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For the men and women who have served in the armed forces, being a veteran doesn’t fade from memory now that the holiday has come and gone.
UCSB is home to at least 61 student veterans and employs a number of veterans among its faculty and staff ranks as well. A majority of them saw combat in Iraq or Afghanistan in the last decade — and some have just returned.
Many service members said they came home to an unfamiliar setting that didn’t resemble the world they had left behind. Although most were greeted by loving friends and family members, even the closest people in their lives couldn’t fully grasp the magnitude of their experiences.
Sgt. David Holmes, a UCSB admissions counselor and graduate student, served in the marines from 1999 to 2003 in the Philippines, Greece, Thailand and Japan. He and his group of friends tattooed their dog tag information on their bodies, so their blood type would still be known “if the dog tag got blown up.”
Fortunately, his didn’t. Holmes founded Student Veterans at UCSB in 2006, transitioned to inactive reserve and attempted to readjust to civilian life.
For those like him, an upcoming midterm exam or 10-page research paper is the least of their worries as they struggle to cope with quotidian lifestyles and unnerving freedom.
“[In the military] you have a sense of purpose, you feel like what you’re doing matters,” Holmes said. “When you get out, you don’t feel like what you’re doing is as important, even though it is.”
Tales of War
“A group of insurgents got onto our base,” U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant France Antonio, a fourth-year sociology and global studies major and vice president of UCSB Student Veterans, said. “They were shooting, attacking. We had nowhere to hide, nothing.”
Antonio, whose unit was attached to NATO International Security Assistance Forces, recalled walking back to NATO headquarters in northern Afghanistan to be greeted by a cacophony of gunshots. He and a compatriot had just left the gym, where soldiers must be disarmed at all times.
“We were probably there for two or three hours. We got off at midnight and had to wait ‘til mid-morning. It was pitch black. We had no weapons. All we could hear were gunshots.”
Army squad leader Raymond Morua, who was stationed in Iraq for over a year during his 2001-04 tour, said the costs of war didn’t sink in until he had witnessed the deaths of his comrades. “In combat, you’re trained to deal with other casualties,” he said. “When you see it on your own side, it’s more real.”
Aside from facing the risks expected of hostile territory, Dano Pagenkopf, a naval nuclear propulsion plant operator from 1991-97, said service members had to sacrifice their own rights while fighting for the nation’s sake.
“When you join the military, you have less rights and privileges than a prisoner has,” he said. “You’re the property of the government — they can do anything they want with you. … When you’re going into a combat zone, they take DNA samples so when you get obliterated, they can identify you.”
Pagenkopf, a second-year chemical engineering major, said he didn’t want to submit a sample, but was threatened imprisonment if he didn’t comply.
U.S. Marine Sgt. Denver Dale said his platoon struggled to complete their mission at times because of conflict between the front line’s instincts and Pentagon’s prerogatives.
“[While] actively fighting a militia, there were many chances where we had to kill the guy, but [Washington] D.C. said you can’t kill him, even though he was an enemy,” he said.
Dale, a fourth-year cultural anthropology major who served from 2002-06, said the first weeks of his tour in Iraq were unbearable as traffic and security checkpoints became makeshift combat zones.
“It was common that people got shot at in the checkpoints,” Dale said. “Because it was early in the conflict, there were a lot of civilian casualties for lots of reasons — everyone was at fault. Things like that really stick with you, when the only person that makes it in the car is the person that was too short.”
Despite the trauma, Dale, a fourth-year cultural anthropology major who served from 2002-06, said a dichotomy existed because the soldiers also provided Iraqi families with fresh water and basic amenities. Overcome with gratitude, the sons of families who received aid often returned the favor with intelligence advice that Dale said saved thousands of lives.
Home Sweet Home?
While veterans’ homecomings vary, some are more challenging than others.
“I’ve had friends who have been fine,” Dale said. “Two buddies have committed suicide. I know a guy that wasn’t very nice to his wife and kid. There are some that suffer and suffer and never show it.”
For most, returning from active duty has been physically, mentally and emotionally draining.
“Not only was it a tough transition in terms of your body, but mind as well,” Antonio said. “When you come back, you’re not sleeping at all. The sense of normalcy is a challenge.”
U.S. Navy work center supervisor Matthew Lewis, on the other hand, said he coped especially well back in civilian clothes.
“I was ready, I knew what I wanted to do [with my life],” he said.
For him, Dale said, university life isn’t nearly as daunting as what he has already faced.
“The student aspect is pretty easy,” Dale said. “You have a lot of good personal habits that you develop. … [You gain a] renewed perspective on what is and isn’t important. Something that an average civilian is stressed out about, at the end of the day I’m like, ‘wow, I didn’t get shot at, I’m fine.’”
However, Dale said he struggles to confide in his peers, whose life scripts are so drastically different from his.
Pagenkopf, who was stationed in the Persian Gulf among other locations, said returning to an inactive lifestyle was more difficult than leaving it behind.
“The transition from civilian to soldier is kind of new, it’s a new discovery,” he said. “Coming back to the real world, you have to deal with all these people that don’t know what you’ve gone through, what you’ve experienced. But you have to readjust.”
Army Sgt. Tim Webster, a first-year psychology major who served from 2002-07, was stationed in the Middle East, Korea and Fort Meade, Md. for five years before returning home.
“When you’re entering the army, you’re entering an environment foreign to civilians,” Webster said. “When you get back [home], life is pretty boring. You feel like you’re doing something so meaningful, you come back and it feels like everything is pointless. You have a lot of freedom, but you don’t know what to do with yourself.”
Even though he wrestled with his transition, Morua said he feels lucky that he didn’t struggle as much as his peers — some of whom resorted to alcoholism.
Morua, a third-year political science major, also said he initially found the lack of discipline and order in his life unsettling. He said he was overwhelmed by the newfound freedom.
“For a year it was non-stop partying,” he said. “I hadn’t seen anyone for four years. … When you leave, you leave with these memories of how they were. … You come back to a different world.”
To ease the transition into their newfound roles as students, veterans often incorporate the skills developed in the military into their everyday lives.
Antonio said his experiences in the air force motivated him to attend college and major in global studies.
“Being deployed made me want to know more about the world,” Antonio said. “For me, it’s like being a soldier; you should know who you’re fighting and why you’re fighting, as opposed to doing it because you’re being told to.”
Like Antonio, Webster — who was stationed in the Middle East, Korea and Fort Meade, Md. — said the military allowed him to find his niche in the world.
“If you’re going to protect our secrets from foreign access, psychology is a key part of that,” Webster said. “I became interested in human behavior, what makes people tick.”
However, Antonio said civic duty will always be his priority.
“I serve my country first and I’m a student second,” he said.
Pagenkopf, who served in the first Gulf War, said the discipline he developed in the navy allows him to excel as a student.
“I wake up early every morning, I don’t give up,” he said. “I’m cleaner and more organized than I was before the military. … I’m a single parent — my daughter is 14 years old. We lead a simple life, we’re pretty happy.”
Pagenkopf also said he is more grateful for the small joys in life.
“I have a more mature outlook on the world,” he said. “I have a much better appreciation for things that people take for granted … basic things like having a toilet with flushing water, a clean toilet, privacy.”
Giving Back to the Vets
Clinical psychologist and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder specialist Kirsten Gabriel said it’s common for service members to struggle with the disorder as one in four military personnel engage in active combat. Furthermore, she said, the student veterans she counsels suffer from a number of illnesses, whether PTSD, depression or alcoholism.
According to Gabriel, she treats one to two student vets suffering from PTSD every week. She estimated that two to three other students most likely meet with other counselors throughout the week.
Unfortunately, Gabriel said, the stigma of needing therapy prevents many vets who require aid from seeking it. Although historical practices of discharging service members who seek counseling are no longer followed, Gabriel said some agencies, like the FBI, still frown upon the decision to enter therapy.
Whether reluctant or not, Gabriel said vets will be able to adjust better if they seek help early on, instead of waiting to reach a breaking point.
The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill of Rights that took effect in August 2009 reduced the financial burden that awaits many service members’ post-deployment.
Gina Funderburgh, UCSB Veterans Certifying Official, said vets are now eligible for greater benefits including free tuition to any public college in their respective state, a housing stipend, annual $1,000 book and supplies allowances and tutorial assistance grants. Counseling Services offers free consultations for all students and Student Affairs offers crisis intervention, referral to psychiatrists, couples and group therapy.
Funderburgh said UCSB receives $2.1 million annually in benefits for “post 9/11 students” and California also waives $3.1 million worth of tuition fees for dependants of veterans attending the university.
The university hosts priority registration and housing, a vocation rehabilitation program for service members with injuries, veteran’s benefits services at the Registrar’s Office, veteran’s resource team, a student veteran organization, a course for transfer student veterans and free counseling services.
Funderburgh said her experience with student veterans over the last 10 years has been gratifying.
“As a result of them I wish I had gone in the military,” she said. “I would have been a better person if I would have. I’m grateful to serve them.”
Whether You Support Them, They Support You
We hear reports about foreign wars often — sometimes every day. Accounts of conflict can seem straightforward when conveniently translated into numbers and borders by the media. But that’s not the whole picture.
The ex-soldiers, medics, marines, pilots, sailors and patriots living among us tell a more personal story.
According to Dale, regardless of what students may hear or read regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or veterans in general, students should inform themselves and seek information from diverse sources in order to find a middle ground.
“The war isn’t in the headlines,” he said.