understands and works to shape veteran policy from a think tank.


(guest speaker Thursday, Philip Carter author of this piece)

Guest speaker: Philip Carter, CNAS Senior Fellow and Director, Military, Veterans, and Society Program https://www.cnas.org/people/phillip-carter

Second half of the course key concern:

How has the United States addressed the needs and demands of veterans in the past, and with what effect?

Week 8: The VA and VSOs

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a Federal agency, and veteran-serving organizations (VSOs) are private organizations who advocate on behalf of veterans. These are the primary large-scale entities who make and steer policy and programs for veterans. How do they work? What are their missions, responsibilities, and limits? The main goal this week is to help you understand the current landscape and to gain some context when you hear about the big bad VA and VSOs. We will have a guest speaker from the VA, John Basso, to discuss the VAs mission and its challenges today.

Guest speaker: John Basso, VA, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Planning and Performance Management at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs https://www.aferm.org/speakers/john-basso/

Week 9: Policy case study: The Montgomery GI Bill

Why was education such a central part of the post WWII GI Bill? What was its impact on veterans and American society? What lessons can we take to think about the success of today’s Post-9/11 GI Bill?

Week 10: Policy case study: The medicalization and formalization of diagnosis: PTSD and Gulf War Illness

Veterans from every war seem to come home with new, contested illnesses. Shell shock, combat fatigue became the formally diagnosed PTSD after Vietnam. Agent Orange, Gulf War illness and now burn pits all seem connected to toxic exposures in war. How have veterans had to fight to have their illnesses diagnosed? How is this different or similar to other contested diseases, and how does it matter to policy?

 Week 11: Policy case study: memorials and collective memory

Virtually all societies memorialize war and their warriors. How do these memorials acknowledge their conflict and the people who served in them? What do they tell us about how we think about our veterans? What are the politics involved in veteran remembrance?

Guest speaker: Marsha Guenzler-Stevens, Vietnam Women’s Memorial

Week 12: Policy case study: Veterans hiring preferences, UCX, and retirement compensation

Reintegration has always been a struggle for veterans returning to civilian life. Getting a job after service is a primary indicator of success for veterans, because not getting a job is associated with so many other negative outcomes. What policies and program are there for veterans connected to work? Do they work as intended? Are they fair for everyone?

Week 13/14: Presentations

Your participation as an audience will be evaluated as well as your formal presentation. Plan now to attend all presentation classes



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