Blake Rondeau ’16 readily admits that his time in the Marines wasn’t what he was expecting, which added a certain strain to his return to the United States. Rondeau counts himself among the more fortunate, though, because he received the help he needed, and includes his St. Thomas education as one of the resources that has aided him on his new path in civilian life.
That path, lately, has become increasingly dedicated to helping other veterans: Rondeau works for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs and spent time this year with the Echoes of War project through the Minnesota Humanities Center. In October, the program brought together community members to consider how we memorialize war and to discuss that there is often more nuance to veterans’ stories than what the binary of PTSD and hero worship offers.
For Rondeau, who majored in communication and journalism and English, the program perfectly aligned with his background and his goals.
“This is my life purpose now,” Rondeau said. “I went to school and got everything that I wanted. Then it was like, ‘OK, that’s great. I should probably help other people.’”
Military experience and a humanities background
Rondeau enlisted in the Marines in 2008 while feeling “stuck” in his life: He was working through a year of community college that he had promised his mom, but felt as if everyone around him had deployed. He also applied and was accepted to the United States Naval Academy, which would have allowed him to earn a Bachelor of Science degree as well as a commission as a second lieutenant. But when his number came to deploy, he said “I needed to deploy more.”
So, Rondeau deployed in February 2011 as a non-commissioned officer in a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which places about 2,200 Marines with a range of capabilities on Navy ships. A MEU then can be sent quickly anywhere in the world to handle many situations.
Rondeau initially believed he was heading for Afghanistan. When the tsunami and earthquake hit Japan, he was briefly told they would help with disaster relief. Ultimately, his MEU patrolled the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
“But it wasn’t Afghanistan and it wasn’t Iraq,” Rondeau said. That stuck with him when returned in late 2011.
“There’s the mindset of, ‘Did I really deploy?’” Rondeau said. “I had given up this appointment at the Naval Academy … and I was dead set on deploying to the Middle East and I didn’t.”
He said he came back with a lot of anger and confusion because of that, which was heaped on top of his acclimation to civilian life, where he went from leading 15 Marines to serving coffee as a barista.
Despite that, Rondeau said he “came out in a good situation.” He credits his then fiancée and now wife with helping him through the transition process and said he received the help he needed at a rather “expedited rate compared to other people.”
“There were many good things coming my way,” Rondeau said. “I know I’m a rarity in vets that are getting out.”
One of those “good things” was his education at St. Thomas.
“I was getting educated and it was everything I wanted it to be,” Rondeau said. “I had the professors I wanted and just the care and attention that I wanted and needed.”
Rondeau actively used his education to unpack his military experience. His senior focus was on symbolic convergence theory, and how talking creates relationships. At the same time, Amy Muse, chair of the English Department, had connected with Rondeau in a class and recommended he read Theater of War by Bryan Doerries, which details how theater can be used to help veterans. He also scored an internship with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affair, which transitioned into his full-time position after he graduated.
While Rondeau worked on his own healing process, he continued to realize he wanted to help other veterans. That need was underscored when a good friend he had been deployed with killed himself.
“I realized I needed to do more right now,” Rondeau said.
Helping the community
So, when the Echoes of War opportunity emerged – a chance to use his military experience and his humanities background – Rondeau eagerly applied.
This was the first year the Minnesota Humanities Center did Echoes of War, which was funded through a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. Echoes of War was one part of the center’s Veterans’ Voices program, now in its fourth year, which takes place during October, Veterans Voices Month in Minnesota.
“The idea behind that is there’s an incomplete narrative about what it means to have served in the military,” said Kirk MacKinnon Morrow, program officer at the center. “People get characterized as being social problems or superheroes, but veterans are humans with complex stories that don’t fit into this false binary.”
The Echoes of War program brought together 11 discussion leaders with different backgrounds and perspectives on war, who helped facilitate conversations with the community on topics such as poetry, plays and memorials, to come to a more nuanced understanding of veterans. Some discussion leaders, like Rondeau, were veterans, and had served in Iraq or Vietnam, but among the leaders was a conscientious objector, as well as an oral historian, who focused on women nurses and veterans from Vietnam. The leaders served two groups, one in Northfield and one in St. Paul, who met four times throughout October and the beginning of November.
“Blake is an incredible addition to the program,” MacKinnon Morrow said. “He has a deep understanding of public discourse and an innate ability to connect with people through humanities to reach that deeper understanding of the impacts of the reverberations of war.”
Rondeau said he liked using humanities to connect because it allows people to consider new viewpoints and to see the continuity of issues veterans face throughout history. He was one of the leaders who focused on poetry at the Northfield group’s meeting in early October, where they read one poem about Iraq and one on World War I.
“The universalities are there of struggling to understand what we’ve seen, kind of the need for machismo or bravado,” Rondeau said. “We also wanted to show that this has been going on for a very long time and that’s what I learned from Theater of War. … [The name of PTSD] keeps changing from generation to generation, war fatigue or shell shock, but [what it is] hasn’t changed throughout.”
Looking to the future
Rondeau said he was pleased with how the community interacted with Echoes of War, and that it also positively affected him.
“I was terrified about, ‘How am I going to talk to Vietnam vets and women who have written these amazing stories, and just anyone there?’ And yet we were all … together and we were all validating each other,” Rondeau said. “And that might seem like an underwhelming word, but for me, at that time, it wasn’t. It was an assurance of, ‘You’re a young professional starting out in the world and you matter and so does your experience.’”
Throughout, Rondeau has stay connected to the St. Thomas community: He currently is enrolled in the Master of Science in Health Care Communications, contacted Alison Underthun-Meilhan’s Wartime: Literature vs. Reality English class so they could connect with actual veterans and is in the process of applying for a grant to do research with Muse.
“[He] has found this way to make his education so meaningful,” Muse said. “This is exactly what we want to see in students. He’s just graduated, and he’s grabbing these opportunities and making the best of his education. … It’s enormously rewarding to have him flourishing in front of me.”