Letter to the Editor: Advice for hard times from Oxy student veterans

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Until recently, my military experience and that of our student veterans — Tyler Melchisky (junior), Alex Borges (sophomore), Dylan Sullivan (sophomore) and Jarad Angel (sophomore) — have seemed useful but not entirely relevant. I liken it to knowing a language that no one speaks or having lived in a place no one has heard of. In the last month, however, COVID-19 has sent us unwillingly into an alternate universe, one that many veterans are very familiar with. As we’re stuck behind doors with our movement restricted, forced to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and faced with casualty counts and different rules of engagement, many of us veterans are reminded of insight and pieces of wisdom we gained facing high-intensity situations like these. It seems fitting to share some of these insights with the Oxy community we love, not as experts, but as fellow beggars sharing where we found bread. 

Veterans, no matter where they served, have trained and worked in high-stress and rapidly-changing environments. Melchisky, a former Marine, was once in the Philippines waiting indefinitely for an extraction order with supplies low. Former Navy pararescuer Angel, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, learned that with a strong community, anything was possible. After service, Angel and Melchisky joined thousands of other veterans at institutions of higher education after service. In 2019, nearly 900,000 veterans enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs using post-9/11 GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon funds. That’s 900,000 people who bring a lot of experience to campuses across the country, and these experiences are helpful in times like the COVID-19 pandemic. In Spring 2019, Oxy kicked off its own Oxy Veteran Program, welcoming four new student veterans to its recently-developed housing for student veterans and their dependents on Toland Way. 

The following are a few insights earned from years of living in the midst of sacrifice and crisis. Perhaps they will be helpful to you in the midst of COVID-19.

  1. Control what you can. The first thing that happens in any crisis is the loss of a sense of control. Humans do best when we have at least a little predictability. The best way to deal with a chaotic world is to control the things you can. Like in math or research problems, if you want to solve for X, you have to control for Y and Z. Make your bed, build a schedule, exercise and plan time for self-development, entertainment and connection. Make time for the things that prepare you to meet the challenges of the day. In times of chaos, controlling your schedule will improve your physical, mental and spiritual health. 
  2. Connect with battle buddies: Relationships are part of what holds up our world and helps us make sense of life. When the world gets crazy, having friends to share in your experience can help you process it. The closer they are to your situation, the better. “This shared experience not only grounds our anxieties, but it can also offer solutions that might have been overlooked,” Melchisky said. If one thing is true of humanity, it is that leaning on friends (read: your Oxy community) during times of chaos can help you weather even the most difficult storms. “The most important thing the military has taught me is to never underestimate the power of your immediate community. You live, breathe, eat and sleep together and this cohesive bond is stronger than anything. It can beat many battles like viruses or terrorism, but most importantly, self boredom and internal pain. The individuals you live with or have shared time with are the most important healing tools around. Reach out and stay connected,” Melchisky said.
  3. Find things that make you feel better: During stressful experiences, do not overlook little things that make life more enjoyable. “It is time to learn a new skill or read some new books,” Angel said. Entertainment can help, but finding activities that require attention seem to work better than passive actions. Find a few people or living things to take care of during your down time — that can be a plant, a cat or maybe even a neighbor. I once knew a soldier who kept a little patch of grass on a deployment. He said it kept him sane. Finding ways to express yourself through care can add some meaning when life is really hard. “If all else fails, we always joked on deployment that if you sleep 12 hours a day the deployment is cut in half,” Angel said.

Nathan Graeser is the Director of Veteran’s Programs at Occidental College. He can be reached at graeser@oxy.edu.