This is the first in a two-part feature on the rise of the U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia University. Check the paper on Nov. 29 for part II.
When John McClelland, GS ’11, arrived on Columbia’s campus four days after he was discharged from the United States Armed Forces in January 2008, he discovered a small community of veterans that was mostly mum on political issues.
“I really got there not looking to get involved” in the larger veteran community, which consisted of a small group of about 30 veterans between all the different schools, McClelland said. “Over time, I started getting more involved because of the help that I received from them, specifically regarding navigating the Columbia bureaucracy and also with lobbying with the GI Bill.”
But today, four years after McClelland’s quiet arrival on campus, the small club he found, the Columbia University Military Veterans has become a powerful lobby and social network for over 200 veterans on Columbia’s campus.
In recent years, members of the MilVets advocated to bring a Reserve Officers' Training Corps back to campus, lobbied to grandfather in their tuition benefits following revisions to the GI Bill, and become increasingly involved with philanthropy and community engagement. But McClelland and others say the activism of late is a far cry from the group’s humble beginnings.
A common understanding
Unlike most clubs on campus, MilVets members are drawn together not by a common interest, but by a shared experience. “We realized our military experience was really part of us, and that it was important to be with people who had that bond,” said Eric Chen, GS ’07, who helped found the organization and served as its vice president twice. “Just to have that camaraderie, that common understanding” was central, he said.
And the club formed during a time when this shared military bond was becoming increasingly important, just after September 11 and the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Discussions began in January 2002, when Chen began thinking that a “landing pad” was needed for a new wave of veterans who would arrive at Columbia having been engaged in active combat. “It wasn’t just for us, it was for all the vets coming to college,” Chen said.
“We weren’t looking to cause any type of disruption on campus,” Richard Space, GS ’05, who helped found MilVets and later served as vice president, said. The group of about 12 veterans on campus at the time were attempting to create “something that would just help us out with navigating the campus process, the GI Bill, and articulating who veterans were in the Columbia community,” Space said.
“They [the veterans] really did get an operation going that really was the eyes and ears, for me, for what the needs of the veterans community were and, most importantly, to help engage the University broadly,” Peter Awn, dean of the School of General Studies, said.
But while the group was slowly being established, events on campus drew veterans into the heart of campus life. At a Columbia faculty anti-war demonstration on March 26, 2003, professor Nicholas De Genova suggested that soldiers “frag” or kill their fellow soldiers while expressing disapproval of the war in Iraq.
Awaiting repercussions of such statements from the administration, MilVets responded by publishing a letter protesting the comment. According to Shane Hachey, GS ’04, who was active in the founding of the group, similar events—which pitted the veteran community against the larger, more mainstream anti-war movement on campus—occurred throughout the school year.
For the founders, these events heightened the importance of forming a veterans group.
“Several groups on campus didn’t know what to make of us,” Space said, “they thought we were all right wing, pro-military, pro-war types and that was pretty far from the truth so part of that was opening up a dialogue.” MilVets began a series of discussions, led by Justin White, GS ’05, who wrote the group’s constitution and served as president during the 2003-2004 school year, called “Through the Eyes of a Soldier,” which attempted to increase dialogue between veterans and the rest of the campus community.
This multifaceted development, a combination of the social and political motives, was exactly what Chen wanted. “I wanted the group to be everything,” he said.
But as political issues, such as ROTC and the GI Bill, arose, Milvets were split over the role the group should take.
Chen, as well as a few other founders, saw the veterans group as inevitably playing a leading role in the debate concerning politicized military affairs on campus. Space and White, though, believed the group should remain completely “apolitical in nature,” Space said. Even beyond their own time on campus, Space said that these alumni have spoken with the past and present presidents of MilVets, “reaffirming that they would lose a lot of alumni support if they took a political stance on any given issue.”
And so, under this leadership, between 2002 and 2005, the group remained largely apolitical, focusing on increasing dialogue but not engaging in political discussions on campus and on providing an internal “support network” for veterans, according to White.
Space noted that there were splinter veteran groups outside of the organization that sought to take on particular issues.
When Chen regained the reins in 2005 though, he saw it as “another start” for the group, which he sees as his “child.” Chen encouraged veterans to play an active role on campus, and he brought the ROTC debate back into the forefront of MilVets, setting the stage for the club’s later involvement in the Yellow Ribbon program and the new GI Bill. Columbia invited ROTC back to campus last semester after a 43-year absence.
Despite division within the veterans community over subsequent years, McClelland then stepped into a leadership role and credits Columbia’s endorsement of ROTC last year for creating a “synergy between activism and social aspects” of the club.
In part, this was due to McClelland’s own roles as the top ROTC cadet in New York, as well as the head of MilVets and the Hamilton Society, a veteran group on campus organized around supporting ROTC. The goal become to “frame ROTC in a way that was compatible with the University missions” which allowed MilVets to serve as a “model of a civil-military dialogue,” McClelland said.
From an administrative perspective, “My instinct is to say that it didn’t hurt that the undergraduates had gotten used to meeting veterans and perhaps seeing one in one of their classes, which instantly humanizes the military,” Awn said, referring to the eventual approval of ROTC.
Many of the founders said they also recognize the importance of the increasing veteran population at Columbia during this time because it allowed the club to expand its focus.
This unity paved the way for the more recent activities of MilVets. “I just happened to be at the right place at the right time,” McClelland said, referring to his role as a “linkage” between the many parties within the organization. But it would be the next generation of MilVets who would be able to truly unify and develop the the organization on campus.
Correction: The original version of this story overstated the MilVets' role in ROTC's return to Columbia. The MilVets did not officially take a position on whether ROTC should return. The original story also stated that Eric Chen served as vice president and then president of MilVets. Chen spent two years as vice president. Spectator regrets the errors.