Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Real Support for the Troops

It is now closing in on four years since the horrendous events of September 11th , 2001. I have dozens of memories from that time. Rushing from Hunter College, where I was a student, down to the armory, my first sight of ground zero that night, fires still burning. Then there’s the statement made on the night of the twelfth, in the pouring rain, to my Army buddies: “We’re gonna be busy for the next few years!” Another memory that still stands out just as vividly is the conversation I had on Sept 25. My Manhattan based National Guard company had spent almost two weeks at the site, providing security so rescue workers could do there jobs. We were a little bit burnt out, having worked twelve hour shifts from midnight to noon, often finding places to pitch in when needed in our off hours. We became sleep deprived zombies after staring into the burning chasm for 13 straight nights. At the end of our mission we were encouraged to talk to an Army psychologist. I don’t remember his name. I do recall staring across the Hudson towards New Jersey, while he asked me in a sad and timid voice: “What do we do now?”
“I guess we ask the Israelis, they’re used to living with terror!” was my surprised reply. They were used to heightened security, and to the uncertainties of random terror. They were used to their reservists constantly being pulled away from civilian life. It seemed that as our war with terror went on we would adjust as they had. In many ways we have. People have. We shrug off, for the most part the threat of subway bombings, and the new bag searches, here in NY, and go about our business.
Institutions have had a harder time. One reason I joined the National Guard was in order to pay for my Bachelors degree. I re-enlisted, after several years away from active duty, in August of 2000, a month before I switched my enrollment to full time at Hunter College. Since then, I have indeed been busy as a soldier. I spent two weeks away from school, in response to the 9-11 attacks. I spent a month standing a post at JFK airport during that winter break. I continued all my military training obligations. When war began with Iraq in March of 2003, I was mobilized for over a month to guard the transit system in NYC, and finally in the fall of 2003 I was mobilized to go to Iraq a process that took over fifteen months, ten of which I spent in Iraq itself.
My first taste of how reluctant our institutions were to change was during that initial campaign of the war. In the days leading up to it, as reservists around the country were mobilized, the President of Hunter College sent out a schoolwide e-mail. She offered her support to any reservist or Guard member deploying, including a no penalty, no cost “Drop” for any student who had to leave school. Like almost every member of the reserve forces that I know I waited, anxiously for the call. I came home from work the second night into the campaign to find a phone message from the readiness NCO at my unit.
“Pack your gear, be here tomorrow by noon!” That was all.
I reported in a few hours early. Everyone had the same questions. What was our mission? Were we going overseas? Homeland security here in the city? Somewhere else in the state? We were typical Army mushrooms at that point kept in the dark and fed …
At an upstate training base we learned it was a State mission, not federal, and it was likely in the city. That was all. We were sequestered there for over a week. Leaders worked out the details of our mission, and for a short training phase. We were going to the city to guard the transit system. In the meantime we had little contact outside, but I was able to send off an email to all of my professors explaining my situation, with an estimate that I would be back at school within thirty days. It wasn’t until a few days later when we were deployed to the city and quartered at Fort Hamilton that I managed to follow up, and check my email. There were only two replies from the instructors. Three of my instructors didn’t bother to reply. I re-sent the original email, circulating it to department heads, and Hunter’s president. This produced some results, but one recalcitrant instructor, an adjunct, in the same department I was majoring in, basically had to be forced by the department head to respond. I managed a 3.86 GPA that semester, but the school Ombudsman, who was supposed to be my advocate, told me that these professors were under no obligation to respond to my email. Fortunately for me, the college president disagreed, the Ombudsman was later removed for other issues.
I was now scheduled to graduate in January 2004 after the fall semester. Over the summer, though, word began to spread that some of us were going to be mobilized to go to Iraq as part of the next rotation, replacing the weary veterans of the first year. By the end of July it was official, I was going. But no one had a firm answer as to when. Probably sometime in October was the best guess. So with a great deal of uncertainty about my future, when September arrived I started the fall semester by preparing to exit before I was through. Most of my professors were pretty understanding. It soon became clear that on or about the first of October, I would be under orders and away from school. In four courses I was able to negotiate incompletes, with contracts towards completion that allowed me to finish by the end of the next semester after I returned to civilian life. One course I decided to drop. I didn’t need the credits or the course to graduate, and the professor, an octogenarian distinguished in his field, had no use for or competency with computers.
It was when I went to “drop” the class that I ran into my next bureaucratic hurdle. The administrator, a minor functionary, who needed to sign off on my withdrawal refused to do so, until I presented my official orders mobilizing me. She claimed it was a policy that no one could change. I recalled to her the president’s email, but she was obstinate about her stance. This is where we have a clash of cultures, one that needs to be resolved in favor of citizen soldiers everywhere. Although the military doesn’t do anything without an official written order, these often occur ex post fact, after a verbal order has set things in motion. And a soldier might be nowhere near a fax machine, copier or a post office when the formal order reaches him. In this case while I was mobilized on 1 October, I didn’t receive my official written orders until late November.
I ended up in a shouting match with this woman. She wouldn’t budge. Even in spite of temporary written orders, from my company commander, and the school president’s directive she wouldn’t drop the course without the normal penalties. She threatened to call security on me. Lady I’m on my way to Iraq: do your worst! I proceeded to the president’s office, and demanded an audience. I sat down in her reception area and told a secretary I wasn’t leaving until I saw the president, and she forced the bureaucrats to honor her assurances. Fifteen or twenty minutes later the Dean of students appeared. She listened, walked me down to the obstinate bureaucrat’s office and told her to suspend the class, and to drop it I when my orders arrived. She then promised me she would personally take care of this and any problems that arose.
Unfortunately for her I remembered that and held her to it. While I was away from school for fifteen months, my ability to access the online school network including my records was suspended multiple times. Several times because I had missed an appointment to take the CUNY Proficiency Exam or CPE. This is standardized test degrades my university education by asserting that in four years my professors did not adequately determined my ability to analyze an argument and respond with a coherent written argument of my own. Leaving aside my philosophical distaste, and the insult to the Ph.Ds who graded all my papers, I had to fight to get these stops taken off my record, because the system is too rigid to deal with reservist deployments.
Worse was the problem I had with the Bursar’s office. Although my tuition for the fall of 2003 was free, I had neglected to pay the $150 or so in Student activities fees. Of course I never got a bill; my mail was chasing me around the US and then the world. The Bursar’s office decided to freeze my access a few weeks after I arrived in Iraq, but well before my duffel bag with my checkbook in it caught up to me. They refused to remove this stop. This was a problem because I needed a copy of my college transcript for promotion points. Time was limited. Another appeal to the President and the Dean of Students succeeded in freeing my records in time, and when my lost luggage arrived I sent them a check.
I came home. I had a whole semester to finish my incompletes, and I did so turning all my work in by the early June deadline. Some of my professors now have been late in submitting change of grade forms. Even worse the registrars office is demanding that all the late grades come with signed and stamped assurances that my work was submitted prior to June 8th. Including the grades they have already received, from professors who are doing research overseas for the summer. Could you guys just give me a break for once? Just process the grades so at least I can use my transcript as a diploma. The actual diploma, I’m told, won’t be ready until 2006.
I could list similar problems I had with the Post Office, which screwed up my mail for over a year due to a simple change of address request, or with the officer of my bank who required a long argument before accepting that a military power of attorney from my sister was valid. The issues I had with school were definitely the worst. Most of the people involved were sympathetic, and many tried to be helpful. Many others simply could not or would not make adjustments. At least the college president and the dean of students were there for me. But I would prefer that they had tamed the institution, not made exceptions and phone calls every time I needed something. Hunter College is a part of CUNY, and is thus a joint city and state institution. The fact that this State institution is not prepared to support New York State’s National Guard soldiers who are called to service is simply unacceptable. These deployments are no longer the exception; they are a part of my life, and thousands of other citizen soldiers. This is what “Support the Troops” is all about. It’s not about a magnetic ribbon on the trunk of the car. It’s about adjusting the institutionss of our society.
One of my pet peeves is the leveling of criticism without any positive suggestions. So I am calling on the President of Hunter College to appoint a Dean for Veterans and Reservist affairs. In fact I am calling on the CUNY Chancellor to make it requirement at all the CUNY schools. This official should be an advocate and a watchdog. Not only a point person and a resource for soldiers to cope with the inane bureaucracies that have thrived in the CUNY system, but someone who can advocate policy changes to the colleges and the University. People have adjusted to the new realities of the post 9-11 world. It’s time that institutions like CUNY did so too.