Wounded Warriors: Ignatius of Loyola and Veteran Students

By Thu T. Do and Mary Dluhy

Military veterans at Jesuit colleges and universities have for generations found a special patron in Ignatius of Loyola, whose personal experience as a wounded warrior sparked the conversion that eventually led to the foundation of the Society of Jesus and his canonization in the Catholic Church.  Yet, the image of Ignatius of Loyola as the wounded warrior is ambiguous. Thus, this essay aims to add context and discuss Ignatius’ experience as a wounded warrior in connection with veteran students at Jesuit colleges and universities. We hope to provide some recommendations for Jesuit colleges and universities to better serve veteran students.

  "St. Ignatius Convalescences at Loyola" by Albert Chevaillier-Tayle

"St. Ignatius Convalescences at Loyola" by Albert Chevaillier-Tayle

 Born in 1491 in a noble Spanish family, Ignatius of Loyola was trained as a knight. During the siege of Pamplona between the French and Spanish in 1521, Ignatius was severely wounded when a cannonball shattered one of his legs. During his recovery at Castle Loyola, Ignatius suffered severely, both physically and spiritually. Dreaming of conquering a royal lady’s heart, Ignatius submitted to agonizing surgery with the hope of restoring the physical appearance of his deformed leg. While recuperating from his wounds at Castle Loyola, Ignatius alternated between reading courtly romances and devotional books, such as the Lives of the Saints and the Life of Christ. This alternation in reading provoked in him two sets of daydreams: in one set, he was a knight doing great deeds to win the favor of a high-born lady; in another, he was a follower of Christ after the examples of Saints Francis of Assisi or Dominic. Both sets of daydreams left him with different feelings. He found himself “dry and dissatisfied” after the former, but he remained “satisfied and joyful” after the latter. For the first time, Ignatius discerned the feelings of his heart to discover his meaning and purpose of his life.

Ignatius went on to a pilgrimage of spiritual conversion, seeking ways to actualize his life’s meaning and purpose. As a knight and soldier, Ignatius had developed many personal qualities – bravery, heroism, determination, and fighting spirit. Ignatius’ aggressive pursuit of the service of God suggests the mentality of a warrior. Ignatius started going back to school, sitting in class with teenagers at the age of 33, eventually receiving his Master’s degree at the age of 44. He went on to a lifetime of accomplishments. These accomplishments include his profound spiritual experiences, which found concrete expression both in the Spiritual Exercises, a retreat format known for its spiritually and emotionally transformative effects, as well as in the founding of the Society of Jesus, a religious order now sponsoring hundreds of institutions of secondary and higher education around the world.

Ignatius is recognized as the patron saint of veterans because of his knighthood and military experience. Like Ignatius, veterans, service members, and wounded warriors experience both physical and spiritual sufferings. Leaving the military and returning to the civilian life, veterans often miss the sense of commitment to an important mission, deep fellowship, and intense stimulation on the battlefield. When they no longer feel themselves to be contributing to an important communal effort, they begin to experience a lack of meaning and purpose in life, an emptiness highly correlated with suicidal ideation among veterans. Veterans leave the service for a variety of reasons, including the desire to pursue higher education, personal struggles, disability, or troop drawdowns. They may be struggling with their identity, their decision to matriculate, and their decision to return to civilian life.

A sudden shift from the highly structured military to a less structured college environment can be challenging for veteran students when they go to college. In fact, the challenge of reintegrating into society while pursuing a college education might be the most difficult barrier a student veteran faces. Veterans are transitioning into a college environment that often does not understand them and can at times be unsupportive. According to Pew Research Center (2011), about 84 percent of post-9/11 veterans report that the public does not understand the problems they and their families face, and 71 percent of the general public agrees.

According to a report issued by Department of Veterans Affairs in 2012, over 800,000 veterans and family members are enrolled in American colleges nationwide under the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act. Many of them are among the new generation of combat veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. A student veteran is anyone on active-duty, in reserve or National Guard status, retired from the military, or who has completed military service and participates in college education. They range widely in age, from 18 to senior citizen status, but average 33 years of age. They are more likely to be married or have children compared to the overall American college student population.

In response to the increasing number of veterans returning to college, all 28 Jesuit colleges and universities are committed to welcoming veterans and providing them support. Veterans certainly bring enormous promise for enriching college and university campuses. Ignatius changed his life by pursuing his goals and purpose. His convalescence after military service was significant because it helped him discern his life purpose, enabling him to identify the life goals he would pursue. J. F. Cassidy (1933), in St. Ignatius of Loyola and Militant Christianity, claimed that Ignatius was a man, but never ceased to be a soldier. He was not only a soldier who became a saint, but also a saint because he was a soldier. Ignatius transformed his heroic experiences as a soldier to serve God and His people. Perhaps one of the great treasures he left for the veteran students is his art of discerning life’s meaning and purpose. It is thus in keeping with best of the Ignatian tradition for Jesuit colleges and universities to assist veteran students in making decision and discerning life goals.

To enhance the student veteran experience on a campus, it is important to have resources and programs to enable veterans to make the transition. An office dedicated to student veterans is helpful.

The Veterans Office can serve as an essential place for the student veteran to connect with his or her individual needs in making the transition to campus. Programming might include a Veterans Support Team as exists at Georgetown University.  The team includes campus partners who provide services to veterans. This team serves to collaborate and to discern, with participating student veterans, the types of services most needed by the student veteran community. Such services include navigating the admissions process, applying for financial aid and U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs education benefits, academic assistance, counseling and mentoring to prepare to re-enter the workforce. Student veterans can access information about campus resources and services through the admissions office or by keying in veterans via the website of the college or university.

It is also useful for there to be vet ally programs on campus that invite or include faculty and staff who will have veterans in their classrooms or programs. These programs teach awareness of veterans concerns and ways to integrate veterans on the campus. Some key factors for faculty to be aware of about student veterans are social/emotional issues, such as isolation and feeling excluded or different. Signs of PTSD and the relevant resources available on the campus are also important for those working with veterans to know.

Ignatius of Loyola had a profound impact on the world.  His legacy of being a wounded warrior discerning his spirituality and his leadership in education serves as a model to inspire our work with student veterans in colleges and universities. It is indeed helpful, if not essential, for colleges and universities to provide student veterans with the resources they need to successfully transfer from the classroom to selecting a new life path.

Thu T. Do, LHC, is a doctoral student in Higher Education Administration in the School of Education at Saint Louis University.

Mary Dluhy, MSW, LICSW is Director of Group Initiatives and Special Programs in the Division of Student Affairs at Georgetown University. She serves as Special Asst. to the VP for Student Affairs. Mary supervises the work of the Director of the Veterans Office. She is a faculty member of the American Group psychotherapy Association and of the Washington School of Psychiatry’s National Group Psychotherapy institute where she is a large Group Consultant. 

The photo "St. Ignatius Convalescences at Loyola" by Albert Chevaillier-Tayle appears here courtesy of the Institute for Jesuit Sources.