Joshua Buck speaking to the Warrior Scholars
Fifteen veterans leaned on every word from Joshua Buck, a Warrior-Scholar alum who served as guide during the "academic boot camp."

Joshua Buck, a former Army sniper and drill sergeant who served three tours in Iraq, is debriefing on 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 veterans lean on his every word. They’re sitting in Fayerweather Hall, room 217. It’s a hot Monday in August, 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 help from faculty and staff at Amherst.

A psychology major at Worcester State University, Buck is a Warrior-Scholar alum and the vets’ guide this week, the one who gets real with them about 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 and 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 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.”

Warrior Scholars at a table with Joshua Buck
Buck is a former U.S. Army sniper and drill sergeant who served three tours in Iraq and is now a psychology major at Worcester State University.

Ranging in age from 22 to 33, some of these warrior-scholars are still on active duty in the U.S. Army, Marine Corps and Navy. Others have left the military, and most of those have enrolled in community colleges. Several hope to go pre-med. Others want to study everything from philosophy to marketing to international relations.

What a week they’ll go on to have. The veterans dive into a curriculum centered on themes of democracy and liberty, taught by three Amherst professors and one from Smith. They’ll practice “ninja reading” (warrior-speak for “close reading”) on 366 pages of text, from Thucydides to Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman to Sojourner Truth, plus more modern works such as 2014’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence, by former Amherst trustee Danielle Allen, and 2007’s Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, by Amherst board chair Cullen Murphy ’74.

Their 14-hour days also include four hours of writing instruction (they all have papers due at week’s end) from Amherst’s senior writing associate Cassie Sanchez and writing associate Roy Andrews. There’s also an hour each of study group and tactical study skill sessions. “It’s supposed to feel like finals week,” says Matthew McKeever, a petty officer, 2nd  class, who served with the U.S. Navy in Europe. “There’s definitely a lot of info thrown at us in a short period of time. They give us the stress, yeah, but also the tools that help us prepare to study at top-tier institutions.”

These warrior-scholars will also get a crash course on how college differs from the military. That asking questions is imperative, for instance, not insubordinate. That you order your own time, rather than follow orders.

And the buck stops with Buck: He hectors them to never 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 to the max, he says: “Professors are usually overjoyed to talk to someone who’s an adult.” And thoroughly research those faculty members before you pick a class, so you don’t get one who “makes you fall asleep.”  

Warrior Scholars listening to Professor Austin Sarat at Amherst College
Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, taught a seminar on the Constitution. He riffed on everything from Alexis de Tocqueville (“So boring!”) to the Bill of Rights (“a miracle of self-restraint”).

First-Class First Class

No chance of sleeping 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 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, is 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 Papers 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.” From there, Sarat asks which branch of government seems the most powerful from reading the Constitution. Tracy Santos, an aviation operations specialist in the Marine Corps, guesses it’s the Supreme Court, because the justices get to interpret what laws mean. Sarat says the court is crucial but Congress gets the most print space in the document.

From there, Sarat riffs on everything from Alexis de Tocqueville (“So boring! Don’t use a power drill while reading!”) to the musical Hamilton (“You want to be in the room where it happens, right?”) to the Bill of Rights (“a miracle of self-restraint”).

The energy in the room is all but giddy—many gut laughs, and big applause at the end—but also sometimes tense, since Sarat relentlessly calls on each warrior-scholar. When some can’t come up with a quick answer, Sarat never scolds them. Instead, he exclaims, “Fabulous, fabulous, I see you’re thinking!”

How It Rolled Out

The Warrior-Scholar Project was launched by two Yale grads in 2011 and has since been hosted by some 15 colleges and universities. Many veterans have found the experience life-changing: one of the Amherst participants was so excited about the doors it’s opened, he couldn’t sleep Thursday night, and instead walked the campus under a near-full moon from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m., trying to think through new scenarios for his future. 

In fact, the vets’ stories are so inspiring, and the organization so remarkable, that more and more press coverage has kicked in—most notably a segment for CBS Morning News, which was largely filmed on Day 5 at the College. 

Over the past decade, Amherst has expanded its commitment to educating veterans, in part through the creation of the Veterans Scholarship Fund in 2008 (with support from Richard LeFrak ’67). In 2015 and 2016, Victory Media recognized Amherst as a Veteran Friendly College. There are currently five veterans enrolled on campus, including Nathan Needham ’18E, who was the campus WSP program coordinator this summer.

This is the Warrior-Scholar Project’s first year 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, and who created a short, moving documentary about the program.

London, who founded the Washington, D.C., law firm London & Mead, came to campus to speak to the veterans. “The Warrior-Scholars Project is very personal to me,” he told them. “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 of men and women, 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.” 

Professor Rick Griffiths speaking to Warrior Scholars
Rick Griffiths, the Class of 1880 Professor in Greek, taught a seminar on the origins of democracy, with warrior-scholar Alex Baran, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, as a model.

From Athens to Gettysburg to Rome

Meanwhile, the goal of Wednesday’s seminar is to trace the origins of democracy. It’s taught by Rick Griffiths, the Class of 1880 Professor in Greek. He focuses on Pericles’ Funeral Oration, given at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War, in which the statesman/general praised Athenian democracy as a cause worth dying for. As Pericles said: “Therefore, having judged that to be happy means to be free, and to be free means to be brave, do not shy away from the risks of war.”

Barry Fredericks, a tactical medical specialist in the Navy, says the oration is about “how a society come to grips with uplifting how the military sacrifice of your life keeps democracy going forward.” Griffiths nods: “That’s a big point. And do you see how the oration has no proper names? It’s all stripped down, fascinatingly abstract, and that is why it’s so accessible to us. Pericles said that naming individual men would only stir up envy. Greek military graveyards gave much less personal information that civilian ones. Why?”

Scott Korman, a Marine Corps corporal who serves in the military police, answers: “Because our greatest achievement was that service. Anything else is irrelevant.”

On Thursday, the veterans delve into the great texts of American democracy as it meets the crisis of the Civil War. Geoffrey Sanborn, the Henry S. Poler Presidential Teaching Professor of English, talks of the staying power, the intensity, of literature. “Was there a moment for you in these readings that had that excitement?” he asks.

Nathaniel Jacobs, a Marine Corps air ground task force planner, seizes on one phrase in the Gettysburg Address: “…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” He says, “It’s like we, the living, can’t disrespect what they did.”

Oliver Campbell, an Army sergeant, joins in: “As someone who has friends who died in war, it matters how good the cause is.”

Others praise Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” inspired by the April date of Lincoln’s death. “It moved me emotionally,” says Mark Thompson, an aviation electronics technician in the Navy. “How he takes the one sprig of lilacs, then collects armloads of lilacs, like symbols of life to give to the dead.” Sanborn notes that Whitman loved opera, and that his lines contain a similar musicality.

Warrior Scholars attending a class at Amherst College
For the veterans in the classroom, the week's curriculum centered on themes of democracy and liberty. Their 14-hour days also included writing instruction, study group sessions and more.

Cullen Murphy speaking to students in the Warrior Scholars Program

August 24, 2017

Cullen Murphy, editor at large at Vanity Fair, asked a class of veterans to compare the fall of Rome to our current democracy and discussed the divide between soldier and civilian in a democracy.

On Friday, Cullen Murphy leads the class. The editor at large at Vanity Fair, he asks the veterans to compare the fall of Rome to our current democracy. Melvin Valverde, an Army corporal who worked on signal communication, talks of how today’s leaders keep the masses distracted with “bread and circuses” and cites the assassinations of the Gracchus brothers in Ancient Rome, wondering if democracy can survive excess violence. Another student cites the controversy around this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar in New York.

Murphy wonders aloud about the divide between soldier and civilian in a democracy. Most of the veterans agree that their service gives them a certain extra knowledge. Josh Buck speaks up: “Vets don’t have a monopoly on tragedy, but we have a much more substantial idea of what history costs. When we read history, we think about some poor soldier who caught a bullet or bomb there.”

Tomorrow, the veterans will dress up for a final dinner reception, having bonded throughout the week over study sessions and meals at Valentine Dining Hall, over describing their pasts and envisioning their futures. But right now, near the Parthenon plaster casts at Fayerweather Hall, Barry Fredericks brings it all home: “Many of us joined out of a sense of duty, to do something bigger than ourselves,” he tells the class full of veterans there to learn about democracy and their futures within it. “My mom asked me why I joined the Navy and I told her, ‘I want to help people.’ And now? We want to use any opportunity for higher education to continue to help people.”