After seven years and two months as a Marine, Alonso Zavala went from soldier to UCSB student in just seven days.
“I had one week to transition from military life,” Zavala said. “It took me a whole quarter to assimilate and realize that I can do things I can’t in uniform, like just putting my hands in my pocket. … But during my first week, one thing I noticed is that everyone goes out of their way to help you.”
Zavala, who served in Kuwait and Iraq as a lead vehicle driver and member of a security detail, is one of about 80 student veterans on campus. Half are currently receiving benefits under the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which provides financial support for education and housing for honorably discharged individuals with at least 90 days of service on or after Sept. 11, 2001.
As a student vet, Zavala said, the collegiate experience is vastly different from that of his much younger peers.
“I usually don’t like to say I’m a vet,” Zavala, a political science major, said. “I just like to hear comments from students first. I won’t put it out there unless it’s the right situation.”
On one occasion, though, Zavala did speak up and the reaction surprised him.
“One guy came up to me after the class and thanked me for my service,” Zavala said. “I didn’t know what to say.”
Tonight, Student Veterans at UCSB — which Zavala joined when he arrived at the campus — will be hosting its third Ask-A-Vet forum in the Student Resource Building Multipurpose Room at 7:30.
“We’ll focus on the experiences of student veterans in the military, the transitional challenges and how it becomes our war from the military to the university,” Student Veteran Organization at UCSB President Quincy Yamada said.
Every day, former active duty Marine Sgt. David Holmes noted, students go to class with military veterans without realizing the depth of their experiences.
“The majority of vets volunteer because they want to serve the country. It’s a huge sacrifice to serve in deployments, the time you give up,” Holmes, a graduate student in education, said. “Eighteen to twenty-two. Those are the prime years of your life, and you gave them to your country.”
A Different Way to Study Abroad
Quincy Yamada, a business economics major with accounting emphasis, enlisted in the Navy just after graduating high school. From his permanent duty station in Japan, he worked as an aircraft mechanic and spent over a year at sea during his four years of foreign service.
For Justus Hanna, a combat engineer who worked in demolitions, his military service took him across Europe, Iraq and Afghanistan. Hanna, an economics and global studies major, kept a blog while on deployment, writing about some incidents he described as “so out of control, it’s hilarious.”
In one entry, from June 6, 2005, Hanna detailed an ambush on a routine Traffic Control Point mission in Afghanistan.
“We charge across the road and start receiving fire towards our direction,” Hanna wrote. “Wanting to avoid any casualties on our side by having a face-to-face showdown with the guy, someone shouts ‘Who’s got a grenade?’ the LT responds like he just found a prize; ‘I got one’ and tosses it short of the hole! Someone else screams ‘FRAG OUT!! IT’S SHORT IT’S SHORT!!’ and we hit the dirt. Luckily it rolls into the hole and explodes, myself and everyone around me is on their feet charging the trench shooting through the cloud of dust at the enemy… which turned out to be one guy with a rifle!”
What stands out for Zavala from his time in the Marines are the long days driving convoys across Kuwait and the friendships he made over the nearly eight years he served.
“One of the great things that the military as an institution provides is that you make great friends from all walks of life,” Zavala said. “That’s one of the things that I miss most, my friends and the friends you make there.”
Holmes founded SVO at UCSB in 2007 and is currently conducting research on student veterans in higher education. As a Marine, Holmes spent time in Greece and Japan and transferred to UCSB in 2005.
“The transition can be quite difficult,” he said. “It’s like night and day. … I got here and felt very disconnected.”
Combat to Classroom
While visiting the campus on what he deemed a “recon trip,” Hanna said he appreciated the UCSB lifestyle and the introduction to SVO at UCSB.
“After I got accepted, I got an email from Quincy welcoming me,” Hanna noted. “Everyone seemed to have an outpouring of support and I was totally ecstatic.”
Holmes said one of the major reasons he started SVO at UCSB was to provide a place for veterans to feel comfortable on campus.
“Camaraderie is a big part of the group,” Holmes said. “It’s a support network; a way for people to find others with similar experiences. It’s hard to make friends with the 18-year-old sitting next to you in class.”
For Holmes and other veterans, revealing their military service can often mean facing difficult situations.
“The first thing people ask is, ‘Have you killed someone?'” Holmes said. “That’s not an appropriate question. There are guys here that have, and some may not want to talk about it.”
Dr. Kirsten Gabriel, a psychologist in Counseling Services with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder training, said student veterans’ experiences and backgrounds can vary considerably.
“They’re not traditional 18-22 students,” she said. “They’re already older. They weren’t just hanging out at home playing video games, they were out on deployment and part of a disciplined and structured environment. They’re coming to a university environment where things are much more fluid, where they don’t wear uniforms and there’s not a rigid time bound structure. … It’s a culture shock in many ways. You’re used to having a gun on you, and it’s a pretty disconcerting feeling not to anymore.”
Dr. Gabriel, who worked for five years in a Baltimore VA medical center, said veterans face specific issues that other students can’t always understand.
“In combat, some things once you see, you can’t unsee them,” Dr. Gabriel said. “It can start to become the crisis of, ‘What is the meaning of what I just did over there and the sacrifices people made?’ It can be distressing to people to make sense of what they had done.”
For many veterans on campus, the student organization offers a way to integrate into the college community.
“I feel so old sometimes,” Hanna said. “That’s another factor for reintegrating as a vet: As a guy like me, married, 27, I can’t integrate with a lot of the activities here. As a continuing and transfer student, you’re really a fish out of water.”
While his time in the service was defining, Yamada said, it also means his college experience is tinged with something his peers often don’t share.
“It feels like I put my life on hold,” he said. “In hindsight, I’m catching up.”
Making the Grade
Along with SVO at UCSB, staff and administrators are currently pushing for a more veteran-friendly campus, particularly through the Veterans Resource Team. The interdisciplinary team aims to offer training for faculty and staff and develop a network of mentors for incoming veterans; last quarter, a member of the VRT, Women’s Center Program Director Jess O’Keefe, also started teaching a class specifically for veterans.
“The long-range goal is that all students feel comfortable and have resources they need to be successful at UCSB,” Dr. Gabriel said. “They have particular issues and have served their country in ways we have not. We need to honor them and help them be successful.”
According to Doug Bradley, a lecturer in the Writing Program and a military veteran himself, it is important to remember that dealing with veterans is not a one-size-fits-all deal.
“Contrary to popular misconceptions, not all returning veterans are quivering bowls of PTSD Jell-O, waiting to emotionally collapse or go berserk,” Bradley wrote in an e-mail. “In fact, most vets are tired of that stereotype. … For that reason, it’s usually best to let veterans talk about their war experiences if and when they are ready. For many of them, that will be never. Students and faculty need to be patient and let vets adapt to civilian life on their own time.”
Bradley said his homecoming after serving in the Gulf War was vastly different from what many recently discharged soldiers experience.
“I had orders to remain in theater for eighteen months, but we came home in six,” Bradley wrote. “Can you believe that?! Six months. Compare that with our current veterans, many of whom are coming off their third or fourth tour of duty. … Vets now are coming home to a much quieter, more ambivalent America. The war has stretched on and on, and Americans –while ever loyal and proud of their vets — are having a much harder time figuring out what these two wars mean. Our vets feel the full brunt of that ambivalence as they search for meaning in their own experiences. It’s a long, strange trip.”