Design by Calum Clark/AS Publicity Center

Design by Calum Clark/AS Publicity Center

By Shawna Leader/The AS Review

Veterans from the Western community will speak about their experiences in the military and the difficulties of reintegrating into society at Soldiers’ Stories, a panel discussion cosponsored by the AS Veterans’ Outreach Center (VOC) and the AS Social Issues Resource Center (SIRC).

The panel will begin at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 3 in AW 204 and is free.

“It’s an opportunity to meet and learn about some of the people on campus who have been in the military and the diversity they bring,” VOC Coordinator Paul Wright said.

At press time, three veterans were confirmed to speak at the event, according to Wright. The panelists will answer questions that they have seen prior to the event. However, audience members will also have the opportunity to write down questions and have them answered by the panelists, Wright said.

The questions will focus on the panelists’ experiences in the military, challenges they have faced and how Western can be more welcoming to veterans, Wright said.

The questions written for the panelists do not directly ask about political opinions on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, SIRC Coordinator Anna Boenish said. Instead, the panel will raise awareness about what it’s like to be in the military and be a student veteran, she said. Because most of the perspective on the wars comes from the news, people rarely hear the experience of someone directly involved in the conflict, she said.

“People should question, ‘Have I heard the voices of those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan?’ And if you haven’t, this is a good opportunity,” Boenish said.

Western employee Natalie Washington, one of the veterans speaking on the panel, said that her perspective will provide a different angle on the military. Washington did not serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. She has worked in recruiting and as part of the honor guard at funerals. Her experience has concerned returning soldiers, she said.

The life of a student and the life of a soldier are very different, she said.

“It’s such a different world when you’re in the student role,” Washington said. “It’s more laid back, less structured. There’s a lot of structure in the military and you find comfort in that.”

As a veteran, finding people to connect with or understand where she is coming from can be a challenge, Washington said.  Washington said that she’s had mixed reactions when wearing her uniform and feels less comfortable wearing it in Bellingham and on campus. But events such as Soldiers’ Stories will help Western become more welcoming to veterans, she said.

Another purpose of the panel is to discuss how Western can be a safer space for veterans, Boenish said.

“Most students would be surprised to learn that we have [more than] 200 student veterans on our campus … oftentimes, we can even forget that we have classmates, coworkers and friends that have served in the military,” Boenish said.

Western employee Ramiro Espinoza, also speaking on the panel, said he accepted the invitation to speak because he feels it is important to contribute to the dialogue surrounding veterans’ issues.

“This type of event requires a sense of understanding and listening to what students want to hear about,” Espinoza said.

The panel will provide a diverse set of perspectives, Boenish said.

“We really wanted to make sure we had men and women on the panel and people who’d had a variety of experiences in the military,” Boenish said.

Non-veterans and veterans alike will benefit from attending the panel, Wright said.

“From going to an event like this, you would walk away with a better understanding of what people have gone through in the military,” Wright said.