Senior Stories: Brian Hawthorne: The veterans advocate

May 10, 2010
by Madeleine Morgenstern

Brian Hawthorne is far from your typical GW senior. One of about 400 veterans on campus, he served two tours in Iraq as an Army medic.

The founder and president of the GW Veterans organization, his first tour from 2005 to 2006 was during the Iraqi elections, and his second one was from 2007 to 2008 as part of the surge strategy.

Hawthorne said he gets lots of questions from students, including "Did you ever kill anyone?"

His canned response when asked "How was Iraq?" is usually some variation of, "It was hot."

"My experience was mostly positive and not because I drank the Kool Aid," Hawthorne said. "I volunteered for both tours. It wasn't awful for me."

Like any diverse population, Hawthorne said that not all veterans have the same experience transitioning to college life.

"We're just older, we're coming from somewhere else," Hawthorne said of his fellow veterans.

"Some vets say 'these stupid kids will never understand," Hawthorne said. "School's hard. Are things more trivial? Sure.[but] it doesn't make anybody right or wrong."

For example, if he's running five minutes late to a class, he'll get over it, whereas that might be "a crisis" for an average 21-year-old.

"The population does clash and there is no doubt about that," Hawthorne said.

As the legislative director of the Student Veterans of America, an organization that advocates for veteran issues on college campuses, Hawthorne has testified before Congress several times. He added that GW is "one of the best" schools for veteran services.

Hawthorne said the Iraq war has also frequently come up during discussions in class.

"Everybody handles it differently," Hawthorne said. "Some teachers avoid it like the plague."

He said he appreciated it when one of his professors pulled him aside to let him know ahead of time when the class would be talking about the war, and assured him that she wouldn't call him out to give his opinion.

Hawthorne said he doesn't mind talking about his experiences, but it can be difficult in a classroom setting.

"Suddenly you are the government, you are George Bush himself justifying it," Hawthorne said. "We get painted with that brush, 'Oh well of course we must agree with what the commander in chief did.'"