On Veterans Day, six student veterans joined a panel to discuss their experiences of war. The event, titled “Voices from the front: Stanford students returning home from war,” was hosted by the Stanford Storytelling Project. These are some of their stories.
Captain Anne Hsieh M.A. J.D. ’12 serves as a military lawyer. She has completed missions in Thailand, the Philippines, Korea, Japan, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I didn’t have any military background in my family, but I thought it sounded cool,” Hsieh said. “I just kind of wanted something a little different, and a little challenging. So I visited [West Point], fell in love with it, and decided to give it a try.”
A former military engineer, Hsieh realized the most difficult part of serving was being away from home.
“I expected it to be a lot harder than it really was, in the sense of physical hardships. And it wasn’t so much that way for me, which was almost kind of disappointing,” she said. “The hardest thing [was] always just being away from people I loved, just hands down.”
However, for Hsieh, the military’s rewards were always worth the physical and emotional strain of serving in the Army.
“I actually don’t mind deployments, because you get to do your job. In the army you’re always training, training, training, to do a job that most people are hoping you never have to do,” Hsieh said. “But I think the incredible thing about the last 10 years is that [though] we’ve been stretched really thin, we’ve been able to do our job.”
Sergeant William Treseder ’11 served in the Marine Corps for 10 years, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I think I was just looking for a reason to challenge myself,” he said. “I wasn’t a very good student in high school so I tried to be part of something where I thought I’d get the kind of training I needed as a young man.”
For Treseder, the most defining aspect of his military service was the style of leadership it required.
“People who have never been in the military have the general sense that you point at people and shout at them,” he said. “But the Marine Corps is a place where you’re going to learn the limitations of trying to lead people that way very quickly.”
Leading soldiers into combat came with the unavoidable consequences of losing men, and watching an officer trying to save one of his fatally injured soldiers etched a lasting image into Treseder’s mind.
“I think that was one of the moments I really realized the burden of leadership,” he said. “It’s not his fault, it’s not his responsibility, but he was obviously internalizing and taking responsibility for it. It’s an unfixable situation, and that was a really powerful reminder for me.”
He reflected critically on the reception veterans receive from civilians.
“As a group, I think we are probably over-appreciated. I think there’s a certain degree of hero worship with the military that’s sort of disturbing. Sort of a lionization of veterans, like a general uncritical appreciation,” Treseder said.
“‘Thank you for your service’ is kind of a meaningless phrase… It’s the equivalent of a rhetorical bumper sticker, if that makes sense,” he said.
Dustin Barfield ’12 served two tours in Iraq as a Marine.
“I enlisted in December of 2001, a couple months after Sept. 11. I had never really considered the military an option before that and I could not abide my peers going off to war without me,” he said. “I was the first Marine in my family– the first one in combat, the first one to have bullets whizzing by.”
Barfield’s transition back to civilian life was relatively smooth. However, the marks of war still stay with him.
“Sometimes the transition from the military culture to [civilian culture] is a little difficult, and sometimes the people don’t truly understand your experience or the effect that they have on you,” he said. “Veterans do have unique struggles and you can feel very isolated at times. So I’ve struggled with that from time to time, but it’s been something that I’ve coped with.”
Russell Toll M.S. ’12 served on a 15-month Army tour in Iraq in 2006. His decision to serve was prompted by the possibility of being a part of history.
“One of the [West Point's] slogans was, ‘Much of the history we teach was made by those we taught,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I want a piece of that,’” he said.
However, war left him with heart-wrenching memories– nothing hurt more than “losing one of your guys.” Next to the body of a fellow soldier in a funeral home, Toll reflected on the experience of sitting next to a still body he only ever knew in action.
“The strangest part is, you’re looking at his face and thinking about all your memories, and a smell hits you,” he said. “And it’s not the burning grass, rain, livestock smell of Iraq, but old formaldehyde. It really blurs your memory and your reality.”
But like Treseder, the pomp and circumstance of appreciation on Veterans Day leaves Toll with mixed feelings.
“I really don’t like the country music twang songs,” Toll said. “If I was to give a recommendation for what people should do on Veterans Day, I would say to just take five minutes to just sit on a bench somewhere and look around you and marvel at what we’ve created and what it took to get there.”