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Honoring Veterans Day at UMass Boston’s William Joiner Institute

How do we acknowledge the decision to serve, and the subsequent sacrifice veterans and their families make? How do we remember the fallen, or others impacted by war or military service?  How do we heal the visible and invisible wounds that have been inflicted during conflict or peacetime missions? There is a growing divide developing between veterans, their families or others impacted by war or military service and the communities they live in. These very questions are exacerbated by a lack of understanding, differing opinions or changing values that require societal review and attention to ensure appropriate and earned recognition of the sacrifices made. Places like the William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences here at UMass Boston are dedicated to helping understand and develop innovative ways to shrink and bridge that divide to promote honoring, remembering, and healing.

UMass Boston’s first Director of Veterans Affairs was an African American named William Gilbert Joiner Jr. Joiner from Lawrenceville, Illinois. He died of service-related liver cancer at 39 years old in 1981. The cancer was connected to his time stationed at Guam while serving in the U.S. Army. During the Vietnam War, he helped in loading 55-gallon drums of Agent Orange for frontline use in the war. The Veterans Administration website states that Agent Orange was “a tactical herbicide the U.S. military used to clear leaves and vegetation for military operations mainly during the Vietnam War” and that it has been proven to cause cancers and other illnesses. 

The Joiner Institute’s namesakes life and death as a sobering reminder that war affects us in ways that we wouldn’t necessarily expect. From its earliest days, the “invisible” consequences of war have been a focal point of the institute.  Staff and researchers at the Joiner Institute worked quietly and diligently to help the serious and often overlooked social consequences of war. A unique feature of the institute’s mission has been that they have helped thousands by facilitating healing among soldiers from opposing sides. In the article ‘William Joiner Institute Under Siege’ the writer Marc Levy, an Infantry Medic in the First Cavalry Division that served in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970, recounts a heart tugging and ultimately uplifting story of attending the annual William Joiner Institute Writer’s Workshop in 2000. There he came face to face with Bao Ninh, a former enemy soldier he had previously only encountered in the jungles of Vietnam. After they embraced as if “long-lost friend[s]” they spent three hours talking, and the cathartic experience helped Levy “defeat the demon” that had haunted his dreams.  

The Institute’s influence has expanded over time.  In addition to building a bridge from Boston to Vietnam, the Joiner Institute connected Iraqis and Americans through the Boston-Basra Project. According to the Joiner Institute website, “the Boston-Basra Project seeks to make connections among scholars, artists, and students in the United States (principally in the Boston area) and at the University of Basra in Iraq.” Similarly, to address the growing Iraqi refugee population in Massachusetts, the Joiner Institute in collaboration with the Odysseus Project created the ‘Tamziq, Scattered and Connected Project’, facilitating a “Conversation in Art by Middle Eastern and American Artists.”  Both examples fulfill the Institute’s role to honor, remember and heal those impacted by war or military service.

On July 9, 2020, Thomas Miller took the helm of the William Joiner Institute as the Interim Director to refresh its focus and guide it firmly into the future. Tom, a graduate of the United States Coast Guard Academy and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, comes from a family with a long tradition of military service, with relatives having served in most major wars since the American revolution. He takes this charge seriously, it’s personal. With the natural aura of military bearing that comes from a lifetime of military service and leadership experience, Tom says he wants to “pivot the institute’s focus slightly with the objective of placing it on a path that will secure its presence on the UMass Boston campus for another 40 years.  I can think of no better way to honor William Joiner’s legacy”.  The new direction of the institute is characterized by a holistic long-term advocacy to celebrate, research, and support veterans and others affected by war or military service. There is a primary focus on studying and implementing initiatives to reduce the daily veteran suicide rate, and building a diverse research portfolio that attracts the attention of current and future donors, corporations, foundations and private sector companies to value and support the institute’s initiatives. 

VET-NET, short for Veteran-Network, is a foundational program of the new approach that looks to “Engage, Elevate, and Integrate Veteran Excellence” to enhance our communities and organizations.  This initiative is based fundamentally on establishing an unbroken commitment to the returning service member and their families, leveraging veteran experiences to serve, guide and inspire others, and developing and sustaining life-long bonds across cohorts and communities. Tom says, “The entry point into the VET-NET community begins when military members leave the service and walk through the doors at UMass Boston as a veteran student and continues during their career, through retirement and beyond”. There are two Joiner Institute research fellowships that will be offered in the coming months in partnership with College of Science and Mathematics, to develop a pilot VET-NET program for veteran students in the sciences. A third fellowship is pending approval from an external funding agency to support VET-NET implementation.

Collaboration being key to success, Tom has a long-term vision of partnering with new and longstanding institutions like the Veterans Administration (VA), the Home Base Program, Edge4Vets, the Private Sector, and the Myriad Veteran Service Groups and researchers on campus including the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging and the Department of Psychology to leverage research, shared knowledge and common interests to produce high-impact, far-reaching results. For example, he describes a recent assessment of veteran’s services in the Town of Natick, completed in collaboration with UMass Boston’s Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging, which had some interesting preliminary findings noting that, “the key is figuring out how to build the interagency partnership to attract the interest of the state to expand this study across the commonwealth, and then the VA to expand this study nationally.” There is also an exciting new collaborative proposal with the USS Constitution Museum that is pending a funding decision with the National Endowment of the Humanities, called Sailors Speak: The impact of war on naval veterans, their families, and the country. Tom notes, “this is a new, potentially very promising partner for the Institute.”

It is important to remember that war and peace are never permanent conditions, but both require the dedicated service and sacrifice of many.  Inspiring service in others, inspiring the acknowledgement in others of the motivation and sacrifice that comes with selfless service, and inspiring those who served or were impacted by war or military service by honoring, remembering and healing will help cure the pandemic that haunts nearly 20 million veterans across our nation, that being veteran suicide, and closing the divide between veteran and civilian members in our communities. The William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences has been a stalwart source of information, advocacy, and healing for decades. Its revised mission has it continuing its leadership role in informing, developing and implementing equitable policies, programs and pathways to help ensure the health, safety, well-being and success of veterans, their families and others impacted by war or military service, without exception. On this national day of remembrance, we should all follow their lead to honor and remember the service and the sacrifice of many to promote our collective healing.


Information obtained directly from:

Thomas Miller

Interim Director 

The William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences, UMass Boston 

(617) 287-5604

[email protected]
Sources used: