War and after

Veterans of recent conflicts talk about their lives before and after deployment.

Cathy Shufro is a writing teacher and tutor at Yale.

To begin to understand the experiences of US veterans during and after the most recent wars, says Thomas Opladen ’66, it helps to recognize how “extremely different” those wars have been from earlier conflicts.

The technological transformation has been enormous. The technical complexity of combat increased for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan due to GPS, accurate fire control, smart bombs, and a host of other changes (including improved battlefield medicine, which saved untold numbers of lives). A high-tech war requires a more highly trained military, says Opladen, who served as a Navy lieutenant after graduating and is cofounder and president of the Yale Veterans Association. He believes this shift makes it all the more important for highly educated men and women, such as Yale alumni, to serve.

But perhaps more significantly for the returning vets, these wars did not involve a draft. The US combatants were all volunteers. The efforts and risks of war have been borne by these volunteers and their families—a limited segment of the country that, demographically, does not reflect the populace as a whole. “We’ve contracted out our defense to a relatively small number of people,” says Opladen. He believes this is the reason behind the much-discussed civilian-military divide: the vast majority of Americans simply have no link to the armed forces.

Yale’s own history with war has been mixed. During the two world wars, the university turned over its campus to officer training centers. The student and alumni body today probably includes some 10,000 veterans, according to the Association of Yale Alumni (AYA); that’s a small but solid percentage of the alumni total of some 145,000. But during the anti-military protests of the Vietnam War, ROTC was effectively closed down at Yale by a vote of the faculty—and that particular civilian-military divide remained painful for Yale veterans for four decades.

Yale has done much recently to bridge the schism. ROTC is back on campus, with the first class graduating this year. In 2010, the AYA helped found, and continues to support, the Yale Veterans Association (yaleveterans.org), which serves veteran alumni and students and whose mission is to emphasize “the importance and value of military service.”

In the next few pages and on our website, the Yale Alumni Magazine offers short introductions to nine veterans of the recent wars who generously agreed to talk about their lives during and after war. (While many Yale alumni have gone on to serve in these wars, all the people profiled here went to war first, then to Yale.) They’re a very small sample of the Yale veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. But their stories provide a glimpse of the variety of experiences in the modern US volunteer military, both during deployment and after returning home.—Kathrin Day Lassila ’81