On Being a Student Veteran

Ksenia Voropaeva, Air Force Veteran

Ksenia Voropaeva, Air Force Veteran

A transition is defined as movement, passage, or change from one position, state, stage, subject, or concept to another. For over a year, I have been living this definition. Where is my movement directed? Has my state changed, or if it does, will I fully grasp that it has? Conceptually, what does the label “student veteran” mean to me and to others?

In 2014, US forces were pulling out of Afghanistan, and while stationed in Germany my deployment was canceled. Following defense budget sequestration, 2014 was also the year the Air Force “force shaped” (ie forced the reduction of several thousand airmen). It is a bit surreal to recount the events chronologically now, because in real time, the focus was always on the mission, the airmen and the day-to-day bustle. At the beginning of 2014, I embodied the sense of purpose, accomplishment, and belonging Air Force leadership teachings profess. At some point during that year, I was sexually assaulted and six months later let go, or force shaped. Each event deteriorated my agency. All that was built had been broken. 

And so I am in a transition. In what way is this transition different than the ones I have experienced before? My plan here is to attempt to define what this transition is. When active duty no longer preoccupies my every minute, day, month and passing year of my life, I am able to reflect.

First, coming home to America after a six-year separation and service has cemented my patriotism. Although I recollect being called a Nazi and a “commie” in Jr. High School, those actions have fueled my commitment to elevate diversity and inclusion. This is not possible for people where I was born. 

Second, family relationships have resumed and I have unveiled emotions that are typically buried deep — such as betrayal, addiction, emotional trauma and resentment—  that have lingered and metastasized amongst family members during my absence. This seems especially prevalent in immigrant families, and perhaps Russian ones. Relationships get neglected in the military. I thought I was safe by staying mostly single, but that was an illusion. This time around, I am quicker to realize where to make up for lost time.

Then there are the bills, the failed relationships sprinkled with prolonged harassment, the complicated VA system, issues with the GI Bill, gal bladder surgery, and relapsed migraines. Now, several roommates later, I attempt to re-define myself.

Against this backdrop of uncertainty, transformation, and readjustment I am a female graduate student at a progressive social justice university that doesn’t typically attract veterans. After completing my first year, I have yet to meet another veteran at my school. In New York, veterans flock to Columbia, New York University, Fordham, and CUNY, populating veteran clubs and attending yearly veteran galas.

My current identity is ill defined. We are still at war, yet the reactions I have received in my connection to this war have all been subdued. There is a certain layer of discomfort with the veteran part of my identity. This is understandable since only about 1% of the US population has served in the armed forces. Furthermore, 4/5 of that 1% is male, so encountering a female veteran is peculiar.

Typically, a blank stare follows my introduction as a veteran, mixed with words of general praise. I have grown accustomed to this. In a way, banal conversations allow me to quietly heal. But then I wonder if some people truly want to hear me unload the emotional baggage of serving. This is where the waves of anger and disappointment come. Why are we losing lives, if no one cares? Why isn’t everyone outraged? One of my professors shared her disgust for how mainstream media deliberately omits images of war and flag draped caskets. I want to hear the outrage. That is the connecting point and the conversation that will aid in my transition to civilian life.

In a decade from now, I will be able to better depict this transition. Today, I am a student veteran in full bloom. I am conscious of my transformation.  After all, I cannot define an unfinished process.