Charlie was the keystone to an archway at the University of Dallas everyone passed under, but few looked for. Like any good piece of architecture, he was ever-present but unobtrusive. You didn't register Charlie, despite his constant presence on the UD public thoroughfare--the Mall--until one day you did, and then you noticed him everywhere, all the time, doing all sorts of things. Driving around campus in the squad car. Unlocking dorm rooms for students neglectful of their keys. Rounding up a raccoon scampering in the ceiling tiles. Talking electoral strategy with the professors of the politics department. Unraveling the philosophic storylines of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other pop culture phenoms to his student workers. Walking along the pathways with the UD president because the president wanted to consult him. Calling an ambulance and being immediately there to make safe the student, staff, or visitor who'd half-drowned in the pool, fallen and experienced heart-attack symptoms, or who'd overdosed on pills or something else because stressed, sleep-deprived, and suicidal.
Charlie Steadman was the captain of the UD Campus Safety department before I arrived in 2002, and he was still there when I left a decade later, guarding--not policing, he'd emphasize--the university and its students so that it could be the place of joyful learning, and intellectual and emotional striving into adulthood, that the typical UD student and her family assumed UD to be. UD is a small, Catholic, liberal arts school with perhaps the strongest core curriculum in the nation. There are so many classes across so many disciplines that all UD students take that the layers of connections and camaraderie that get built up to mean that UD alums come back, all the time, to socialize with each other, former professors and staff, and younger siblings currently enrolled. And they bring their babies to run around while doing so. It's a safe environment--because that's what Captain Charlie and his staff set out to ensure every day. "How are things today Charlie?" I'd holler at him when my own undergrad days progressed into graduate studies and also into a professional staff role in the Office of Student Life when I'd catch him in the early morning on the Mall. "Just another day in Mayberry!" He'd say, cheerfully, lifting his coffee cup or cigarette.
I'd not intended to work in Student Life. I was a first-generation college student from Montana, looking to learn everything I could in order to force ever wider my own professional horizons. But I had to put myself through school. If you were hired as a resident assistant (RA), in return for building community and maintaining a safe residential environment in accordance with federal laws and the institutional policies, the university would cover your room and board. I was ambivalent--I didn't really see myself in any type of "enforcement" role. But Charlie and the then director of Student Life were not interested in mini-police wannabes. They talked about the adult challenge of taking on real responsibility--of being able to make a tangible difference not because you voted up or down on some trash can placement resolution in Student Government, but because you saved a life when you noticed Sally or Jose were suicidal, for instance. How can you grow if you never accept to do hard things, with real consequences, they asked? The challenge nettled me a little, I think. I became an RA. Over time, I learned firsthand that while a growing number of individuals owed their physical life to Charlie, an even greater number owed something just as important—the example of how to be a better person, a better employee, and a better citizen.
Charlie taught many practical lessons, mostly unconsciously. He was tall, thin, gaunt even; balding with some white stubble and a mustache that eventually became a goatee of sorts, with glasses. Because of his bearing, he looked stern and disengaged. He smoked a lot at first. The first time I remember seeing him in his uniform, quietly but intently observing the Mall activities while smoking, he looked exactly like I assumed a Vietnam Vet to look like. And I assumed I ought to be a bit nervous of him and probably avoid him--he might just lash out. Charlie was indeed a Vietnam Vet--a former Army Sergeant, it turned out. But lash out? Never.
I learned from Charlie that not all who had fought in Vietnam--even if drafted to do so--felt similarly negatively (or positively) about that conflict, or about military service, or about politics and government. He'd been awarded the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Vietnam Campaign Medal with 60- Device, and the Purple Heart Medal. He was proud of his service and his country, with a keen instinct for ferreting out bullshit, official or otherwise. He introduced me to the stories of both Hal Moore and David Hackworth. Charlie's own war stories were about the adventures and opportunities he'd had, the often unbelievably messed-up military-government bureaucracy he'd been a plaything of, and about the type of skepticism and wily resourcefulness that engendered in enough uniformed American boys across ranks that not every untenable situation ended in disaster. Individuals even in behemoth bureaucracies still mattered extraordinarily, he showed.
I was not from a military family, though many in my family have served. I didn't think I was ignorant. Until Charlie, however, I'd never really stopped to think about veterans as anything other than grandfatherly and old and wounded and heroic because having served in World War II. Everyone else who'd served was just someone who'd been in the military, like my uncles. Except, that is, for those entirely separate, scary, unbalanced "Vietnam Vets." Somehow they were different from everything. But 9/11 had happened my senior year of high school, and my early college years were spent watching new American wars kick into gear, with soldiers my age--sometimes even the boyfriends of my college classmates--deploying to fight them. Perhaps because of Charlie, suddenly I wondered if these young soldiers would be known as veterans too. When they returned, what would that even mean?
One day I asked Charlie, however, it had happened that culturally, socially, journalistically, we'd assumed such a wide gulf between those who'd served in WWII and Vietnam; why it seemed being a Vietnam vet was a negative thing; why, if service to country was a positive thing, so many implied military service wasn't; and what my peers currently in Afghanistan and Iraq would have to do to be the "good" kind of veterans. Despite so much evidence in front of me that those who serve are not forced to do so through economic or professional desperation, I vaguely felt that military service was something that poorer and more rural people signed up to do; and that intellectual achievement wasn’t a part of the equation. And so I learned--to my amazement, consternation, and shame--that Charlie was not working in Campus Security because he was a Vietnam veteran. Charlie had advanced degrees in difficult subject areas; he'd had a lifetime after Vietnam as a successful business owner in the Dallas area; he was easily among the smartest, most experienced, and most astute individuals at the university; he'd chosen to work at UD in Campus Safety because after two heart attacks he needed a job with no stress but lots of meaningfulness. He'd found both working in Campus Safety and was content.
Over time, I also learned that (outside of the heart attacks, perhaps) Charlie was hardly unique among his Vietnam veteran peers in this regard--that Vietnam veterans were nothing like their frequent portrayal as losers, bums, drug addicts, drunks, or derelicts, with the potential to go berserk at any moment; but rather that they were immensely successful, holding down long-term jobs, with houses and children, retirement accounts and voting records. In the meantime, I'd come to know that Charlie was anything but stern and forbidding. He was private and quiet, immensely kind and generous (every year cooking a multi-course gourmet Thanksgiving meal for any student or staff having to work on campus over the holiday, for instance), but fiercely just. "Do no harm" was a mantra. Working alongside him, I had to come to learn that justice is rarely the easiest to swallow, but that not being just does real harm in seen and unseen ways well outside the realm of feelings. Just knowing Charlie, I grew to believe that the narratives we'd been telling about Vietnam veterans, and the decades of negative ramifications of those narratives, were profoundly unjust, and indeed, have done real harm.
I hardly expected, when Charlie proudly gave me a (first ever) farewell hug as I moved forward in my career and away from Texas, that within a few years, I'd have the opportunity to re-investigate not just the Vietnam veteran narrative but the entire veteran narrative in a professional capacity. And again, to my surprise, I found that despite more than a decade at war, few knew anything concrete about the contemporary veteran at all, outside of a presumption of trauma. Yes, the Post-9/11 veterans were seemingly always "supported" even when the wars they fought in were condemned, unlike their Vietnam counterparts. Yes, huge efforts were made to recognize and treat the effects of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. Yes, those in uniform were (are) recognized for their service, even treated with deference in public settings. And yet, we hardly study veterans seriously at all.
We don’t stop to consider the society and settings from whence they originally joined the military; how that influences what type of soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine they are realistically going to be while in uniform; nor do we link through these two stages or phases to illuminate what they'll naturally experience once separated from the military, now as "veterans." In fact, neither among national security policymakers nor scholars nor in academia is there in evidence efforts to think about the links between military veterans and potential military recruits--to think of a military life cycle per se, having its own particular bearing on the All Volunteer Force.
"Ask questions, and then ask more questions, and with a smile, ask still more." Charlie showed the importance of being restless with assumptions and relentless in uncovering the solid stonework of an argument, of never presuming that because today looks like yesterday, yesterday's judgments remain relevant. The clichéd expression "never judge a book by its cover" of course covers Charlie too, but it's hardly accurate. What Charlie taught, what he revealed, was that perhaps the most fruitful way of going forward was to approach every person, and every situation, as having something inherently worthwhile he, or she, or it, could impart to you, if only you had enough generosity of mind to pursue it, and learn it.
Captain Charlie Steadman died this past week. He’d suffered intensely but silently from cancer for a few months. He died just as President Biden was revealing that after twenty years of war, US troops will be withdrawing from Afghanistan on the anniversary of 9/11. Still immensely unclear is what this withdrawal means for the Global War on Terror—whether it is over and whether, consequently, the AVF will return to the legal classification of a peacetime military. What does any of this mean for GWOT veterans? It's a question more relevant today than it was twenty years ago, with the AVF approaching its fifty-year mark and having to think about the next fifty years ahead of it.
No matter the exact composition or classification of the Armed Forces moving forward, however, the need for service will never go away. Not just service while in the military, but afterward, or outside of it, too.
Charlie's service to the students, faculty, and staff of UD for more than twenty years had nothing and yet everything to do with having been a Vietnam Veteran. Charlie had served in the military because he wanted to be of service to his fellow Americans, and to his country, even in a difficult time. His service was his personal, civic investment in the continuity of the American experiment in self-government, which he reduplicated at every level and every stage of his life afterward. Those of us who knew Charlie will be forever enriched by the quiet strength of that unexpected example, from that tall gaunt man with a beautiful soul. Those of us who know similar Charlies in our lives have a duty though, too, I think--to serve our familiars and our civic communities with similar pride and generosity, humility and knowledge, whether ever in any uniform or not. We ought to be Charlie.
How otherwise has the structural architecture upholding American democracy ever been maintained?
Rebecca Burgess is editor and associate scholar at The Classics of Strategy and Diplomacy project, and a 2021 National Security Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.