On Campus, Young Veterans Are Learning How to Be Millennials

They spent their early 20s in combat zones. Now they're back in school, struggling to fit in with their peers and figure out the rest of their lives.

James Cetto -- shown here in 2004 as an infantry sergeant in Ramadi, Iraq -- is currently studying business at Framingham State College in Massachusetts. (Courtesy of James Cetto)

Millennials are lazy. Millennials are privileged, overeducated, and basking in an extended adolescence. Millennials will earn less than their parents. They’re anxious. They’re entitled. Ask anyone. Ask The New York Times.

Or ask James Cetto, a former Marine. He was born in the 80s, when the American image of war looked like Tom Cruise playing volleyball. After high school, there was nothing preventing him from going straight into college and coasting through classes. Then 9/11 happened.

“I joined out of sense of service,” he says. “I was young, and slightly naïve about the U.S.’ role in the world. I’ve evolved my sentiments since, but at the time, it was like: hey, we gotta go do something.”

He served as an infantry sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, deploying twice to Ramadi, Iraq. He was bombed. Shot at. He shot back, and learned what it was like to watch someone bleed to death. He saw friends rubbed out by roadside bombs and mortars and small arms fire. When it was all over, he was just happy to be alive, and after he figured that out—after he squared himself with the five people he killed in Iraq, memories buried for years under what doctors called “post-traumatic amnesia”—he became a much better student.

Cetto now studies business at Framingham State College near Worcester, Massachusetts. “I don’t know if I’m just thankful, but I’m really focused on the next phase of my life,” he says. Unlike many of his classmates, he says, he doesn’t take safety and stability for granted. “These are kids who think it’s great that they can stay on their mom’s insurance,” he says. “The lens I see things through, it’s absolutely different from theirs.”

Alex Horton, an Army rifleman, shares Cetto’s mindset, and his sense of alienation from his peers. Horton always thought he might join the military. When the U.S. pushed Iraq out of Kuwait in 1990, he was 6 years old, playing Nintendo and watching the war unfold on CNN. But it was a vague inkling, and in his junior year, 9/11 clarified his future.

“These conflicts happen once in a generation,” he said. “And this was our generation. This was our once.” He enlisted as soon as he was able, working at a baseball stadium for $6.50 an hour while he waited for his paperwork to crawl through the system.

Horton served with the Army’s Third Stryker Brigade in three of Iraq’s most violent cities: Mosul, Baghdad, and Baqubah. His deployment was extended to augment the troop surge of 2007, and he spent 15 months in combat. One he returned home, hypervigilance left him with a weird high. Colors and smells were more vivid. He could drink in street noises like a sommelier, picking out individual sounds, tasting for threats.

Horton cashed in his G.I. Bill at Georgetown University. He was a native of Texas, and he barely escaped high school with his diploma, but there he was, reading Moby Dick in a bastion of East Coast privilege and ambition.

“They grew up loving lacrosse and hanging out at Martha’s Vineyard—that’s what they did,” he says. “That wasn’t my experience.”

That difference in background made Horton see all his classes in a whole other light. His friends read Moby Dick and saw the story of a whale hunt. Horton saw a man who lost his leg and set out for vengeance. He knew Ahabs. And he knew what it felt like to cling to the timbers with his shipmates, hurtling forward on a mission that threatened, at any moment, to kill them all.


Millennial veterans tend to get trapped between two stereotypes. Either they’re aimless, privileged youth, or they’re psychologically scarred warriors struggling to reintegrate into society. “You’re a hipster, or a PTSD vet ready to explode,” Cetto says. “People are really nice about it, but they’re nice in a way that they’re nervous, instead of being normal people.”

Sure, some Millennial vets are adrift, and some grapple with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but perhaps not as many as people tend to think. According to a study conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, Americans falsely believe a majority of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD (according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the figure is between 10 to 20 percent).

Professor Jeffrey Arnett, one of the academics shaping the conversation, is careful to parse the term “Millennial” from “emerging adult,” which he coined. While the former is a generational definition—roughly describing those born during the 80s and early 90s and came of age during the Aughts—the latter is a social condition.

Emerging adults feel they stand somewhere between adolescence and true adulthood, which, Arnett says, separates them from the majority of veterans. “I would expect that when veterans come out of the military, they feel like they’re already there,” he said. “They’re not in this in-between state that most emerging adults find themselves.”

Arnett identifies the assumption of responsibility as adulthood’s defining trait. “There’s a certain exhilarating freedom to it,” he says. But for most emerging adults, “there’s a lot of anxiety. So there’s mixed feelings about reaching adulthood for that reason: you’re required to do a lot more, and be more responsible.”

Despite the rigid hierarchy of the military, Arnett says, the veterans he’s interviewed seem more empowered and eager to make decisions than their counterparts. Even if their responsibilities were few, and the consequences of their decisions limited, they owned them entirely.

“They feel like they are given responsibility,” he says. “They have very specific duties to carry out, that they are then held responsible for. They feel a certain autonomy and independence, even within the hierarchy.”

Captain Angie Hatch, a Marine flight officer, has never been allowed to not be responsible. She attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where responsibility is elevated to the level of a religion.

“I don’t really identify with Millennials,” she says simply. Still, she thinks her generation gets a bad rap, and the recent criticism is just one generation critiquing the next. “They complained about how Generation X was horrible. Every generation gets flack from the previous.”

In the Army, says Horton, the rifleman, responsibility comes with the expectation of flawless performance—because failure risks not just yourself, but also others.

“If you’re a part of something, then you can’t fail,” he said. “You’re always going to be successful, because if you fail, someone dies. There’s no other option.”


Cetto understands stress. Stress was waking up in Ramadi knowing that someone would likely try to kill him and his friends. Stress was waking up in the States, out of the Marine Corps for years, and suddenly remembering the men he’d killed.

“When I talk to college kids about stress, I don’t try to put my service out there,” he says. “But finals come by, and they lose their fucking minds about how stressed out there are, and I’m not saying they shouldn’t be nervous, but their lives won’t end if they get a B.”

At Georgetown, Horton didn’t see as much stress. This was the 4.0 crowd, after all, the kids who had aced their SATs and loaded their afternoons with extracurriculars. But he noticed a kind of rampant individualism. It wasn’t 1980s-style greed—they weren’t like Bud Fox, the young broker from the movie Wall Street who falls in profiteer Gordon Gekko. Their individualism was more socially minded.

Arnett agrees: Today’s emerging adults are less motivated less by profit, and more by purpose, than previous generations. This has been misinterpreted as entitlement, he says. “They’re just not willing to work their lifetimes in a job they hate. That’s something admirable about them, not something we should be abusing them for.”

Hatch is optimistic that her generation will use this high-mindedness to advance the social good—for instance, further mainstreaming women in the military. She says she hasn’t experienced sexism or gender discrimination, but many of her friends have “had issues with the older generation, which isn’t as used to women being in the military.”

As Millennials mature into leadership roles, she predicts, the military will become more open-minded. “I think things will get better as we get more people who are used to working with females,” she says.

Though the Millennials’ focus on personal fulfillment and social change may be admirable, Horton says, there’s something self-congratulatory about it. The volunteer trip to Honduras gets live-tweeted and the selfie with newly vaccinated children gets posted on Facebook. Credit gets claimed.

“They’re all about their piece of the pie,” he says. “That doesn’t exist in the military. Even the reward system is predicated on you doing something in the context of everyone doing something together.”

And yet, some Millennial veterans are still emerging adults. Now that they’ve returned from their service, transformed by war, they’re confronting the same basic questions their peers are facing: Now what?

“You come home, you try to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life,” he says. “But you’re trying to figure out what you just did.”

When Cetto graduates from Framingham, he figures he’ll go into small business. He’ll work for someone at first, just for the experience. Then he’ll work for himself; after years of taking orders, he’s looking forward to being his own boss.

Still, he can’t say for sure. There’s still some uncertainty about his future—some anxiety. It doesn’t come from societal expectations, or an aversion to responsibility. It comes from the disconnect between what it was like over there, then, and what it’s like here, now. But it’s anxiety all the same. And it’s an essential part of growing up.