“People complain that veterans get too much attention — that’s not true, we don’t get enough attention,” U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant and UCSB undergrad France Antonio said. “Soldiers are only recognized when they’re dead.”

[media-credit name=”PHOTOS COURTESY OF Denver Dale ” align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]While most of the 18 to 23 year-old students walking around perennially-sunny Santa Barbara rely on media outlets for accounts of wars the U.S. wages abroad, 61 students currently enrolled at UCSB have experienced military service firsthand. And for students like Antonio — who entered the Air Force shortly before 9/11, was dispatched to Afghanistan last summer and now awaits redeployment — war can mean something entirely too real, full of hardships and experiences that their civilian peers cannot fathom.

A saddening phenomenon, Antonio said, is that even on the eve of Veteran’s Day, many students and community members question the merit of the holiday and project their disdain for the politics of the war onto the men and women who comprise the nation’s front lines.

The Choice to Serve

Dano Pagenkopf, who served in the navy from 1991-97 as a nuclear propulsion plant operator, said society often misinterprets soldiers’ reasons for signing onto the armed forces.

“It’s okay to not like a cause, like be against the war in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said. “But to take it out on individual soldiers — it’s not cool. People say, ‘oh they had a choice.’ It’s not like that. People join for various reasons … a lot of students get help from their parents [to fund their college education]. Some people can’t afford that luxury.”

Army sergeant Tim Webster, a first-year psychology major who served from 2002-07, said enlisting was simply ‘the right thing to do.’

“I think everybody should serve, however short the term may be,” Webster said. “The money for college was appealing. I wouldn’t be able to afford UCSB without it.”

Additionally, navy veteran Matthew Lewis, who served from 2003-09, said he thought joining the military would allow him to travel the world.

“I didn’t want to go to college yet,” Lewis, a second-year chemistry major, said. “It presented a good opportunity to see the world and learn something interesting, do something new with my life that my friends weren’t doing.” Former E-5 naval sergeant Quincy Yamada, a fourth-year economics major whose unit was attached to an airwing onboard the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, echoed Lewis’ sentiment.

[media-credit name=”PHOTOS COURTESY OF Denver Dale and Quincy Yamada” align=”alignright” width=”250″][/media-credit]“[What motivated me was] travel and an urge to get out of the bubble I was in,” Yamada wrote in an e-mail.

According to Yamada, whose unit was responsible for search and rescue, combat search and rescue and anti-submarine warfare efforts, his squadron was the first navy-helicopter squadron deployed in Iraq.

Antonio, currently a third-year sociology and global studies major, said watching his friends graduate college and sink into traditional nine-to-five careers was impetus to seek something else.

“I wanted to do something that was bigger than myself,” Antonio said.

UCSB Financial Aid Director Mike Miller said his experience enlisting in the army deviated from the norm because he joined the military to pursue athletic goals. Miller said he joined the military in 2001 to train as a track and field Olympian — receiving infantry and airborne ranger training in Fort Benning, Ga. then later in Fort Carson, Co. — but didn’t move past the Olympic trials.

[media-credit name=”PHOTOS COURTESY OF Denver Dale and Quincy Yamada” align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]“I took a different route, went to graduate school first,” Miller said. “There was always a void in my life … even though I did what society told me to — go to college, go to graduate school. For me, the military filled that void … People think the military is all about war, but it has unique programs like the World Class Athlete Program.”

The Game Changer

The catastrophic events of 9/11 drastically altered the original mindset of most active duty members, pitching their early days of service into discordant confusion. Raymond Morua, a third-year political science major, joined the army months prior to the World Trade Center attacks. Morua, who was stationed in Germany for two years, Kosovo for six months and saw active combat duty in Iraq for one year and three months, said his initial plans to earn money for college and learn about different cultures were cast aside after 9/11.

“When I joined, the invasion hadn’t happened yet — there was no war at the time,” he said. “I thought I would get to travel the world, go learn, get money. It didn’t turn out that way; I didn’t think I would be playing G.I. Joe. It was pretty surreal.”

Antonio, who joined the Air Force one week before 9/11, said he and his troop waited an additional month before they were able to watch news clips of the terrorist attacks.

[media-credit name=”PHOTOS COURTESY OF Denver Dale and Quincy Yamada” align=”alignright” width=”250″][/media-credit]“When Sept. 11 kicked off, my platoon thought it was a drill,” he said. “The next thing you know, it was real. It was messed up because when you’re in basic training, you don’t have contact with the outside world.”

Admissions counselor and graduate student David Holmes, on the other hand, said he was halfway though with his active duty as a marine when 9/11 took place.

“The whole atmosphere changed with the snap of a finger,” Holmes said. “That first month after Sept. 11 was stressful for everyone, you’re just waiting to go … Two or three days after we were Code Red, the base was totally on lockdown, there was live ammunition at the base.”

Miller’s first day of service coincidentally fell on Sept. 11.

“I had a unique perspective,” he said. “I didn’t get to see it on TV. We were so far removed from TV and newspapers. My life changed at the drop of a hat. One day I was in Santa Barbara and the next day in Fort Benning, not knowing what the future of the country would be.”

Miller also said he was in awe of his fellow troops’ selflessness on that fateful day.

[media-credit name=”PHOTOS COURTESY OF Denver Dale and Quincy Yamada” align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]“That September day is etched in my memory,” Miller said. “Standing in the field, I really learned what being a true hero is. They were packed up and ready to go, ready to ship out that day, saying goodbye to their families. That’s what made me proud to say I served in the military.”

*Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a two-part Daily Nexus series detailing UCSB veterans’ experiences. The next installment, to be published Friday, will examine soldiers’ transitions from service member to student.