Jesse Herman had been in the U.S. Army for 19 years when doctors discovered clusters of tumors in his thorax.
After surgeries, chemotherapy, six months in a wheelchair and countless trips to specialists at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Herman was able to walk again. But his Army career was over.
“My doctor said, ‘Looks like you’re not going to be shooting cannons anymore. Have you thought about what you are going to do next?’” Herman recalled. “When I told him that I had no idea, he said to me, ‘Smart people don’t have a hard time finding things to do.’ I recognized right then that I needed to get my butt back in school.”
Herman is now working toward a degree at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis and advocating for student veterans along the way.
Growing up in New Orleans, Herman dreamed of being a doctor. But he could see no path to college. His grades were OK, but not great. His parents had some money, but not enough to send him to school. So at 17, he enlisted.
“Some people join that Army because their parents were soldiers; others claim to be patriots. I’m neither,” Herman said. “I was a kid from New Orleans who didn’t want to work as a hotel custodian or parking lot attendant. The Army was my way out.”
Herman took some classes over the years but never seriously pursued a degree until he moved to St. Louis. He earned an undergraduate degree in psychology and sociology from Maryville University and then was thinking about a PhD in public policy. That’s when fellow veteran and Brown School student James Petersen, who earned his MSW in 2017, introduced Herman to the Brown School.
“I knew social workers helped people, but I didn’t know they had the power to change the system,” Herman said. “I had a big problem that I wanted to solve, and I recognized that I could best address that problem through earning an MSW at the Brown School.”
That problem is addressing the mental health of older veterans, who often struggle years after they served. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reports that in 2016, 58 percent of veteran suicides were among those age 55 and older.
“Those people could be my big brother, my dad, my peers,” Herman said. “That is not to invalidate the struggles of the younger population, but if you are a Vietnam guy going through major stresses and you think the best way to handle it is to kill yourself, there is a problem. I want to help the VA examine its existing policies and make sure they cover the people, especially veterans from marginalized communities, who live in the blind spots.”
A more welcoming place
In the meantime, Herman is working to make the university a more welcoming place for veterans as a facilitator for the Office of Military & Veteran Services’ new Veteran Ally training program. The training provides an overview of the different branches, reviews various roles, explores the strengths and challenges veterans bring with them to the classroom and offers ways to effectively support and engage student veterans.
For instance, student veterans typically are older than the average college student and are comfortable with hierarchy.
“We tell participants about people like myself who were there forever and a day and were used to being in charge of hundreds of people and don’t want to be talked to the same way you would talk to a 19-year-old,” Herman said. “We also explain that junior service members are not used to advocating for themselves. I’m not proud to say this, but I would often tell military members, ‘You are in receiving mode.’ In other words, ‘Just shut up and do what I tell you.’ Well, if someone has told you that for the past four years, and those are formative years, it can be hard to break that cycle, and it’s up to instructors to help them.”
Adrienne Davis, vice provost and the William M. Van Cleve Professor of Law, said Veteran Ally training has changed how she teaches and interacts with veterans. She encourages student veterans to speak up and challenge ideas in class. Davis also is more mindful of her vocabulary. For instance, in her military wills unit, she no longer uses the word “soldier,” which refers exclusively to members of the Army, interchangeably with the term “service member.” And she has worked hard to more clearly define her goals and expectations for students.
“Jesse taught me veterans are used to meeting objective goals, but in academia, students often are evaluated on subjective criteria,” Davis said. “So I’ve learned that I need to make the criteria transparent and to better communicate.”
So far, Herman and Jen Goetz, the university’s first veteran student services adviser, have met with more than 100 university administrators and faculty. They also hosted the first veteran student orientation this fall. Goetz credited Herman with helping to boost the profile of the Office of Military & Veteran Services, which is only a year old.
“Jesse has seen it all and is eager to share those experiences and insights with others in meaningful and inspiring ways,” said Goetz, who served in the Air Force and graduated from the Brown School in 2016. “Our student veterans know they can lean on him to help in their transition to civilian life. And our faculty and staff know he’s a great resource in their efforts to support that transition as well.”
This is just the beginning, Herman said, as the student veteran population continues to grow. Resources through programs such as the GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon program are here, and so is the will.
“We all know through the news that veterans face many barriers to success like PTSD and substance abuse, but they also bring a lot of strengths that we value on a college campus, such as the ability to work as a team and to persevere,” Herman said. “But my main point is: Don’t assume you know how veterans act or vote because your grandfather was a Marine. Every student is different, and it’s on our community to learn how to identify and dignify these folks.”