Memorial Day, May 27, 2013 – I’m sitting in Singapore in the middle of a 15-hour layover en route to India. I’m tired from the long wait and long flights, even though I’m well taken care of, and traveling through one of the best international airports in the world.
We dedicate the final Monday in May to honoring those who have died while serving in the US armed forces, an observance originally known as “Decoration Day” following the Civil War. It’s sobering to reflect on how many have died in service through the years, many in circumstances too frightening to imagine.
My thoughts move from remembering the dead to remembering the living, specifically our student veterans. I’m drawn to imagining the training and discipline required to be part of a team in combat, and the experience of combat in whatever capacity, but I know that all veterans serve their country and make sacrifices. The transition our student veterans go through, from military service to college life can be extremely daunting.
There is a lot of work being done at BC by dedicated staff members, aimed at helping veterans adapt to a less threatening but sometimes more challenging civilian life. Sue Vaughn informed me that we have 328 identified military veterans enrolled this semester. Most of them are receiving actual VA benefits, but even those who aren’t will receive first-day registration appointments. Linda Cordoba, one or the A&R techs, takes care of certifying for the college those veterans who are using their VA benefits.
Paul Beckworth in History is our faculty advisor to the Veterans Club. Paul made a point of connecting with me early in the Spring term when I had just returned to the college, as part of his absolute commitment to supporting veterans at the college. He made me aware of some important aspects of the veteran population we serve:
- 300,000 veterans get out of the military and transition back into civilian world every year, according to the Pat Tillman Foundation – many are unemployed, upwards of 20% of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) veterans
- In California 49% of OEF/OIF veterans are people of color, mainly Hispanic, according to Paul Grossman, Regional Work and Family Life Coordinator for Naval District Washington.
- There are approximately 167,000 females veterans in California according to the California Department of Veterans Affairs
- 27% of female veterans nationally are victims of sexual assault in the military, according the Veterans Affairs Office
- More than one in five veterans with combat injuries in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts has suffered a traumatic brain injury, according the Veterans Affairs Office
Paul is leading a group working to establish a Veterans Advisory Council at the college. Early last month he provided me with an update on its first organizational meeting of faculty, staff, administrators and members of the Bakersfield veteran community. One of the things discussed was planning for a veteran memorial next to the “Memorial Stadium.” A sub-committee has been formed to put on a “GI Bill Workshop Day” conducted by BC and community veterans’ organizations on campus over the summer break to ensure that both BC student veterans as well as prospective student veterans are on track to receive their GI Bill benefits in a seamless manner in time for fall classes.
I’d also like to introduce you to Wesley Barrientos, the current student president of the Bakersfield College Veterans Club. Wesley is majoring in biology. His story can be found on his website, http://lifeoverlegs.com, which I’d like to quote from here:
He was born on September 16, 1984, in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. In 2002, when he turned 18 years old he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed at Ft. Hood, TX with the 4th Infantry Division, with whom he deployed for his FIRST TOUR of duty to Iraq from 2003-2004.
In 2005, Wesley was stationed at Ft. Campbell, KY, with the 101st. Airborne Division, where he shipped out to IRAQ for a SECOND TOUR of duty on October 2005. While on his second tour of duty he was wounded twice: first on December 13, 2005, an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle and he received minor cuts on his face; second on February 8, 2006, his vehicle was hit with a Rocket Propelled Grenade and he received a shrapnel wound to the back of the head. He returned from his second tour of Iraq in September 2006.
IN OCTOBER 2007, he shipped out on his THIRD TOUR of duty to Iraq. On December 20, 2007, his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device, where he was severely wounded and had both legs amputated. He arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on December 23, 2007. After a quick recovery with a lot of help from Family, Friends, Community, and Staff, Wesley now resides in Bakersfield, California, with his wife and 2 year-old daughter, Brianna. He’s also very active in the community and volunteers for different organizations that support veterans. … His military awards include 3 Purple Hearts, 5 Army Commendation Medals, and 2 Army Good Conduct Medals.
This Memorial Day is an opportunity to remember and reflect. Not every story is as dramatic, but every BC student veteran has a story, many with situations to overcome when returning home, and again when becoming a college student.
Today and each day, whatever our role at the college, we can honor both the memory of the fallen, and the service of our student veterans by welcoming and supporting them in whatever way we can.