News | Student Life

For MilVets, a long journey to campus prominence

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.

Growing pains
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.

news@columbiaspectator.com

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.

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Anonymous posted on

Clarification: I was never president of MilVets. For the 2005-06 academic, I returned as vice-president of MilVets. The 2005-06 president of MilVets was Oscar Escano GS07.

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Anonymous posted on

academic *year*

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jaylemeux posted on

Haha, "the rise."

I believe there are over 300 vets at CU with 200 in GS alone.  I see that number get mixed up a lot.  I'm pretty sure someone in the administration has something like an exact figure.  

It is somewhat bothersome to hear MilVets described as an "apolitical" organization whilst they engage in lobbying the Congress on their political position that millions and millions of dollars of GI Bill benefits should be passed into law.  What is usually meant by "apolitical" is "acontroversial" or "a-risk taking."  

It hasn't really happened with MilVets but this conflation can easily be used to suppress very well-grounded but unpopular opinions on oh, say, wars.  As an example, participants in NYC's Veterans Day parade must sign an "apolitical" waiver but are not prevented from, say, entering a bus with decals saying "invasion of Iraq" and "invasion of Afghanistan" on the side which one assumes they would not have pasted if they were not in support of said invasions.  And there are some intraColumbia issues in which it only makes sense for MilVets as a student organization to get involved.  

That said, it's probably time now for the creation of offshoot organizations to engage issues on which not all vets agree.

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Anonymous posted on

Agreed. Like much else relating to veterans and the military, there is a general trend in society of viewing vets as one homogeneous group. A little more info on the divisions and debates within the group would have been appreciated.

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Anonymous posted on

Milvets is more of a synechdoche now than official membership.  You're labelled a 'Milvet' if you are a veteran at Columbia regardless of any formal declaration, etc.  Veterans participate in number of outside organizations on-campus and off, even anti-war/anti-jingoism organizations clubs as well.  However, the Milvets organization is mandated to look out for Columbia veterans whether or not they choose to participate in a similar political vein as IAVA or SVA (Student Veterans of America, of which Milvets is an official, though wayward subsidiary).  In the end, Milvets as an organization is an interest group that is good at what it does.

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Anonymous posted on

I am a military veteran and I do not identify as a MilVet, which I see as a specific term for members of that group. If the group were more social and less political, like that of the Hunter military veterans group, I might be more involved. As it stands, the group tends to have a Sartresque view of the role military veterans "should" take by virtue of their experiences.

I personally think the group is led by several aspiring politicians who see it as a stepping stone into that arena—and my opinion of their motives is either cynical or optimistic, depending on whether or not I've had my coffee yet. That being said, their work in getting the GI Bill grandfather clause through was a defining moment in my time here at Columbia.

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Anonymous posted on

Me:  If the group were more social and less political, like that of the Hunter military veterans group, I might be more involved.

Political is a catch-all term that includes basically anything that builds up the group's voice, brand, presence, and influence, such as outreach, advocacy, education, and philanthropic activity. As the founders learned through hard experience, both the social/networking and the public/political components are necessary to strengthen the group entity and grow the community.

It doesn't have to be, and shouldn't be, an either/or choice. The group can be everything. While MilVets is defined by its track record, it's not restricted to its track record. Members over the years have used the group to realize a variety of goals and defined the group's by so doing in a variety of ways. Me, if you want MilVets to do a particular thing that it's not now doing, not doing enough, or not doing well enough, eg, more social activities, I recommend you pitch in and make it happen. Only way anything happens is when a member makes it happen. MilVets is *potential* and a customized2you facilitator; like others have, you can use MilVets to realize your goals.

jaylemeux: What is usually meant by "apolitical" is "acontroversial" or "a-risk taking."  

Unfortunately true. Any difference-making action risks criticism, possibly even internal dissent, and of course failure. The alternative is to avoid risks but then making no difference. Members have earned an impressive record of making a difference, however, so I hope present and future members will take confidence that they have the right stuff to make their risks work out, too.
For all current milvets, I suggest taking a step back and appreciating your position as a Columbia student-veteran. You now are a student in one of our country's, indeed the world's, main cognitive centers and memory banks. Your status as a Columbia student gives you a special power to make a difference not only within the University but also in the greater social-political-cultural fabric of America. But know that special power is taken from you the moment you graduate - Columbia alumni are a lot more common than Columbia students. You are also (likely) a veteran who had the most intimate relationship with an epochal episode of American history. Your two statuses combined are powerful - but only potentially so.

It's your choice what to do with that power. You can use your power as a Columbia milvet to define to the world what you are as an individual and a group, and write your history. Or you can do nothing with it, make no difference, leave no impression of your passing through Columbia, and allow others to define you, your group, and your history.

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Anonymous posted on

Eric, this is exactly what I mean by taking a Sartresque either/or stance to being a military veteran at Columbia. I am more than a military veteran, and I have other things to offer this University than my student-veteran status. It was an experience, and one that was crucial to my development, but I'm more than a veteran. Hell, I'm more than a student, too. You do what feels right for you, but don't presume that anybody who doesn't do the same is somehow not living up to their potential.

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Anonymous posted on

I have no problem with that. It's about choice and the power to make a difference: the opportunity is yours for the taking or leaving.

What I don't understand is this. There's always been a pick-and-choose aspect to membership participation. Ovbviously, the leaders are locked into the spectrum of group activities, but the members haven't been. If you only wish to participate in the social functions of the group and avoid the high-visibility stuff, is that not allowed anymore?

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Anonymous posted on

I suppose I could try that, I just fear the social functions are a veneer for political recruitment.

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Anonymous posted on

@Me:  I'm sure you could destroy anybody's political career by bringing a camera to one of those social functions!  Who wants a functional alcoholic for a political leader? 

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Anonymous posted on

Have you seen the current political climate?

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Anonymous posted on

@eb28491e6c9ad0751ac026241a10c1ae:disqus  Er, everyone...? 

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Anonymous posted on

@b76ab0578f04d63eca04eaa43a03448c:disqus I don't know the current leadership, but I can tell you that there was absolutely zero use or thought of MilVets as a launching pad for a political career at the onset. It was pure principle, zero politics. I don't think there was ever a "should" mentality about anything, but certainly a "can" and a "it would be good if" mentality for many of us. But I don't know if anyone's ever had the idea that you're betraying some/our cause or something if you believe differently about x, or want to focus on this thing rather than that thing. "Political recruitment" has never been a motive, not even when we're in the back room of the West End twirling our mustaches and smoking our cigars. 

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Anonymous posted on

For Me, an excerpt from my summer 2002 vision statement for the group: http://milvets.blogspot.com/20...

"My experience tells me that veterans come to Columbia seeking a new challenge after years of honorable service, to remake themselves as Ivy League students. While some veterans return to military service by their own choice, by and large, they are not at Columbia to relive their military days. They find a home at Columbia that fulfills their intellectual expectations, but they also find – often to their surprise – that their military service has imprinted itself upon them. By inclination, especially after years in uniform, many veterans are protective of their own individuality, but at the same time, they discover that military experience gives them a shared bond."

Me, does my characterization resonate with you? Speaking for myself, I didn't leave the Army and come to Columbia in order to reenlist in the Army - been there, done that. MilVets, from day one, has been a balancing act between our individual transformative progressions away from the military and the hard-earned part of us we have in common, our military rites of passage. To believe in the group, you need to believe that those two aspects need not clash, but can be balanced in a healthy - even beneficial - way.      

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Anonymous posted on

I am a Navy veteran, and I am interested in the Business Certificate program.  Am I eligible to be come a MilVet member?

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Anonymous posted on

Absolutely.

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