On the first day of classes, when the instructor urges students to liven up their introductions with a bit of background trivia, University of Wisconsin senior John Osbourne usually won’t mention his 15-month army tour in Iraq.
“I try not to say it because there is a certain stigma attached,” said Osbourne, who spoke to me for Tuesday’s “Battle-scarred by bullets, benefits.” “It’s hard to put your finger on it. You don’t know if you just feel different because … you used to be sergeant so-and-so who knew everything, and all of a sudden you’re in a math class and you haven’t taken [math] in five years.”
But junior Joe Dillenburg, also an Iraq veteran who says he’s sometimes 10 years older than fellow students, said the social stigma he initially expected was only in his head.
“My whole adult life, I’ve been used to wearing short hair and walking upright,” Dillenburg said. “I feel like I stick out, but talking to people, that’s not true.”
Whether peer reaction amounts to social stigma, several student veterans said they shy away from the notoriety that can accompany the return to civilian – and student – life.
Osbourne said he gets the same two questions whenever peers find out he served in Iraq: “What was it like?” and “Did you shoot anybody?”.
“That’s what they see on TV, that’s what intrigues them,” Osbourne said. But although such queries are a natural reaction, the latter is a question no veteran would ask a fellow veteran, he said.
Osbourne also doesn’t like to draw attention to his experience in Iraq for fear of being labeled an expert on the conflict as a whole.
“I didn’t necessarily want what I was saying to become fact,” he said. “I wasn’t concerned with why I was there … I was just concerned with getting out.”
Freshman Shawn Siebold, who served three 7-month tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps, said his peers generally treat veterans with respect.
But all three veterans mentioned they can feel a distance from other students, a concern that student groups like Vets for Vets attempt to address. Vets for Vets Vice President Andrew Seehusen organized house for veterans on Breese Terrace this fall, where Siebold will be living next year.
“It’ll give us somewhat of a homely feel where we can relate more [to fellow veterans],” Siebold said.