Thomas Gibbons-Neff (COL ’15), a student veteran, knew transitioning to life at Georgetown wouldn’t be easy. “I was preparing for Georgetown University’s New Student Orientation, my first official re-entry into academia and a day of assemblies and awkward greetings with a bunch of kids who would have been barely teenagers when I was spending my first weeks in Afghanistan,” Gibbons-Neff wrote.
The New York Times “At-War” blog recently published a post by Gibbons-Neff, in which he recounts his experience transitioning from war to being a university student. He spent four years in the Marines, including two combat deployments to Afghanistan, after graduating high school. As a result, he began his freshman year at Georgetown as a 23 year-old with a much different set of life experiences than the average 18 year-old incoming freshman.
He describes the difficulty of discovering that one of his best friends had been killed on the first day of NSO. “A mere pane of glass separated me from those students, but yet I felt as if I wasn’t human, that I was from some bygone era, and that I had no place among them,” Gibbons-Neff wrote.
However, he did not let these feelings overwhelm him, and soon began making efforts to talk to his new peers about his experiences. Gibbons-Neff thinks that there is a distinct gap between the soldiers and civilians of this generation and those of the generation of WWII. During WWII, the whole country was united together in fighting; now there is much more of a disconnect.
“ [We've been] in sustained conflict for so long that it becomes an us-or-them mentality,” Gibbons-Neff said to Vox. ”There’s a saying in the Marines: America’s not at war, America’s at the mall, the Marines are at war.”
Gibbons-Neff wants to begin bridging this gap, and thinks that veterans, especially student veterans, should begin reaching out and sharing their experiences with their peers. This will allow our generation to better understand what the men and women in the military have experienced and begin to dissolve the “us vs. them” mentality he describes.
“[The gap will be bridged] in the back of the classroom where you’ll sit down and explain to some kid what it’s like to shoulder a ruck and what it’s like to march for miles, and you’ll tell him how it felt when you wrote home to your girlfriend every night as friendly artillery thudded through the dawn, and you’ll explain how Afghanistan looks on the other side of that television screen.” Gibbons-Neff wrote.
As president of the Georgetown University Student Veteran’s Association, Gibbons-Neff would like to make the group more of a presence on campus in order to bring awareness to students about their veteran peers. Their activities have included hosting a speaker on Healy Lawn on Veteran’s Day as well as recently hosting a 9/11 community service day.
Gibbons-Neff says that the Georgetown community has been very open and welcoming to him.
“This school and student body has been so receptive to stories in general, not just being a veteran, because there is such a diverse group of people that come here,” Gibbons-Neff said. “Most of the students want to have an open mind, they want to know what it feels like to be in those shoes. And that kind of attitude has made everything smooth.”
Photo courtesy of TM Gibbons-Neff