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Joshua DeJong

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918, marked the end of World War I. Armistice Day was created with the hope that one day there would be no more war. Our country has since fought in numerous conflicts and now we call it Veterans Day.

I am a veteran. Serving in the Navy on a submarine was a life-changing experience for a 20-year-old, not always in a good way. Nevertheless, I’m proud to have served my country and I’m happy to be attending Western on the GI Bill.   

Many military members have a rough time transitioning from military life to civilian life. After years in the service, it can feel like you are stepping onto a foreign land even though it’s home. We are a little bit older, and trying to figure out college just like those around us.

Western’s veterans office serves 430 veterans, active duty and dependents. A total of 220 veterans attend classes on Western’s campus.

One major struggle every veteran faces is reintegration into society. We walk differently, talk differently, think differently.

Many of us entered into the service soon after high school. I did. I turned 19 in Navy basic training, hours after Osama Bin Laden was killed by Navy Seals. I didn’t really envision spending long periods of time underwater.

I have always called submarines the safest and most dangerous place on the planet. If World War III breaks out, you are probably fine. If one of any number of things goes wrong, like a fire or any degree of flooding, your mortality rate skyrockets.

You are locked in a metal tube underwater with no windows, breathing recycled air and for the junior-enlisted, you share two beds between three people.

Senior Indira Tapias was an aviation electronics technician in the Navy. She said reintegrating into a school environment is a challenge. She said communication in the military is very straightforward. It is very, hurry up and say what you have to say, Tapias said.

Communication is paramount in the military. When you speak, you speak clearly and precisely. If you’re in an emergency and communication fails, it becomes more likely for people to end up injured or worse.

“People sometimes feel taken aback, they don’t expect to be spoken to that way,” Tapias said. “I’m just being straightforward, this is the message I am trying to convey and I’m not going to fluff it up.”

After leaving the service, it took me about a year to start acting like a civilian as opposed to a submariner. Still, to this day, I check locks frequently because part of my job was behind a locked door where only a few people were allowed inside.

Navy cryptologic technician Reuben Cuenca said while in the military, you are told what to wear, where to go and where to be. He said that same structure doesn’t exist now that he is out of the military.

“It’s a lot less guided,” Cuenca said. “I mean, if Canvas didn’t exist I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Many students I know today aren’t all that different. I know I live by Canvas, and others who live by their planners. I know some who couldn’t care less what is happening next in life.

Mass Communications Specialist William Cousins said it was weird transitioning back into society doing his own thing and being his own main motivator.

Now we spend time surrounded by students who are often younger than we are and who have different life experiences than us. We are now here together with a common goal of graduating.

Most veterans use their GI Bill to pay for tuition and living expenses. It is a huge help, but still requires major life adjustments. Many veterans have spouses and children and are accustomed to a completely different lifestyle. Your transition out is knowing you are being laid off as soon as your contract with the military is over.

I was lucky. When I got out I had a little bit of money saved up. I know many others who didn’t. I decided to go do missionary work for about a year. I lived in Australia serving the homeless and doing a bit of school, and then I taught about Jesus, as well as English, for two months in Cambodia and Vietnam.

It was the biggest perspective change I had since leaving the military. I was used to my little mermaid lifestyle, locked in a submarine, breathing recycled air, not seeing many people living in poverty and fighting to survive.

As a veteran, I encourage everyone to get out and travel, study abroad for a while and expand your view beyond America.

“You can see a picture or read stats about people starving, but it doesn’t mean anything until you smell it,” Cuenca said.

We all have different experiences and lead different lives. The veteran sitting next to you in class has their own story, just like you have yours. We may act a bit different, even look a bit different, but we are plugging away at life just like you. If you have the opportunity, become their friend, get to know them. We may be short with you, or sometimes seem rude, but we are just trying to make it through life.

It is easy to tell a veteran, “Thank you for your service.” But honestly, I would rather you take the time to get to know us. Some have been through a lot and may not want to share their stories, others are happy to. You won’t know what it’s truly like without walking a mile in their shoes, but you can take a few minutes to hear them out.

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