Meet Sarah Bregler
Providence Clemente Veterans' Initiative Graduate, 2019
“We react to an experience based on what we believe is real,” Sarah Bregler told students in the Providence Clemente Veterans’ Initiative (CVI) during a discussion of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.”
As a Marine Corps combat veteran, Sarah knew Plato would resonate with her fellow veterans, helping them reflect on how our perspective on a situation can change once we leave it. But Sarah brought an additional angle to the discussion. Just last spring she was a CVI student herself, encountering Plato for the first time. Now she’d returned to the classroom as a discussion facilitator, collaborating with faculty to bring the humanities to a new group of veteran scholars.
A recent grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities expanded Providence CVI into a two-semester course. Director Mark Santow and the faculty recognized the value of having veterans in the room not only as scholars, but as guides. Sarah and fellow alum Ty Smith attend class each evening, lending support to students who might struggle with the material or the transition to the classroom. And they also facilitate the discussion in conjunction with the faculty.
This fall Sarah has led a conversation on Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” and guided students through discussions of ethics, consequentialism and the differences between psychology and philosophy. When a professor asked students to read Marcus Aurelius, Sarah helped them explore the text alongside a consideration of moral injury, deepening the interaction in ways that are difficult for a civilian professor.
“They know they have this wealth of knowledge as scholars, but they don’t have the experience,” Sarah said. “There are places they can’t ask a veteran to go.”
In her CVI class last spring, Sarah was the youngest member, but she brought a decade’s experience as a Marine and the voice of a female veteran to the room. She entered the Marine Corps, where her father had been a career member, in 2007, starting boot camp the weekend after high school graduation. She deployed to Iraq in 2008 in a combat unit.
After her first tour, she was offered a spot at the prestigious Defense Language Institute in California, where she trained for more than a year in Arabic Iraqi and Latin and prepared to be a cryptologic linguist. Her next deployment was to Afghanistan, where Sarah used her language skills to build relationships with the locals. She enjoyed her work and planned to make a career in the Marines. Then the Humvee she was riding in hit an IED.
“My life changed completely in a way I never thought it would,” she said of the moment, “I had to be med-lifted out.”
Sarah spent two months in recovery in Germany and another nine months at Walter Reed Medical Center. She has two prosthetics, hearing aids, and the repercussions of a traumatic brain injury. “I had to learn how to do simple things like tie my shoes,” she said. She ultimately left the Marine Corps in 2016.
Enrolling in CVI a few years later, she felt uncertain about entering a formal educational setting. But being in class alongside fellow veterans and being in an environment in which her perspective was not only welcome, but necessary, changed the way she thought about herself. She believes that is one of the key ways that CVI is life-altering.
“When we’re in and we’re serving, we realize we can do these extraordinary things, and we go through extraordinary circumstances under large amounts of pressure. We survive,” she said. “But when we come back, it’s really unclear what our purpose is. I was contributing in such a large way before, but what about now?”
Being accountable to a classroom and community helps veterans find new purpose, she said. And for Sarah, it’s enabled her to serve far beyond her classroom in Providence. Since graduating from CVI in May, Sarah has traveled to Washington, DC, to meet with other NEH-supported programs that serve veterans. And in October she participated in a training in New York to help the new CVI programs in Houston, Newark, and Tacoma prepare to welcome their first students this winter.
CVI has offered Sarah the opportunity to continue growing and learning, something she maintains is true for other program alumni, who continue to be engaged through class visits and museum field trips. “It opens the door for veterans to contribute in a new way that validates their experiences and harnesses their skills,” she said. “It affirms that you still have a purpose.”