In 2005, the club Students Against War led hundreds of UC Santa Cruz demonstrators in successfully ousting military recruiters from the school’s spring career fair. Again in April of 2006, four military recruiters fled the campus in a hurry with student protestors shouting “Don’t Come Back! Don’t Come Back!” behind them. Crowds of dissenters have continued to infiltrate UCSC career fairs, toting signs emblazoned with “Hey recruiters, leave them kids alone!” and the like. Their message has been clear: the military is not welcome on our campus.
This sentiment makes UCSC an interesting environment for one, small faction of students. Marine, Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard—there are Slugs who have served in each. Currently there are 100 students attending UCSC on the GI Bill, and, over time, there have been many more.
Some of them prefer to blend in, not making any particular effort to let their peers know they served in the military. Others don their ARMY T-shirt and introduce themselves with name and rank. All have had an utterly unique student experience.
“That was one of the things I was worried about [in] coming to Santa Cruz: what if someone finds out I am a Marine and protests me or something?” says Luis Padilla, a recent UCSC graduate and former Marine. “But I’ve actually never experienced that. I keep [that I was a Marine] to myself, but if someone asks me, I will gladly answer their questions.“
UCSC student and Marine reservist Erica Ronquillo says she expected the same after hearing about the military recruiters being ejected from campus. But her expectations, like Padilla’s, went unmet.
“That seemingly placed the university in an anti-military position, but I don’t think that’s really the case—we’ve received a lot of support from the administration, from students,” she says. “It’s a pretty liberal campus, but not ignorant or narrow-minded.”
Santa Cruz’s congressional representative, Sam Farr, was one of the proponents of what is known as the “Post-9/11 GI Bill,” a new and expanded GI Bill passed in July 2008. Among its education benefits are up to 100 percent coverage of tuition and fees, a monthly housing stipend and $1,000 per year for books.
“I’m keen on trying to provide those resources,” says Farr, who sits on the Veterans Appropriations Committee, “but what’s really tickling is to make these generic policies in Washington, like the new GI Bill, and then to see it actually come down, and here it is on [the local] campus and these are real people, not just concepts of people, going to school on it.”
But while the GI Bill gets the servicemen and women to school, it’s what the school provides that makes or breaks the experience. And in the past two years, UCSC has raised the bar for veteran services with the Veterans Education Team Support (VETS) program, a division of Services for Transfer and Re-Entry Students (STARS). Formed in 2008 through collaboration between students and administration, VETS acts as a one-stop shop for resources and services for student veterans (as well as for those who are still active). But, more than anything, VETS provides a home base; a safe haven for students with similar pasts to meet, network and find support.
Also thriving is the UCSC chapter of Student Veterans of America (SVA), now in its sophomore year. On a campus where Students Against War has long been the show-stealing club, just existing could be an accomplishment in and of itself. But the SVA has proactively made its presence known on campus, traveled the country to meet politicians, attended conferences and lobbied for veteran issues, and even formed a softball team.
“You’ve got a campus that’s been the most anti-war campus in the nation, and kicked the recruiters out and made national news, and now they have a chapter of returned vets that has been recognized across the country,” says Farr. “I think it’s fantastic that you can take the anti-war college and at the same time have the best veteran group.”
Good Times sat down with four UCSC students—Padilla, Ronquillo, and two others—to hear about their experiences. They share how serving in the military informed who they are now and how it shaped the perspective they bring to UCSC community. Pride, the veteran stereotype, re-assimilation, brainwashing, transformation, and opportunity—these are just some of the topics they shed light on.
It’s not easy going back to school. Nor is it easy being a transfer student, or, for that matter, being an older college student. And it’s certainly not easy relating to the average college kid when you have eight years in the military under your belt.
But Daniel Wilson has made the best of it—in fact, he’s made his time at UCSC pretty darn remarkable. The former Coast Guard officer and navigator transferred to UCSC in 2008. Since then (and in addition to majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology), 35-year-old Wilson served as the first-ever veteran intern to the Chancellor in 2009, has become president of the UCSC chapter of Student Veterans of America (SVA), and is employed through the VETS program as the Veteran Student Support Coordinator.
These accomplishments didn’t happen right away, and Wilson is the first to admit that it took him awhile to find his niche. “When I first got there, I was placed in an apartment with a bunch of 20-year-olds,” he says. They were nice guys, as he recalls, but “I wanted to cook in a kitchen that didn’t have beer cans everywhere.” Unlike his new roommates, who came straight out of high school, Wilson had spent the last eight years leading ships through hurricanes, executing search-and- rescue missions, handling alien migrant operations, and enforcing environmental regulations at sea. He pulled off countless large-scale cocaine seizures (see photo)—intercepting shipments mainly from Colombia, and had been smack dab in the middle of the Haitian Civil War, escorting supply ships in and out of Port Au Prince. All in all, he spent more than 280 days at sea each year.
Wilson’s extraordinary upbringing further distinguished him from his new peers. His father was a schoolteacher on military bases, which meant that Wilson had pins all over the map before turning seven. He was born in Okinawa, Japan and lived in Spain, Italy and Germany before his family settled at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base when he was in the second grade. He lived on the base until he was 18.
“It was awesome for me,” he says, recalling childhood and teen years spent scuba diving and sailing in tropical blue waters. (This was before the military detention center opened on the base in 2002; it was also before President Bill Clinton ordered that the some 55,000 landmines in the area surrounding the base be removed in 1996. “I grew up surrounded by mine fields,” says Wilson brightly.)
At 15, he and his father were invited on board a Coast Guard vessel for what was supposed to be a routine port call to Jamaica. A big storm struck, and the Coast Guards were called upon to rescue a sinking ship. “I was hanging on to the rail, and was overly impressed and thought it was the coolest thing ever,” says Wilson. “Right there, I made the decision I would be in the Coast Guard someday.”
By the time he arrived at UCSC more than 15 years later, you could say Wilson had a slightly different perspective on things. Starting school was a fresh chapter in his life, but one he planned on conquering successfully like the many missions behind him. “I came here to be a serious student,” he says.
So he made a few small changes that would end up paying off big.
“I started reaching out to find other veterans on campus that I could talk to and hang out with and maybe have friendships and support structures with,” he says. One thing led to another and soon enough, Wilson was president of SVA and organizing its first trip to Washington D.C., where they’d meet with Congressman Sam Farr and Veteran Affairs Assistant Secretary Tammy Duckworth. He also arranged a Memorial Day Ceremony for UCSC vets that won’t soon be forgotten, countless veteran get-togethers, and, for the first time this school year, an all-vet student softball team.
While the club provides a fun space and community for the Slug/vets, Wilson also works hard at the VETS office to provide the 100 or so UCSC student veterans with the resources they need. “They face some unique challenges,” he says. To help address those challenges, VETS offers everything from help navigating the GI Bill benefits and answering academic, housing, or healthcare questions, to providing peer mentoring. Wilson knows from his own experience that the latter can be particularly helpful for a new veteran transfer student.
Now fully entrenched in the student life, Wilson has no doubts that UCSC was the right place for him.
“I’m an old salty ship’s navigator, and from my office here I can see the ocean,” he chuckles. “When people ask me why I chose it, I say ‘Have you seen the place?’”
It’s an insufferably hot day in late September and the first week of classes at UCSC. From the patio of the Stevenson College Café, students can be seen struggling through the thick, hot air to find their next class. Every table on the patio is occupied; students wipe the sweat from their brows and flip another page in their textbooks. “Super senior” Erica Ronquillo arrives, donning a chic summer dress and a weighty black backpack—no doubt full of fresh schoolbooks and a notepad yet to be filled. She sits down and removes her Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses.
She doesn’t look out of place. On the contrary, other than being strikingly pretty, she fits right in. But what the swarms of sweltering students around her don’t know—and what she most likely won’t tell them—is that in addition to being a sociology and legal studies major at UCSC, Ronquillo is a reservist in the U.S. Marine Corp.
The experience has been a challenge for Ronquillo, now 25, ever since she enlisted. “I didn’t have very specific expectations, but I did expect to be proud of being a Marine,” she says. “And I am … But I’m not going to lie and say that I felt that right away.”
Plagued with second thoughts, she tried to back out before training began. Her recruiters soothed her fears, but things weren’t much better at boot camp. She remembers lying in bed on the first Friday night, crying—it was lights out by 9 or 10 p.m. (they weren’t allowed to have clocks or watches, so she can’t say for sure), and she found herself, at 20 years old, being told she had to be quiet and stay in bed. She needed to ask permission to go to the bathroom. “I was so confused,” she says. “I told myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’”
Over the course of training, the self-proclaimed independent thinker saw absurdity in the orders, comedy in the intense devotion of her peers, and unfixable sexism in the machismo. But Ronquillo initially joined to challenge herself, and that expectation did not go unmet.
“You have to go somewhere and be told what to do every second, and [they say] don’t ask questions—just do it. You’re moved around like a tool,” she says. “That’s a mental challenge for a person who is independent and educated; you go and have to take all of that off and just be that moving piece. But it gives you a lot of strength.”
That crash course in mental and emotional stamina has come in handy for Ronquillo as she attempts to juggle the Marines with school. “Right now, I’m really torn between my two—I don’t want to say lives—but yeah, it feels like I have two different lives. Two different identities,” she says.
The weight of her situation—and how different it makes her—is augmented by the overheard complaints of her fellow students (I have to go read and do all of this homework, and then I have to go to work!).
“In my head I think ‘your life is so easy, what are you complaining about?’” she says, explaining how, on the coming Friday, she will wake up at 3 a.m., drive to San Jose to report for duty by 4:30 a.m., and be in the field Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“I’ll come back Sunday night—exhausted, completely drained—then brush it off, wake up the next day and be ready to be a student,” she says. “And [I’ll need to] have all my work done.”
And then there is the looming prospect of being deployed before her contract is up next fall—a very real possibility, she says, because for the first time in her five years, they are calling on the reserves for her job (traffic management). Ultimately, despite her deliberations (“What is our purpose in Afghanistan? Do we have one?” she poses), and what it will cost her (her internship, career networking, resume fodder, and a legal studies degree), she will say yes to the call. “It is going to be a hard decision, but as a Marine, I wouldn’t want anything else than to be able to serve,” she says.
In the meantime, Ronquillo is concentrating on making the most of her other life—her “student identity.” Socially, she still refrains from advertising that’s she’s military, but, as she gets more involved with her internship (this year, she took over for Daniel Wilson as the veteran representative in the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Internship Program) and SVA, her two worlds are slowly being blended. Through her internship, she hopes to educate the campus on the dyadic nature of its veterans.
“We would like to be recognized on campus,” she says, “not only as a group of veterans, but as a successful, intelligent, achieving group that is not only here to represent the military or to be patriotic, but also to be students—to be part of the community and to succeed like everyone else.”
The UC Santa Cruz campus is worlds away from the Iraqi desert. But for former U.S. Marine Corporal Luis Padilla, sometimes that isn’t far enough.
Padilla, 25, was walking to class amid the winding roads and canopy of redwoods that make up the UCSC landscape when a tan garbage truck—the same shade as the tanks used in Iraq—crossed his path. “When I heard this huge garbage truck, in that color, with its diesel engine, step on the gas and roar its engine, it felt like this half,” he holds his hand to his face, dividing his field of vision in two, “was Iraq and this half was the Bay Tree Bookstore. I got confused, like ‘where am I?’”
But other than the occasional disorienting flashback, Padilla has re-adjusted to civilian and student life very well: excelling in his studies, joining the Student Veterans of America (SVA), and getting a job as Supervisor at the VETS office. He graduated with a degree in history in June, and is currently interning for Congressman Sam Farr in Washington D.C. through the UC/D.C. program.
He attributes some of this ease to having a “very fortunate” wartime experience—not at all like what he had expected before shipping out. “Have you ever seen the movie Saving Private Ryan? Yeah. I thought it was going to be like the opening scene,” he says, shaking his head and laughing.
Instead, his reserve unit deployed with a security detail to the rural area between the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, where they did patrols and security checkpoints. “Ninety-nine percent of the time nothing happened,” he says.
There were threats of roadside bombs and kidnappings and challenges like 135-degree heat and sandstorms that lasted for days, but most of the violence Padilla encountered was between Iraqi forces (the Iraqi army and police tended to shoot at one another). He spent much of his days bartering and playing soccer with the local children—an unlikely friendship, but one that would prove to be the highlight of his experience, and a leading factor in his decision to pursue International Relations upon returning to UCSC.
Padilla himself never had to fire his weapon (“reflecting on it, I’m glad I didn’t,” he says), but part of being a Marine means maintaining the Marine mentality: constant awareness, pumping adrenaline, and unwavering trigger-readiness. This attitude is both exhilarating and exhausting, and, as Padilla has learned, it doesn’t just “turn off” when a Marine comes home.
“You go into classrooms, restaurants and you scope the place out: where am I going to sit? Where is the exit? Who here seems like a threat to me? If I get in a fight, who would be hard to take out? And why am I thinking like this? I’m home. But it sticks with you. You have that mentality.”
He explains how, in training, “kill” was said instead of “yes,” so that all questions were answered with “kill!” (And often, as he remembers, “Kill! Kill! Kill!”) The platoon that shouted “Kill!” the loudest got to eat first.
“[Before I went] I knew what ‘brainwashed’ meant, but I couldn’t tell—if I’m proud to be a Marine, is that being brainwashed? If I sing the national anthem, is that being brainwashed?” he says. “[But once I was there] they just hammer you with the history, and the traditions, and the culture of being in the Marines. At that point I saw what [my friends had] meant about being brainwashed: it was the point where you’re just like, ‘I want to grab a rifle and start shooting.’ So I took a step back and decided I was going to be neutral.
“For me that was the best approach,” he continues. “Although ultimately you will be a better Marine if you’re immersed in that mindset, I think you lose some grasp of what is really going on. And what was important for me was to know what was going on in the whole scope of things.”
Still, Padilla is extremely proud of his service. He accredits it with transforming him from a politically naïve teenager to a wiser, more worldly young man (who is now a political junkie and news hound). He is also grateful for the opportunities the Marines gave him, from traveling to a free-ride UC education, to establishing connections like those that led him to work for Farr in Washington D.C.
“I always had college in mind,” he says. “I used the military to help me out with it. And as corny as it sounds, when I was over there, all I could think about was ‘Oh man, I wish I was in school.’”
Military was a way of life for Judith Samson and her siblings. Five of them, including Judith, followed in their father’s footsteps and joined the U.S. Navy. “At the time it was a way to pay for education—five college educations is a lot to pay for,” says Samson, who graduated from the ROTC at Northwestern University in 1992. She was either active duty or in the reserves from then until 2005, when her second tour of duty ended.
In the early ’90s, Samson’s home-away-from-home was the U.S.S. Mount Hood, on which she served as boilers and machinery division officer. At 23, she had 70 people working below her. Her ship arrived in the Persian Gulf for the tail end of the first Gulf War, and then continued on to Somalia, where they served as a supply ship. There were times when Samson didn’t set foot on shore for three months.
Her second tour of duty began in 2001 and was an altogether different experience. She retired her sea legs to be a contingency plans officer working with special operations and special warfare from an office in London. Originally slated to last only six months, Samson’s tour was extended when the events of Sept. 11, 2001 unfolded and she volunteered, without hesitation, to stay on. She was relocated to a planning group in Germany where she provided expertise on naval capabilities and served as a maritime planner.
“I felt kind of guilty, “ Samson says. “I was sitting in Germany and my friends and colleagues were in the desert. I still feel like that a little bit—I had a really easy war.” The role of women had grown since her first tour in the ’90s—unheard of just years before, her younger sister spent the Iraq War on a destroyer ship in the gulf. “I was sitting in a command center in Germany, talking to my sister who is actually launching tomahawk missiles in the gulf,” she says.
Her second active duty experience was also different for personal reasons: married with a young son, she was now navigating the waters of being a wife, mother and military officer.
“It’s a huge strain on families,” she says. “I think it ended my marriage, actually. [Being a mother in the military] is really, really tough. You have to leave. There’s no question. Your loyalties are torn between your child and—it sounds really hokey—your country.”
For these reasons, Samson is grateful to have closed the Navy chapter of her life and moved on to one that keeps her closer to home: getting a second bachelor’s degree at UCSC, with help from the GI Bill. Now 41 years old, she is sailing through her math degree and hopes to start graduate school, also at UCSC, next year.
“I never even thought of myself as a veteran—I mean, obviously I am, but going to the VA was very surreal,” she says. As a woman, a student, and a mother, she’s battled with the narrow public perception of veterans. “There is a misconception about veterans—I think it’s because of the movies. People see Platoon or The Hurt Locker and when they think veteran they think PTSD, tweaked-out guy who will drink himself to death. They think men.
“I always have a little giggle whenever I see a Support Our Troops sticker,” she continues. “It’s like ‘Well, thank you’ … Because I know I look like a soccer mom. It’d be nice if people realized that [veterans] come in all shapes and sizes.” The diverse and high-achieving community of student veterans at UCSC is helping dissolve these stereotypes.
“The welcome I received here at UCSC has been astonishing,” Samson adds. “And how well organized the veterans groups are here, and how much the university really supports veterans—it’s been amazing.”