"Salute," by artist Kay Kirkpatrick, was erected outside the Boise State University Student Union Building and dedicated on Veterans Day 2008.
War was hell. For Ken Rodgers, coming home was something worse.
"I joined the Marines when I was a freshman in college. When I came home..." Rodgers said, pausing to think about his next words. "I remember flying home. My parents, my best friend and his girlfriend... they were all there to meet me, and I remember going to a Mexican restaurant and I was pretty animated. I started talking about my experience in Vietnam, but all I saw was the top of everyone's head. They were all looking down. I felt as if I had done something wrong. I went back to college and held a number of jobs over the years. And I promise you, no one ever knew that I was in Vietnam, let alone the Marine Corps."
That was then. Today, Rodgers and his wife, Betty, are accomplished filmmakers. Their film, Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor—chronicling the siege of Khe Sanh, one of the toughest engagements of the Vietnam conflict—has taken them to film festivals and veteran symposiums across the nation.
"The biggest difference is that there are so many healthy discussions about being a veteran today," said Rodgers. "I don't care if you were fighting for the Romans or fighting in Afghanistan, it's especially hard on your soul if you're young."
Mark Heilman was 19 years old when he left his family of Russian immigrant farmers in North Dakota to join the U.S. Army, taking him to the demilitarized zone on the border of North and South Korea. It was 1976 when he first set foot on the campus of Boise State University, which he attended on the GI Bill. Forty years later, he walks across the same campus to the offices of Veterans Upward Bound, where he serves as project director.
"I think the whole campus community of support for vets is so exponentially different, and that's what drew me to this project," Heilman said, pointing to his offices, where he and his team prepare veterans for post-secondary education.
"This is a moment in time to look at things a little differently for vets. The administration and faculty tell me, especially lately, 'We want to do what's right for the vet,'" he said. "Look at the organizations in the Boise State community now. Half of them didn't exist even 10 years ago."
Heilman and Lori Sprague, interim director of Veterans Services, hope to grow that support even more by expanding Boise State's celebration of Veterans Day in a big way—they want to make Monday, Nov. 9 through Friday, Nov. 13 "Veterans Week."
"To begin with, we're going to give each branch of the service a day of commemoration," said Sprague. "Monday, Nov. 9 will be for the Army; Tuesday for the Marines; Thursday for the Navy; and Friday for the Air Force. In the middle of all of that is Wednesday, Nov. 11, the national holiday to celebrate all veterans."
Sprague said active military, veterans, family members, friends and anybody with a connection to a particular branch of service will be invited to plant a flag in the ground at the Boise State quad or tie a ribbon to a memory tree.
"It should really be something to see," she said. "It will be a bit like a field of honor."
Travis Hayes will be placing a flag on Monday, Nov. 9 to represent his own service in the U.S. Army. It has been a long time since he returned with a shattered back to his hometown of McMinnville, Ore., in 2001.
"I didn't have a whole lot of support at the time. I didn't have anyone, and I went down a pretty dark path," Hayes said. "But long story short, a few years ago, I decided I needed to go back to school. My daughter was born, and I wanted to give her stuff that I didn't have. I started school at Boise State, and I haven't looked back since. Since the day I set foot at Boise State, I've had mentors tell me that it was a good idea to try to leave a legacy for others. That's some of what I've learned in Corinna's class."
Corinna is Boise State professor Corinna Provant-Robishaw, who teaches a class called Transitional Foundations, a graduation requirement for all upperclass transfer students, with an emphasis on globalization, diversity and ethics.
"One of our major components is civic engagement, and that can be a bit of a hard-sell for some students when we ask them to engage with their community," said Provant-Robishaw. "But it's all about ethical and critical decision making."
Provant-Robishaw and a planning community put together a full slate of events for Boise State's Veterans Week. Provant-Robishaw said she was particularly interested in a first-of-its-kind training opportunity, open to all Boise State educators and administrators, on how to engage more fully with Boise State's veteran population, which is estimated to be about 1,000-2,000 students and staff. The one-hour education opportunity will be offered in separate sessions on Monday, Nov. 9 and again on Tuesday, Nov. 10.
"Yes, we'll be talking about traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder—but it's important to erase the stigma. Not every vet has those issues," said Sprague. "It's really about the truths versus the myths about the vet."
Heilman hopes there is greater understanding by Boise State educators about PTSD and TBI. "But in their proper context," he said, "and to understand that most vets manage those very well."