Missoula College to launch state’s first course on veteran experience

Retired Col. John Keefe of Missoula, who served two tours in the Korean conflict and two more in Vietnam, was shot by a sniper in 1966. Of the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, he said, “I’m glad to be participating with them every chance I get, and this particular chapter does great things for the community.” (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

One in 10 Montana residents has served in the U.S. military, a unique experience that’s rarely considered for coursework at the state’s colleges and universities.

Missoula College looks to change that.

The school on Thursday was awarded a $97,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop the state’s first veterans studies course. The program could begin as early as next year and is intended to help students understand the experiences of veterans and their families.

“It will allow us to expand a much-needed area of study that will stimulate awareness of the veteran experience,” said Clint Reading, associate dean of Missoula College. “In addition to the classroom study, the outreach component will be a wonderful way to explore the many positive contributions that our veterans provide to the community.”

Per capita, Montana currently boasts one of the largest veteran populations in the country, according to the International Brotherhood of Veterans.

Of the state’s 99,600 vets, more than 75,000 were listed as wartime veterans in 2013. Roughly 7,800 of those served during Vietnam, 4,000 during the Korean conflict and 31,000 during the Gulf War.

More than 91,000 state veterans are male and 8,400 are female.

Yet despite their numbers, the veteran experience has been largely overlooked as a subject of study. Missoula College believes the challenges vets face after service are also misunderstood by health care providers, social workers and government employees.

That presents a unique opportunity for an equally unique program of study.

“The course will encourage enrollment of non-veterans and veterans alike to enrich it with diverse perspectives, experiences and questions,” said Reading. “This will also provide Montana student veterans an opportunity to better comprehend their own experiences in the context of a broader systematic study.”

The grant was secured with the help of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and will enable Missoula College to design a class to help students understand the experience of veterans and their families.

Reading said the course will explore the “institutional, cultural and relational dimensions of the military/veteran experience” in partnership with other departments at University of Montana.

Those include English, history, political science, social work, psychology, and public and community health. Lt. Col. Elizabeth Barrs – a graduate student pursuing a doctorate in history at UM – submitted the original grant proposal and will help develop the course.

Barrs is a retired Army officer who helped launch a similar program at Eastern Kentucky University.

“Only a handful of institutions across the country offer similar courses or programs,” Reading said. “The Missoula College class will be the first of its kind at a Montana university.”