What I am

A student veteran's story

By Ryan P. Miller

By my 21st birthday, I was responsible for millions of dollars in equipment and the lives of young American men and women in a foreign country.

Experiences much like mine have shaped all veterans of military service. A few of us have undergone a life-changing injury, either physical or mental. Although we are often referred to as disabled, many of us do not consider ourselves disabled. Our strengths—we are capable, willing and dedicated—allow us to contribute in important ways.

Solving new problems

As the first day of college approached, my wife asked me if I was nervous. I laughed and said, “Not a chance.” But in fact, I was more than nervous; I was scared.

When I stepped into my first class, I wasn’t sure what I could contribute. And so I began to think of what I had that was unique. Although I was no longer a soldier, I wasn’t done changing lives. I could still make a difference.

One day, as I waited for class to begin, I overheard a student telling a professor that the class was unfair. When I arrived home, I emailed that professor several ideas about improving the class. To be honest, I did not know anything about the class. But the professor was open to my ideas. He asked me to speak with him as soon as possible, and later wrote to say he’d changed the syllabus and wondered what I thought about the changes.

Encouraging teamwork and leadership

College life is often about teamwork, which many people endure only because they have to. Veterans, however, understand the power of teamwork. Our survival often depended on it. An understanding of teamwork and ability to quickly develop a team allows a person to employ the strengths of many individuals to overcome weaknesses.

A few days ago, a professor divided the class into two groups and gave us 20 minutes to prepare an argument. On both sides of the classroom, it was the veterans who took charge and guided the groups into a productive argument. Veterans have led groups of soldiers and want the opportunity to lead. We also want to lead our teams successfully—to the finish line.

Understanding and appreciating differences

I’ve lived in Germany, Israel, Japan and South Korea, and I’ve traveled to many more countries. I’ve experienced both hospitality and hostility. I understand how different cultures can be. The cultural experiences we veterans have faced allow us to settle differences as well as rapidly adapt to changing cultural environments. We also retain a unique understanding of how culture can affect an individual’s personality and how to make that individual feel part of the team.

Veterans have known pain, suffering and loss—but also happiness, love and gain. We know the benefits of moving forward. And we know that, despite all obstacles, we will succeed.

What we are is more than what we are not.

Ryan P. Miller served in the U.S. Army from 2002–2013. During that period he traveled widely and was responsible for anywhere from 10 to 90 soldiers at a time. He majored in English at WSU Vancouver.