I. The Readying

The formidable Joshua Buck, an ex-Army sniper and drill sergeant who served three tours in Iraq, is debriefing a bunch of veterans on what’s called the “de-greening” process. That’s when you take off your Army greens, take up your GI benefits and take on the huge transition from the corps to the campus. Fifteen vets lean on his every word. They’re sitting in Fayerweather Hall, a warm Monday in August. It’s the first day of class for the Warrior-Scholar Project, an immersive, week-long “academic boot camp”  for veterans going back to school, featuring rigorous support (gratis) from Amherst faculty and staff. I’m embedded with these veterans all week—a week that crushes my previous record of being called “ma’am.”

Buck is a psych major at Worcester State University. He’s also a Warrior-Scholar alumnus and the veterans’ guide to making it in an academic setting. “I was an authority figure for 10 years,” booms Buck. No kidding. He’s 31, a big, bearded guy whose arm is tattooed with the names of eight fellow vets who’ve died during or after their service. “I had to learn to be wrong in the classroom—and be wrong in front of people in the age bracket whose asses I used to kick.” That gets a good snort-laugh. “But I made an effort to get to know those students, work in study groups with them and break down that weird wall between us.”

Weird walls. It’s true that many loom between veterans and traditional students at small liberal arts schools like Amherst. There are several fear factors, I think: a) the age difference; b) the gulf in life experience; c) the military-civilian disconnect, even distrust. This week’s warrior-scholars range in age from 22 to 32, for example, and they carry a certain ineffable maturity. All week, I’ll flinch at their casually devastating comments during classes: In a discussion on the Gettysburg Address, an Army sergeant quietly mentions he knows what it’s like to see friends die. In a class on ancient Roman warfare, one vet speaks their shared perspective: “When we read history, we think about some poor soldier who caught a bullet or bomb there.”

The admission office is steadily increasing its troop strength.

Several of these warrior-scholars hope to go pre-med. Others want to study philosophy or marketing or international relations. This week, though, they’ll dive into the Warrior-Scholar Project’s own curriculum on democracy and liberty, tackling readings from Thucydides to Sojourner Truth to Walt Whitman to Are We Rome?, by Amherst board of trustees chair Cullen Murphy ’74.

They will also get a crash course on how college isn’t the military. Asking questions is imperative, for instance, not insubordinate. You order your own time, rather than follow orders. A distinct fighting tone invades the advice, with “battle plans” for writing well, or ways to master “ninja reading,” which is warrior-speak for close reading. And the buck stops with Buck: He hectors these vets never to cut class (“I don’t care if you’re tired, sick or hungover”), because it takes twice as long to make up the learning lost. Use office hours, he says: “Professors are usually overjoyed to talk to someone who’s an adult.” And thoroughly research those faculty members so you don’t get one who “makes you fall asleep in class.”

No chance of napping as Austin Sarat bounds into the room that Monday. The William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science is here to teach a seminar on the U.S. Constitution. He scans the veterans’ name plates: “Cameron! What’s a good thing about democracy?” he fires off. Cameron Wilson, a nuclear electrician’s mate who served on a submarine and was stationed in Guam, seems a bit taken aback. But he gives it a shot: “The people are free to do and think what’s best for them.”

Sarat pounces: “The people can do what’s best for them. OK, I want to go to Smith College. It’s a women’s college and I’m a man, but I think it’s best for me.” But Smith won’t let him in. “Is that democratic?” Marshall Roe, who worked on the Navy’s anti-ballistic defense in the Persian Gulf, cites Federalist No. 10, in which James Madison writes of protecting “different and unequal faculties.”

Sarat nods vigorously: “Now we’re cooking with gas! Smith is a private institution and so can decide not to admit men. In democracy, you treat like things alike—unless there’s a good reason not to.” The energy in the room is all but giddy—many gut laughs, and applause at the end—but also sometimes tense, since Sarat relentlessly calls on each warrior-scholar. When some can’t fetch up a quick answer, the professor never scolds. Instead, he exclaims, “Fabulous, fabulous—I see you’re thinking!” 

The Warrior-Scholar Project was launched in 2011 by two Yale grads, and has subsequently been hosted by some 15 colleges and universities. In addition to lessons by Sarat and Murphy, the Amherst stint featured classes with Geoffrey Sanborn from the English department and Rick Griffiths from Classics. This summer was the WSP’s first at Amherst, though the mutual ties go back longer, thanks to Mark London ’74, who has sat on the WSP board from its early days.  

The WSP is not a direct recruiting tool, but it is splendid for alerting veterans to opportunities at Amherst—which are steadily expanding. President Biddy  Martin has said she is “eager to bring more veterans into the Amherst student body.” It can only help that a CBS This Morning segment on the WSP was filmed at Amherst on Day 5 of the program.  

“The Warrior-Scholars Project is very personal to me,” London told the veterans that vivid August week. “When I was at Amherst, we were an outpost of dissent against the Vietnam War. We were right to protest, but we were wrong to leave behind the people who fought that war, to make them feel like pariahs. We did a disservice to an entire generation, and failed to take advantage of their unlimited potential to do good things in civil society. It’s a goal of mine to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”  

II. The History

Marshall Roe couldn’t sleep. This Californian Navy vet was so adrenalized by his week at Amherst—“one of the best experiences of my life,” he’d told me emphatically—that he had to walk it off. For days, I’d heard him speak up in class, citing the Magna Carta, Napoleon, the Spartans. As Thursday waned into Friday, there he was, pacing the campus under a big oblong moon, poring over various scenarios for his future.  

I like to think he had ghostly company. For Roe strode the same ground where generations of Amherst men once geared for battle. 

To begin with the Civil War: After Fort Sumter was fired upon in April 1861, the College’s few Southern students left as fast as hell can scorch a feather, as the saying goes, and a clutch of Union-loving students lobbied to form an all-Amherst Army company. John Albion Andrew, governor of Massachusetts, essentially told them to cool their jets: “College men like you will be needed by your country as officers in new regiments … where you can be much more useful than herded together in one company.” 

Rebecca Segal
Rebecca Segal ’18: A neuroscience major, she is Amherst’s first Army ROTC student in 20 years. She trains at UMass.

Somewhat reined in, the students nonetheless took it upon themselves to train before they could even enlist, goading the Springfield Armory to supply them with muskets. (Condemned muskets: the College administration, wisely, would only allow guns that couldn’t actually shoot.) A third of the student body ended up joining the Union forces, which was less than most colleges, many of which emptied out clean.  

Though Amherst men did indeed get parceled off to separate companies, a number wound up together in the 21st Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, including Frazar Stearns, class of 1863, son of College president William Augustus Stearns. Frazar’s commanding officer was Col. William S. Clark, class of 1848, who had taught chemistry at Amherst. In March 1862, in New Bern, N.C., some 300 Confederate soldiers rose up and fired at the 21st. Classmates to the left of him, classmates to the right, Lt. Stearns was killed in the first fusillade.  

Emily Dickinson poured out her sorrow in a letter to her young cousins: “Tis the least that I can do, to tell you of brave Frazar—‘killed at Newbern,’ darlings. His big heart shot away by a ‘Minie ball.’ I had read of those—I didn’t think Frazar would carry one to Eden with him.” She added: “They tell that Colonel Clark cried like a little child.”

The College felt the tragedy keenly. A cannon captured at New Bern sat in Morgan Hall until 2015 (it’s now on loan to a North Carolina museum). Of 344 Amherst men to serve in the Union forces, 38 died. Seven others served in the Confederate army, with two casualties. Nonetheless, to be candid, Amherst lay far from the battlefields and thus “continued serenely on its way,” in the Civil War years. Or so wrote Donald N. Bigelow in a trenchant article in 1945 for the Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly titled “Amherst in Wartime: A Contrast: 1865–1945.”  

There was nothing serene about the World War II years here, Bigelow reports. Amherst men left in droves to enlist but were replaced by other servicemen brought to campus for training. They packed dorms and fraternity houses at three times the usual capacity. Amherst was part of a consortium of schools retrofitted to train different forms of service. This included housing a Navy pre-flight school, prepping elite candidates for West Point and overseeing certain AST units, as in Army Specialized Training, though the grunts joked that AST stood for “A Steady Torture.”  

Indeed, all servicemen trained arduously. Between classes, they plunged into Amherst’s 500-yard outdoor obstacle course (21 obstacles, including the deliciously named Thief Vault), said to be the country's most difficult campus training obstacle course, the devilish brainchild of physical education professor Albert Ernest Lumley. Meanwhile, professors worked overtime to teach subjects in and out of their wheelhouse. The Army’s Unique Area and Language Program, with instruction in the languages and cultures of France, Italy and Germany, was a good fit. Cryptography courses were a stretch, as was the “pre-meteorology” curriculum for the Army Air Corps.

These “pre-mets,” as they charmingly called themselves, held raucous reunions at Amherst well into the 1990s. It was great fun reading up on them in the archives at Frost Library. They had to suffer through an intense, accelerated course load of physics and math, and “each quarterly exam was like walking on a slippery log over a stream of hungry alligators,” as one alumnus recalled. In 1994, they had the best percentage reunion turnout of any Amherst class to date, and they belted out songs with made-up lyrics like “We had swell times at Valentine / At Uncle Sam’s expense.”  

Frost has a haul of boxes labeled “War Materials,” and I sifted through documents from the Civil War, the two World Wars and Korea. I read how the faculty voted to teach new military training courses for World War I’s doughboys. I learned of “GI Village,” built for married servicemen on the eastern campus after World War II, and of the dedication of the War Memorial honoring the fallen from both World Wars. How meaningful that it’s sited at the most magnificent place on campus—where you can’t help but take the long view.   

III. The Difficulty

And then, Vietnam. that’s when Amherst’s veteran story becomes (words are weak) complicated. The College was famously embroiled in the anti-war movement, serving as the bricked backdrop to manifold strikes, protests and fasts. In 1967, classmates linked arms to stop an Army recruiter from setting up a table at Valentine. In 1968, two students, one dressed as Death, the other as a Marine, strode together through Val to protest Navy recruiters on campus. In 1970, anti-war slogans were spray-painted on the War Memorial. In 1972, 400 Amherst students, 20 professors and President John William Ward and his wife, Barbara Carnes Ward, were arrested at a protest at Westover Air Reserve Base.  

Two years later, though, Ward was regularly, cheerfully having coffee and cigarettes with Don Dietrich ’76, a Vietnam veteran who’d served four years in the Navy. One of three vets on campus at the time, this Chicopee, Mass., native transferred from Holyoke Community College, where he’d been class valedictorian. While his wife, Rita, worked, Don would tow their little boy along to campus. Chris Dietrich (who would grow up to graduate from Amherst in 1991) crayoned in his coloring book, under the doting eyes of staff members, while his dad studied—often, at Ward’s standing invitation, in the president’s office at Converse Hall.  

Some staff and faculty were veterans in those days, and Ward himself had served with the Marines in World War II. “Like any good intellectual, he wanted to look at all sides,” says Don Dietrich of Ward, a man who could protest the Vietnam War while mentoring one who’d fought in it. “The students didn’t ostracize me, exactly, but they avoided me,” Dietrich adds. “If it wasn’t for those contacts with faculty and administration, Amherst would’ve felt very lonely.”  

Veterans are not a charity," says Paul Rieckhoff ’98. “They are an investment.”

Dietrich came back to work in the admission office after he graduated, and from 1977 to 1981 he coordinated and enhanced the College’s transfer program: “We wanted more and more vets. In lots of ways, they are more responsible and motivated than traditional students, because education becomes a mission for them.” At the time, he added, Amherst was “the envy of other small liberal arts colleges” for attracting veterans.  

But as more transfer slots went to women in the early coeducation era, as most veterans tapped their GI Bill for state schools, and as a shaky peace stretched, in this country, from the fall of Saigon in 1975 to Sept. 10, 2001, the veteran presence at Amherst became a kind of “soup sandwich,” to use Army slang—it was impossible to hold onto. 

Paul Rieckhoff ’98 recalls his Amherst years: precisely one ROTC student there, plus himself, bent on joining the forces. Rieckhoff spoke to me from the New York offices of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the organization he founded in 2004. 

“I had an Army recruiter meet me at the Campus Center my senior year,” Rieckhoff says. “If he had been a 9-foot-tall pink Martian, he would have stood out less than an Army recruiter at Amherst College. When I joined the military, people thought I was a maniac.”  

After 9/11 he and his National Guard unit were called up to work at Ground Zero, and he later served as an infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. New wars led to new ways at Amherst. In 2008, the Post-9/11 GI Bill rebooted funds for educating this new generation of veterans, and alumni have established five scholarships that give preference to veterans: the Richard ’67 and Karen LeFrak Scholarship Fund, the Veterans Scholarship Fund, the Lloyd G. Schermer ’50 Scholarship Fund, the Richard William Gustafson Scholarship Fund (in memory of Richard’s brother Peter ’70) and the David A. Read Memorial Scholarship Fund, named for a ’47 alumnus who died in the Battle of the Bulge.  

Since 2010, the College has enrolled 17 veterans, with five on campus this year, including Nathan Needham ’18E. An Air Force vet and Spanish major who served as an intelligence liaison for special ops in Latin America, Needham was also the indispensable campus program coordinator for the Warrior-Scholar Project. 

The admission office is steadily increasing its troop strength, as it were. In 2009, Amherst began taking part in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs educational fund. The College also participates in the Leadership Scholar Program, in which the U.S. Marine Corps helps qualified Marines apply to four-year colleges, and in VetLink, which pairs high-achieving veterans with academic mentors. In 2015 and 2016, Victory Media recognized Amherst as a Veteran Friendly College. Last spring, the College started the U.S. Servicemember Travel Grant Program, an application-based initiative that provides travel funding for qualified prospective student veterans to visit campus. This year, Amherst’s Community College Transfer Open House fell, significantly, on Veterans Day.  

Alexandra Hurd ’06, associate dean of admission, oversees applications from transfer students, the main pipeline for incoming veterans. “The reason why many join the service is to serve the public good, which aligns with the mission of the College,” Hurd says. Or, as Rieckhoff puts it: “Biddy gets it. Veterans are not a charity—they are an investment.”  

IV. The Now

To bring it right to today: I wish I could bugle forth all the current vets’ stories right here (but you can visit amherst.edu/magazine to read my interviews with them). As a decent enough synecdoche, though, I’ll introduce you to Ryan Cotter ’18E. We met at Frost on a mild September day and talked about everything from submarines to stress to sonar to spouses. Cotter, 33, a first-generation college student from New Paltz, N.Y., had to hack out a way to pay for his education—and his younger brother’s, too. He worked in a lumberyard, detailed cars, taught martial arts and squeezed in classes at SUNY Ulster community college.  

Ryan Cotter
Ryan Cotter ’18E His first year on a nuclear submarine, he was allowed to read only one thing: three huge binders detailing every system on the sub.

All the while, he hungered to go to a four-year school in the SUNY system but didn’t know how to make that real. “I can remember sitting in the lumberyard on a break, trying to get through Plato, or Greek classics, just something to tie me to what college kids were reading,” 
Cotter says. “But, of course, it’s not the same thing, reading it by yourself.” 

Friends had joined the Reserves and gotten GI Bill benefits to pay for college. Cotter took note, and upped for the Navy. He went on to train at Connecticut’s Naval Submarine Base New London to become an electronics technician, graduating first in his class of 32. After that, he served on the USS Hampton, a 120-person nuclear-powered attack submarine that plied the oceans, maneuvering near Asia, the Middle East, Africa and beyond. (Cotter dropped the phrase “Somali 
pirates” while we chatted but, like all the veterans I met, he politely stonewalled me on sensitive aspects of his service.)  

That first year on the sub was unremitting. You can’t bring in outside reading, listen to music or watch TV. Instead, you are handed three huge binders that detail every system on the craft. “It’s a brute-force way of learning,” says Cotter. “You’re trying to drink from a fire hose, basically, from day one. They’re like, ‘Here you go. This is what you have to know, but it’s on you to get it done.’ I’m studying all about sound propagation, and Pascal’s law, and how pressure, temperature, salinity all affect sound. Then also how to network computers. Electronic troubleshooting, and what that looks like. How to rewire circuit boards. I’m drawing really detailed schematics over and over and over again.”

HIS WORLD was rocked by reading rocked by reading for sociology class.

 At year’s end you go through a harrowing three-hour test administered by your superior officers. Many wash out. But Cotter passed, and became a sonar tech, or “ping jockey.” As he recounted all this (I blanched just at the thought of missing Netflix), I realized that most veterans who have come to Amherst are exceptional, yes, having studied hard both in the service and in community colleges, too. Yet they have also withstood circumstances that most undergrads cannot fathom. 

After five years in the Navy, Cotter enrolled at City College of San Francisco, netted all A’s, and got accepted into a Stanford summer program for veterans. He came to Amherst because he wanted to be in a small, liberal arts setting and ended up majoring in sociology—Leah Schmalzbauer, professor of American studies and sociology, has been “absolutely fantastic,” he says, and his world was rocked by reading Feminism and War: Confronting U.S. Imperialism in a class with Hannah Holleman, assistant professor of sociology. Following graduation, he expects to teach and coach at The Gunnery, the rural Connecticut prep school where his wife is dean of students.  

Once I talked with Cotter, I reached out to Austin Sarat, who went to college, I should say for context, during the Vietnam War escalation. “We have flipped from wholesale denigration of veterans to wholesale veneration,” he noted of today’s era. “Neither of those positions is particularly healthy.” What about teaching those veterans? “It’s salutary for all of us to be in the company of real human beings who make abstractions come alive and complicate those abstractions.” 

Ryan Cotter and Nathan Needham, and their friends in the newly energized Amherst College Military Association, continue to complicate those abstractions—and break down those “weird walls” that warrior-scholar Josh Buck posed as an obstacle to push past. Here on campus, they’ve gotten creative, in part thanks to the pioneering Rebecca Segal ’18. Segal is Amherst’s first Army ROTC student in 20 years. She trains at UMass and will enter the Army as a 
second lieutenant after graduation. A neuroscience major, she transferred here from George Washington University.  

“I wanted a school where education and teaching were prioritized, and where ROTC was available too,” says Segal. “Amherst rose to the top of the list: at lots of schools, you have to drive as much as 90 minutes to get where the ROTC is. Biddy and Suzanne were all in for it, and there’s been so much institutional support,” says Segal, referring to President Martin and Chief Student Affairs Officer Suzanne Coffey.  

Ever since Segal first stormed the Valley, she’s been dreaming up ways to connect with her Amherst classmates. For instance, she brought her fellow ROTC members to campus to share their training regimen with the football team. “It was a chance to be side by side, military and nonmilitary,” she says, smiling. “Nothing cements a relationship like getting through a brutal workout together.” 

Recently, the Amherst College Military Association ginned up the “MRE Challenge.” This involved prodding various members of the Amherst community (including a very game Biddy Martin) to sample and react to the military’s Meals Ready to Eat rations, aka Meals Rejected by Everyone. (Yes, there is a video.) Members also invited the entire football team to watch the Army-Navy game on a big screen at the Greenway dorms. Over pizza before kickoff, the students “just got a natural conversation going,” recalls Segal. “People got to ask questions long on their minds—anything, like ‘Why are your uniforms different?’ It felt great to help bridge the gap.”  

When Segal mentioned this football gathering, I flashed on a memory. It was one of the last days I spent with my late father, holding hands as we watched a Patriots game on TV with all the other veterans at Soldiers’ Home, in Holyoke, Mass. When I visited this remarkable veterans’ care facility, I often stopped at one wall in particular. An anonymous poem was framed there. It’s called “It Is the Veteran,” and though these gentlemen were at the end of their lives, and Amherst’s current veterans are near the beginning, its message transcends the divides of time. I’ll quote it in part: 

It is the Veteran, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. ...
It is the Veteran, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to assemble. ...
It is the Veteran, not the politician, who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Veteran, who salutes the Flag, 
It is the Veteran, who serves under the Flag, 
To be buried by the flag, 
So the protester can burn the flag. 

On campuses everywhere, where assembly and protest infuse the youthful generations, where ages and life stories and outlooks differ, it demands great personal and institutional dedication to turn anyone—warrior or not—into a scholar. My dad’s GI Bill years at a small liberal arts college changed, utterly, the arc of his life. At Amherst, I’ve learned how that trajectory can rise and fall and rise again. But right here, right now, students who’ve served are getting the education they deserve. 

Katharine Whittemore, senior writer at Amherst, wrote the Fall 2017 cover story about Professor Vanessa Fong ’96.