ROTC at Columbia University: Regarding the Heckling of a Veteran

Veterans play a special role. In a time when the American public is losing trust in our country's institutions, veterans represent a level of loyalty and integrity they don't find in other parts of our society.
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Heckling a speaker -- veteran or not -- during a public hearing intended to further dialogue and constructive debate is, simply put, childish. It is particularly disappointing when the hecklers are members of the Columbia University community, an institution that prides itself with its spirit of free speech, toleration and respect for one's fellow man and woman.

However, at the university's February 15th hearing regarding ROTC at Columbia, the catcalls were directed at Anthony Maschek, a disabled U.S. Army veteran who was severely wounded in combat. A group of ROTC opponents booed and laughed at Maschek's comments in support of the military and called him a racist. A former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant can most likely handle petty booing by a small group of vocal anti-military activists in an otherwise supportive audience. However, the disturbance seemed hostile enough for the moderator to insist that the environment remain one where people "are not threatened."

Expectedly, the conservative media's response to the hostility against a veteran at Columbia was drastic. The university was depicted as a breeding place for military and veteran haters, with no qualms about publicly humiliating a decorated war hero. The pundits' rhetoric ranged from general condemnation of the incident to calling Columbia a "harbinger for vile behavior" and titling its students as "snot-nosed elitist punks." Why does an event of this kind trigger such a crass response? How does the event differ from other name-calling and arguing between vocal college students?

Veterans play a special role. In a time when the American public is losing trust in our country's institutions, veterans represent, to many Americans, a level of loyalty and integrity they don't find in other parts of our society. The 2010 Gallup Poll of Confidence in Institutions lists the military at 76%, while Television News scores 22%, Big Business 19% and Congress a mere 11%. The people trust the military and the men and women that make up its fabric -- men and women who risk their lives for a sense of duty to their country.

I am not advocating for a romanticized view of the military or our veterans. I am highlighting the important place the armed services and its people enjoy in our national psyche. Naturally then, when incidents such as the heckling of Anthony Maschek occur, the reaction is fierce and emotions heat up rapidly. It reminds people of a shameful time in this country's past when many abandoned our military and our veterans because they couldn't separate their grievances with politics from the men and women serving in uniform. Columbia was a center of protest during this period, which lent it the military hating stigma it is unsuccessfully trying to shake to this day. A stigma that in 2011 is unjustified.

I have been a U.S. military veteran studying at the university since 2009 and I have not encountered hatred, discrimination, or intolerance because of my military service. Fact is, the university participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program, which helps many veterans to attend school for free, the university leadership seeks active dialog with veterans to find out how to improve their experience, and the university truly prides itself with being the most military-friendly school in the Ivy League.

Amber Griffith, the university's Veterans Affairs Coordinator, is the best example of how supportive much of the administration is. Amber makes it a point of honor to work many extra hours for her student veterans and helps them resolve intricate financial benefit issues on a daily basis. Thanks to her, veterans at Columbia have a strong ally in dealing with the VA's bureaucracy and figuring out options to make ends meet in New York City-a far cry from the condescending and elitist picture recent articles are painting.

Veterans are a legally-protected class at Columbia and university policy explicitly prohibits harassment based on military status. The overwhelming sentiment I encounter from students and faculty is that having veterans on campus makes Columbia a richer place. And, the administration also walks the walk by having a veterans float in the Veterans Day Parade, maintaining a Columbia University Roll of Honor to honor its fallen students, and many other active steps to show its pride and respect for those students who served their country.

Thus, I want to caution against labeling Columbia University "hostile" based on the immature actions of a few. It is indeed a place of open debate and discourse of opinion where emotions can run hot and etiquette neglected. Yet, the fact that a discussion regarding the reinstatement of ROTC is even taking place shows the institution's overarching spirit. Yes, it was a veteran who was heckled during the hearing and that deserves special attention. However, the university as a whole has demonstrated its dedication to veterans in recent years and having a few vocal ROTC opponents on campus should not be used to imply the contrary.

The individuals who booed Anthony Maschek revealed their lack of respect for human beings with differing opinions to theirs, which, independent of his veteran status, is tragic. More significantly, while advocating non-violence, they denied dignified, non-hostile treatment to an individual that has shown great integrity, loyalty and a dedication to our country. Yet, the group merely achieved to spotlight their immaturity and undermine their credibility. By not allowing Anthony Mascheck undisturbed sharing of his point of view as a former military man, the group demonstrated their disinterest in engaging in a mannerly debate and exposed their true desire to provoke and instigate.

Therefore, making claims about the entire Columbia community based on the attitude of these few individuals is wrong and only interferes with the actual goal of the hearing, which is to discuss whether to bring ROTC back on campus. By condemning the entire institution based on this single incident, one displays the same ignorance and unwillingness to take part in constructive dialogue -- that, the hecklers have shown. There is always room for improvement and the Columbia leadership should more vocally disapprove of the event. Nevertheless, Columbia University remains a proper veteran-friendly school. Thus, if the university is indeed a harbinger of any kind, then for a campus that is a role model for military-civilian dialogue.

Marco Reininger is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and a political science major at Columbia University's School of General Studies. Marco was the president of the US Military Veterans of Columbia University (MilVets) and is a veterans advocate and spokesperson for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not reflect the official position of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) or US Military Veterans of Columbia University (MilVets).

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