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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Faces in the Crowd

Sophomore Liam Knight stands for a portrait. Knight served in the Marine Corps from 2004 to 2009. // Photo by Christina Becker
Sophomore Liam Knight stands for a portrait. Knight served in the Marine Corps from 2004 to 2009. // Photo by Christina Becker

It was 11 years of service; it was a 17-year-old begging to enroll. Now scattered through a crowd of college students, senior Clay Lenssen and sophomore Liam Knight reflect on where they have been — and where they are now — after the towers fell on that fateful day.

Often our soldiers are returned to us broken.  The job of helping them assimilate back into the mainstream lands squarely on the public’s shoulders, and Western’s contribution to the effort comes in the form of the Veteran Service Office.

The Veteran Service Office provides a sort of home base on campus to those who have veteran status in the U.S. military or are dependents of veterans. The couches have heard stories of football, plans for the weekend and homework as well as the experiences from those who have fought in the service, traveling from country to country.

The Western veteran community includes about 375 people total; that figure representing around 150 veteran students, and around 225 dependents of veterans. Now walking the crimson bricks of campus, veterans mix with the rest of students, typically quiet about the stories that have become a part of the past and present.

Liam Knight, 29, Sophomore, Marine Corps, 2004-2009

Sporting a long, thick beard, sophomore Liam Knight does not follow typical Marine protocol.

A beard wasn’t exactly going to make a tight seal on gas masks, Knight said. Now, out of the U.S. Marine Corps, he is just tired of buying razors and has decided to let it grow as it may. 

Although in high school when 9/11 occurred, the day was pivotal in his decision to join the Marines, Knight said.  The moment his cap flew in the air, 17-year-old Knight began begging his mother to let him join up.

“You’ve got to realize this was the end of 2004, they needed bodies.  They needed a lot of bodies quickly,” Knight said. “We were still in Afghanistan, we had just invaded Iraq and they had a shortage of individuals.”

Following graduation, Knight handed his mother paperwork that, with her consent, would allow him to sign early. Denying his request and insisting he attend college, his mom sent Knight not to Iraq, but to Pullman, Washington, to study at Washington State University.

Knight stayed at school for a semester. Upon turning 18, Knight once again pulled up the paperwork and finally enlisted in the Marines. Three days after he signed the paperwork, he was deployed.

Knight said his family was supportive of his decision to join the Marines, but they didn’t necessarily like it.

There was no Internet access for troops where Knight was, and the line to speak with loved ones at home on the phone could be up to two hours long, Knight said.  On top of the long lines, phones could be cut off at any point in time for security purposes.

Knight was making good money at the end of his military career as part of a private security force, but found himself burned out over the course of a few months following the death of some of his friends, and the ending of a relationship.

“When I was deployed we were in Iraq. This was 2007, and I was completely disconnected. Everyone was,” Knight said.

It took a rocket to finally bring Knight back home.

In a compound in Iran the sound of a 107-millimeter projectile broke overhead, and Knight remembers the fallout as being the closest call he ever had, he said.

“Whenever you hear the familiar sound of a rocket, it means you’re right under it, which is a bad place to be,” Knight said. “Then it was just the loudest explosion, and the the wall bulged out in front of me, and knocked all my shit off the wall, and just knocked me on my ass.”

In the Marines there are often close calls, but Knight remembered thinking that every year he spent in combat was another he wasn’t working on his future, and decided to return to Washington to go back to school.

Although glad he had the experience, he wouldn’t want to do it again, Knight said.

“I am glad it happened. I’m glad I got that experience.  It was an experience that really changed me,” Knight said.

Now in his second year at Western, Knight said he is finally comfortable disclosing more about his experience in the Marines. Walking through Red Square gives Knight the feeling that the university supports an open forum for all opinions. 

“I kind of gauge how good a school is based on who they will let say what,” Knight said. “You see really colorful characters protesting one thing or another. It’s healthy to have an environment where you’re challenged.”

Senior Clay Lenssen stands for a portrait outside of Old Main. He served in the Navy from 2001 to 2011. // Photo by Christina Becker
Senior Clay Lenssen stands for a portrait outside of Old Main. He served in the Navy from 2001 to 2011. // Photo by Christina Becker

Clay Lenssen, Senior, Navy, 2001-2012

Lenssen remembers post-9/11 America well.

Joining up shortly before the attacks of September 11th, Lenssen enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 2001 and was in training camp when the attacks occurred, he said.

One of the immediate effects that struck Lenssen was a profound coming together of a nation, and it was reaffirming to see that the U.S. was all on one team after the attacks, he said.

“When you were out there in your uniform, and it didn’t make a difference if they had any bad feelings about the military before,” Lenssen said. 

With two kids and a wife at home here in his native home of Bellingham, Lenssen is currently a full-time student studying sociology and psychology. Now 36 years old, Lenssen has served 11 of those years in the U.S. Navy, he said.

The post-9/11 GI Bill pays a large part of college tuition, plus a housing and living stipend; Lenssen said this was a large motivator to return back to school.

“To do any job you need a degree, really.  It’s no longer the days where you can come right out of high school and get your dream job,” Lenssen said.   

Once out of bootcamp, Lenssen found himself in San Diego where he began to settle down with his family and take classes at the schoolhouse. Shortly after, however, Lenssen was being shipped out to Japan, causing him to pack his bags and head across the Pacific with his family. Following the move, his daughter Gabby was born, he said.

“We like to say she was made in Japan with American parts, that’s our joke,” Lenssen said.

Around Thanksgiving 2012, shortly after his career with the Navy ended, his wife was diagnosed with lymphoma. Tests revealed that it was treatable and she is now in remission, Lenssen said.

Had he been in active service at the time, it would have been a lot harder to handle his wife’s illness, Lenssen said. With their family in Bellingham, they wouldn’t have had the support system that they did.

Having been to 30 different countries, Lenssen’s global scope is often a source of struggle when faced with the seemingly benign issues of his college-aged peers.

“I’ve seen first-world problems, and I’ve seen third-world problems.  It’s not just a computer image to me,” Lenssen said.

His perspective has changed, Lenssen said. The memories of children rummaging through garbage or having to drink contaminated water is no comparison to the materialistic problems he sees in the U.S. It reminds him just how unimportant something like getting the newest iPhone 6 really is, Lenssen said.

Looking ahead, Lenssen hopes to continue with his passion for fishing and wildlife and work toward his dream job of fish and wildlife enforcement.

Western Acknowledges Veterans

Within Western, students and staff both reach out a helping hand of support for those who have served. Coming from any war zone into student life can be difficult, but the Veteran Service Office in Old Main 365 offers resources to make the transition easier.

The office aims to help veterans through the transition from the military. It offers mental health services, academic advising or just a place for them to hang out, said Ann Beck, assistant director at the Veteran Service Office.

Coming back from the war zone is not the most difficult part, Knight said. The difference in culture has become the most challenging transition, he said. There isn’t that “warrior culture” in the U.S.; it takes time to really come back, Knight said.

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