In February, I had the opportunity to walk down memory lane a bit and guest lecture for the class that my late husband, Walter Capps, first started at UCSB in the late 1970s. Religious Studies 155, “The Vietnam War and American Religion, Its Influence Upon American Social, Cultural and Religious Life,” was first started by Walter as a way to bring Vietnam veterans out of the shadows and into a classroom to share their stories. As anyone who lived during this period of time can attest, it was a tumultuous period in our nation’s history. Rather than being welcomed home with open arms, many of our veterans found themselves cast out by their communities.
It was in this political climate that Walter set out to create a dialogue in the classroom. By inviting veterans into a safe and welcoming environment, he created a space for discussion that simply wasn’t there before. He brought together students and activists to hear firsthand accounts from the soldiers who had served on the frontlines in Vietnam and who returned to a less-than-grateful nation. During that time, many guest speakers in Walter’s class said, they had been unable to share their experiences with anyone, including their families. Not only did UCSB students learn about the reality of war that these veterans faced overseas, they also came to participate in the healing process for these men and women.
In the time since Walter first began this class, America has come a long way. Our veterans are no longer forced to hide their military fatigues upon their return from serving in the armed forces for fear of being attacked. Today we have a better understanding of the impact of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and we have enacted programs to better assist veterans in their transition back to civilian life. However, as anyone who has been watching the evening news over the last few years can tell you, we still have a long way to go.
In 2014, the Veterans Administration was rocked by findings that not only had many VA facilities actively modified their records to cover up the long delays veterans had to endured to gain access to care, but that some veterans even died while waiting to receive treatment. These revelations caused tremendous uproar across the nation and led to the resignation of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs at the time. In the ensuing months we made some progress. Congress came together to pass legislation to improve access to care at VA facilities, and the VA administrators who allowed record fraud were fired.
But there is more to do. We must ensure that staffing vacancies at local VA facilities do not impact access to care. We also need to ensure a smooth transition for service members as they come back to their communities with valuable skills from their military training. And we need to address the unique needs of women veterans — a population that has too often been overlooked. We know that women in the military are acutely at risk for sexual assault and that our military utilizes a chain-of-command judicial process that can make it hard to prosecute sexual assault offenders. That is one reason why I was particularly pleased to be joined in the classroom by a panel of female veterans. These women were invited to share their own perspective and narrative about their time in the military. I cannot stress the importance of giving women in the military the space to share their experiences so that we can continue to improve the quality of life for all members of the armed forces.
Returning to visit and guest lecture in this class felt like a homecoming. It was one of Walter’s most treasured accomplishments in his career. But more than that, this class has become a safe space in our community, providing healing and dialogue for nearly four decades now. As I near my own retirement, I hope that this class continues these critically important conversations. And to all military veterans, welcome home.