Twelve years ago, in small desert towns in Afghanistan, Nicole Leadenham ’18 carried a rifle in her hands and a pistol strapped to her thigh. But in the corridors of Main Building at Vassar and in the classrooms in Kenyon and Blodgett this semester she carries only a notebook and pen. With this in mind, life at Vassar now proves to be a different kind of battle—devoid of life-threatening situations; yet separate from the world she knew beforehand.
Leadenham is part of Vassar’s second Posse group. Collectively, the men and women in Vassar’s posse have served in the Army, Army National Guard, Navy, and Marines. Many have seen combat and some even have prestigious medals to show for their courage, including the Purple Heart and Bronze medals. This is why you might sense the signs of maturity and complexity in them that military life does, to some extent, force upon the soldier.
Everyone in the posse group has their own reason for having joined the military. For Leadenham, who served in the Army National Guard for eleven years, serving her country was her calling. She said, “The military was something I knew I wanted to do since eighth grade. I just didn’t know in what capacity.”
Leadenham was stationed in Afghanistan in 2003 and Iraq in 2009 and like many soldiers, exudes confidence and strength. Unfortunately, however, part of what forced her to be a strong female soldier ended up being a contributing factor in her not fighting to stay in the military in the end. “It’s exhausting—having to constantly prove myself. That I am just as smart and can shoot just as well as the men.”
The combination of her tattooed arms, perfectly shaped eyebrows, black mascara and pierced nose all create the image of a feminine badass. In her first deployment, she was a gunner, so she was up in the turret with the men. She said, “The guys I was with were like my brothers. They were very defensive and protective over me.”
Leadenham told me something most might consider disgusting, but for her it was amusing. Because the roads weren’t paved in Afghanistan, she explained, they were just dirt. She chuckled, “So you’d go on missions and come back and be able to pull out these amazing dirt boogers. They were like the best thing ever.” She shrugged and nonchalantly said, “And we used to compare them.”
But like many soldiers, she experienced uncomfortable and dangerous situations overseas. She said, “It’s not something I like talking about.” She paused and shook her head as if trying to get an image out of her mind. “I’m still not okay with it.” I didn’t prod any further.
Once Leadenham leaves Vassar, she wants to go on to graduate school and work with veterans. “I want to help with the readjustment and PTSD and just kind of give back to people I feel who have given me so much just based on camaraderie and friendships I have. I think it’s easier, and I know it was for me, to talk to somebody who knew exactly what I’d been through. Someone who knows how I think and what I’ve been through.”
Unlike Leadenham, however, some posse members didn’t join the military to fulfill a lifelong dream of being a soldier. For Antoine Robinson ’18, who has been in the Army National Guard for three and a half years, the military provided an escape from homelessness and helped him feed his daughter. He said, “Being in that situation, it’s debilitating. It’s like being in prison in a way. You don’t want to be creative in that space.” But now, you can see Antoine walking around campus in his blue jacket, with ear buds in, sketchbook always by his side.
While homeless, Robinson said, “If I stayed with someone, I’d draw something for them…I drew money once to pay for food. I told them, ‘Hey, I drew this. I don’t have money but this is my currency.’” When I pointed out that he radiates individuality despite the theme of commonality in the military, Robinson said, “Most people who join the military are generally less about being intellectual or thinking of things outside the construct they are given. And that isn’t a bad thing. Its just there is a difference. I joined the military out of desperation. I didn’t feel this inherent need to serve my country… I question things that don’t make sense to me.”
Everyone in the posse group has experienced a world that most Vassar students haven’t. In Robinson’s case, his early impoverished background gave him a different kind of experience. He said, “People need to understand that Vassar is a bubble. This place isn’t like the real world. It’s safe, comfortable. It’s a comfort zone. Unless you are aware of that, leaving here and going into the world can be a harsher experience.”
For the younger Vassar community, the experience of talking, eating and learning alongside the older veterans is to a certain extent elusive. This can be attributed to the general understanding that these veterans have experiences and memories that, unless you served in the military, you have no way of understanding or fully appreciating.
Robinson pointed out that for students here at Vassar, simply reading books and writing papers is not enough; there needs to be an actual experience of things. He said, “Experiencing things intellectually doesn’t do the world justice. It’s like painting light versus seeing light in real life. There is an intellectual experience of things and actual experience of things.”
When I asked him if that meant I was doomed to only see the painting of light and never actually see light for what it is, his response was unexpected. “It’s how you relate to the life you have been given and how you co-exist with the other lives around you. You don’t need to be a part of these experiences (war and poverty) to find the correlation with your life because the correlation is already there. It’s how you consume that and use it.”
Vassar students can learn from the older posse students. Nicole said, “Even though the age difference and traditional Vassar environment can be overwhelming at times, I feel ike I’m in the right place in my life to bridge that gap.”