WASHINGTON – Veterans groups are seething over news that wounded Iraq war veteran Anthony Maschek was heckled by fellow Columbia University students during a recent forum about bringing ROTC back to the school.
The former Army staff sergeant was shot 11 times and lost a leg in a firefight in northern Iraq in February 2008, and spent two years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center recovering from his wounds. He was hissed and booed last week as he spoke out in support of the ROTC program and the military, according to news reports.
Yesterday, Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander Richard Eubank issued an angry statement condemning the response, calling those involved “banal and juvenile” and questioning the school’s leadership.
“The faculty and the parents of the students who participated in the harassment of Mr. Maschek need to be reminded that all the freedoms we enjoy as Americans have been earned by generations of patriots such as Anthony who were willing to fight to protect the liberties we, as Americans, enjoy,” he wrote. “This is particularly true when considering the current war on terrorism is a direct result of the devastating attacks that occurred ten years ago in Columbia’s neighborhood.”
Jimmie Foster, national commander of The American Legion, said in a statement that while his group supports the rights of students to protest the return of ROTC "we cannot condone the lack of civility and ad hominem attacks directed at one of our nation's heroes. Students’ time would be better spent honoring this brave soldier for the wounds he sustained in honorable service, and acquiring an appreciation for the price others paid for the freedom they now enjoy."
The story has become a popular target for conservative commentators, blasting the school as a haven for out-of-touch elitists. Students at the event carried anti-military signs reading “The military preys on low income communities” and “1 in 3 female soldiers experiences sexual assault in the military.”
The university actually has one of the largest student veteran chapters in the country, and students there were among the founders of Student Veterans of America. In a post on the Department of Veterans Affairs blog, writer Alex Horton said the events shouldn’t be an indictment against all students at the school, but they do raise troubling questions about the health of civilian-veteran relations throughout the country.
“A lack of interaction with active duty members and Veterans has bred ignorance, mistrust, and fear that must be reversed if Vets are going to succeed after their service,” he wrote.
In a statement to the school newspaper Monday night, Maschek defended the school, saying that the heckling came from “a small number of individuals” and overall his time at the school has been positive.
“Thus far, my fellow students have been very interested in hearing about my past life and military experiences,” he said. “Columbia has been attempting to get more veterans to share their experiences here, and the atmosphere here has been supportive despite the actions of a very small minority of the town hall participants.”
University officials are considering lifting the school’s 42-year ban on ROTC chapters on campus, and have created a task force to poll students and faculty on the issue. No timeline has been announced for that decision.