Vassar Vets: Service Doesn’t Stop after the Military

Photos Kelly Marsh

Veterans’ lives are definitely shaped by their military experience, but they shouldn’t be viewed simply through a “veterans’ lens.” That was the consensus of a panel of three military veterans and a member of a military family whose lives have also been shaped by their experiences at Vassar.

Members of the “Service after Service” panel, hosted by the Vassar Veterans Association (VVA), were: three U.S. Army veterans—Francisco Andrade ’22, Nicole Leadenham ’18, and Assistant Professor of Education Jaime Del Razo—and Professor of Psychological Science Abigail Baird ’91, the daughter of a Marine sergeant. The VVA’s annual pre-Veterans Day event was held Wednesday, November 9, in Rockefeller Hall. VVA President Brittany Andrade ’24 moderated the event.

‘Service after Service’ panelists
“Service after Service” panelists (from left): veteran Francisco Andrade ’22, Professor of Psychological Science Abigail Baird ’91, veteran Nicole Leadenham ’18, and Assistant Professor of Education Jaime Del Razo.

All three veteran panelists said they believed the military culture that values teamwork and putting the goals of the group above those of the individual had contributed to their desire to find ways to serve their communities after leaving the military. “A sense of community is important to me,” Del Razo said, “and in the military, you were instilled with a feeling of belonging and the need to hold each other up.”

Leadenham, a clinical social worker who often counsels veterans, said her time in the military had helped to instill in her a desire to “give part of myself to something bigger than myself.” Andrade agreed, saying soldiers are taught the value of being part of a larger community. 

Baird said her father had taught his children to take responsibility for what is happening in their community “and if you see something wrong and do nothing to fix it, you’re just as much to blame because everyone has an obligation to help whenever you can.”

Nicole Leadenham ’18, Jaime Del Razo and Brittany Andrade laughing and smiling during panel discussion.
Much of the discussion was serious, but there was plenty of levity too. Left to right: Nicole Leadenham ’18, Jaime Del Razo, and Brittany Andrade ’24, President of the Vassar Veterans Association and moderator of the panel discussion.

All three veterans said they often feel they are perceived as different from those who did not serve in the military. Del Razo said that when he left the military and enrolled in college, he joined the campus chapter of the Latinx group MEChA, an organization that was formed during the Chicano movement of the mid-20th century. “I wanted to be part of my Chicano identity, but some people thought I was an infiltrator,” he said. “They suspected me because I was a vet.”

Baird said she noticed that her father often seemed to be more comfortable around other veterans than he was around civilians. “Dad was more likely to go to the American Legion rather than to a regular bar,” she said.

During the question-and-answer session, Dean of Student Living and Wellness Luis Inoa asked the vets how they react when a civilian greets them with the stock phrase, “Thank you for your service.” Andrade said such encounters sometimes trigger an “impostor syndrome,” prompting him to ask, “Have I actually done something you should be thankful for?”

Leadenham agreed, saying, “For me that question is always awkward,” and Del Razo said his immediate thought is, “You don’t know what I did.” He said he realizes that those who use the phrase “mean well, but they just don’t know how to react to us. We’ve seen and done stuff that’s hard for others to relate to.”

Del Razo said he hoped that Veterans Day would serve as a time when those who never served in the military would use the occasion to engage in meaningful conversations with veterans. “On Veterans Day, or any other day, get to know us,” he said. “We hurt, we help, and we love, just like you.”

November 10, 2022