Veterans share their stories as 'books' in CCRI's Human Library Project

Nov. 7, 2017

Less than 1 percent of Americans have served in the U.S. military, said Chad McFarlane ’14, so it’s often difficult for civilians to empathize with the struggles of those who have made that sacrifice.

“If you’ve never experienced it, you don’t know. And what fills that void is whatever we happen to hear on the news or in the media or popular culture,” said McFarlane, a former M1 Abrams tanker for the U.S. Army and CCRI’s Class of 2014 commencement speaker.

Continuing the college’s effort to bridge the increasing gap between civilians and veterans and provide veterans with the skills they need to transition from the battlefield to the classroom, CCRI’s Student Veterans Organization (SVO) and Alumni Association hosted the Human Library Project at the Knight Campus on Nov. 1.

Eight veterans, including keynote speaker Steven L. Pierce, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College who completed 29 combat missions over Afghanistan following 9/11 and spent 23 years on active duty, shared their experiences with an intimate group of civilians and fellow veterans.

Each veteran participating in the event served as a “book” with a title. For example, Anthony Paolino ’12, who helped jump-start the SVO in 2010 and is now the head of military and veterans affairs for General Dynamics Electric Boat, was titled, “Service After Service.” Attendees who chose to “borrow” a particular book were given 15 minutes of one-on-one time to thumb through the proverbial pages and ask questions, share their own stories or simply enjoy an impromptu conversation.

The Human Library Project not only shed light on the issues facing veterans attempting to reintegrate into society, but also reiterated CCRI’s commitment to making the transition as stress-free as possible for its current student veterans, many of whom attended this year’s event.

“We know transitioning from service life to civilian life can be challenging and it can be especially challenging to be a student veteran,” CCRI President Meghan Hughes said. “We know our college must supply the support and the training that veterans need to graduate, transfer and enter high-quality careers in Rhode Island and we know Rhode Island needs you in our workforce.”

The line between perception and reality – what we see glorified in films or shared on social media – is often blurred for civilians when they interact with veterans still haunted by their experiences.

Brenna Carnavale“The fire alarm went off in the house one day and I hit the deck,” said Scituate resident Brenna Carnevale, an English major at CCRI and former master-at-arms for the U.S. Navy. Five years after her discharge, she is still triggered by memories from two tours of duty.

“Some people don’t understand things like that. Through some things I witnessed, people can’t understand why some days I literally cannot get out of my bed.”

One of the biggest adjustments, said Carnevale, who will graduate in December and hopes to transfer to Rhode Island College before attending Yale or Harvard, is taking the skills learned and developed in the military and applying them to the real world when searching for full-time employment.

“How do you put down on a resume that you can shoot a 9 millimeter?” she said. “But things like that show so much. They show leadership, attention to detail and all those kind of things. Those are your skills, so why would you hide them from your resume?”

Chad McFarlaneApplying those “intangible qualities,” as McFarlane calls them, to employment beyond the military is a constant roadblock for many veterans. As a veterans affairs specialist also working at Electric Boat, he and Paolino assist fellow veterans with that transition.

“When I got out, I kind of missed that sense of purpose, missing something bigger than myself, and coming here and working to help other veterans going through this experience to get to college, I just had a national inclination to want to help,” said McFarlane, who moved from New Jersey to Rhode Island 16 years ago and remains a resident since his military discharge in 2007.

Paolino, a Warwick, resident and E-G technical sergeant for the U.S. Air Force who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, said assistance with reintegration is a reoccurring theme, either through students like Carnevale looking for answers or civilians wondering what kind of role they can play in bridging that gap.

“You hear a wide variety of questions and I think it’s all wonderful because it’s all people trying to say more than just, ‘Thank you for service,’ but, ‘What else can we do to get you lined up with more opportunities, success in college or a good career?’” Paolino said. “Those stories need to be replicated and, once they are, shared so other veterans are encouraged in thinking, ‘Wow, I did that in the military and I can do this and go on and get a good job, too.’

Everyone handles transition from the military to civilian life differently, Paolino said, but he has seen a lot of commonalities. “Being on the employment side, the biggest thing is the skills gap: what we do in the military, what those skills are and how it translates to a civilian job or in the private sector,” he said. “There are a lot of challenges there for employers and prospective employees, so having these conversations with other veterans who’ve already made that transition is very important in their travels.”

Carnevale spoke extensively with Patrick Elkins ’14, whose “book” was titled “Military Family Life.” Carnevale was forced to leave the Navy when she became pregnant, but re-enlisted for a second tour following the birth of her son. Elkins, an E4 corporal in the U.S. Army who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, pointed her toward the SVO, an often untapped resource for the many student veterans at CCRI struggling with the same issues.

Along with Michael Steiner ’16, a Scituate resident and former petty officer 1st class in the U.S. Navy, Paolino helped launch the SVO in 2010 upon realizing there was no student group offering assistance for veterans trying to adapt to the college climate.

The SVO, Steiner said, “is about family. Military is about family, CCRI is family, so you help your family out.

“You need role models, and you need examples of success that look like you,” he continued. “How can you see a light at the end of the tunnel or a path forward? Maybe you have a mentor who doesn’t have the same background as you and they want to see you succeed – and everyone wants you to succeed – but it means 100 times more when that person strapped on those boots and put on that green or blue uniform. That’s what it’s all about, that continuing service, and I think it gives us that sense of purpose when we don’t wear the uniform anymore.”

Steiner also continues to serve veterans in his post-military life with Veterans Assembled Electronics, which recruits service-connected disabled veterans and trains them to be electronics technicians.

The three founding fathers of the SVO – Paolino, Steiner and McFarlane – are proud to see the tradition “still going strong” with U.S. Army veteran Arnold Castillo serving as its president, and the work the organization is doing remains a talking point when mentoring current student veterans.

“I wouldn’t even be sitting in front of you today if it weren’t for the SVO,” Paolino said. “I wouldn’t be in my role right now with my company if it wasn’t for the SVO, and everything I’ve done in years’ past have stemmed from the foundation we built here at CCRI.

“For me, it’s opened doors for all of us that wouldn’t have been opened if it wasn’t for getting involved here on campus. That’s really what I try to talk to a lot of students, especially the veterans, about. Whether you like it or not, step out of your comfort zone and get involved with a student body.”

Others attending the Human Library Project, such as Steve Allen ’12, a retired postal worker and laborer who joined the U.S. Navy and served two additional tours of duty before his final discharge in 2007, enjoy the camaraderie and sharing military stories. But, like others in attendance, Allen also reiterated the importance of veterans earning their college degree despite facing difficulties unlike those of other students.

Allen, who worked in employee relations with the Veterans’ Affairs in Brockton, Massachusetts, before retiring in April, said he never would have been offered that position had he not obtained his liberal arts degree – an on-again, off-again process that began in 1974 with Allen failing five classes as a freshman.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said, “but it opened many doors for me.”

Lexx Bonamassa speaks with Anthony PaolinoLexx Bonamassa, a graduate assistant in CCRI’s Dean of Students Office who is studying for her master’s degree in college student personnel at the University of Rhode Island, used the Human Library Project as a trial run for her eventual career in student affairs, where she will undoubtedly cross paths with many student veterans.

“Getting to ask questions to recent grads is really awesome, because this is not a population I’m at all used to or know much about,” she said. “I tried to go into it with an open mind that I don’t want to put myself in their shoes because I didn’t experience this, so, really, I just tried to listen and let them speak from the heart from their experience and get a better idea of what I can do to better help and support my students in the future,” she said.

“That’s how we’re going to gain knowledge and be able to help these people more effectively.”

Ken FullerKen Fuller, a member of CCRI’s first graduating Class of1966 and a decorated combat medic for the 101st Airborne U.S. Army who received a Purple Heart in 1970 for his Vietnam War service, found the Human Library Project “therapeutic” in that it allowed him to share his stories while reconnecting with today’s generation of veterans.

While Americans are more accepting of veterans returning home, said Fuller, who now works as a portfolio manager, the degree of difficulty in reintegrating to civilian life remains a commonality despite the generational gap, and Fuller finds it refreshing to be surrounded by “young, interesting people” with the same concerns he had more than four decades ago. 

“They’re asking very intelligent questions. I was afraid I was going to get, ‘What’s it like to kill somebody?’ and I got much more of, ‘What’s it like to be integrating back and how do you do successful things in college?’ so I’m very happy to be here,” Fuller said.

The transition from military life to civilian life, the application of skills, the missing sense of purpose – issues student veterans face remain as puzzling and perplexing as they were more than four decades ago, but CCRI continues to bridge the gap through efforts such as the Human Library Project, an important learning tool for both civilians and veterans alike.

“In the ’40s, you could throw a rock and hit a veteran or someone who was currently serving, but nowadays it’s just not the case,” Steiner said. “I’m more than happy to talk to people about these things because I think there’s this big problem right with the civilian/military divide. That’s why I come back to CCRI.”

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Last Updated: 11/7/17