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The Kindness of Strangers

As veterans, we hear the same questions everywhere we go.  What was Iraq like?  Was it like what they show on TV?  How hot was it really? Did you ever kill anybody?  It’s almost guaranteed that someone will ask me one of these questions every time I go out.   It never fails.  Last night I heard a new one though that made me stop and think.  Last night someone asked me what stood out.  What memories from Iraq stood out in my mind?  That got me thinking.

There were quite a few memories that stuck out.  Many of these experiences will be with me for the rest of my life and unfortunately I can remember them all with horrible perfection.  The sights, sounds, the smells, they will haunt me forever, and that was just what I could remember from the chow hall.

I realized that most of the memories that stood out were of fire fights.  Every time a bullet wizzed by me, every mortar that almost hit me, every IED that should have gone off, every time I was truly scared.  Adrenaline fueled moments heighten your senses so your memories of these moments can be very vivid.  So I remember very clearly every time I ever had to fire my weapon, but that was actually a very small part of what we did.  It’s the foggy parts that I should be remembering.  It’s the foggy parts that were actually important.

Those foggy parts include every letter that anybody ever wrote to me, every package that I received, every phone call home.  While they all kind of blur together now there were a few that stick out.

People like to write to soldiers.  I never got so much mail in my life.  Every week I would get letters from people who I had never known,  people I didn’t even know existed, complete strangers.  There are a few that I remember clearly.  The lady from Iowa who sent a package of meat from her local butcher shop (that’s another smell I won’t forget), the grad student in Georgia who always kept me up-to-date on what her belly dancing troop had been up to, the Vietnam veteran from Arizona.  These people would write to me every week.  For many months I never replied to any of them.  I felt bad for that, so I sat down one day and wrote to them.  I thanked them for writing for so long even though I never wrote back.  I told them I read every one of the letters and appreciated them taking the time to write to a soldier.  None of them ever wrote me again.  I realized that even though the letters were addressed to me, they were really for them.

It wasn’t just letters; people would add me on whatever social media site I was using at the time. They would introduce themselves, make a comment on a couple pictures, and then disappear.  I never took it personally, they had their own lives, but I started to ignore them more and more, until somebody sent me a quilt.

A college student from Greeley Colorado contacted me on facebook.  She made polite conversation and I replied with practiced, generic responses.  I knew that after a couple weeks the polite conversation would end and I would never hear from her again so I never put much effort into it.  I don’t even think I took the time to learn her name.  Then she sent me a quilt.

I grew up on a farm.  I’ve watched my grandmother spend many evenings making quilts for all the grandkids.  I knew how much work it took to make something as simple as a quilt.  It’s a lot.  I still have that quilt my grandmother made as a child; it meant a lot to me.  So the fact that a complete stranger would take that much time, put that much effort into something that she would never see again for somebody she had never met, meant a lot to me too.

That single act of kindness made me stop and think.  This wasn’t an empty letter or a care package full of toilet paper (though the toilet paper was greatly appreciated).  This was something truly special.  This was something made with care.

It wasn’t the quilt itself that meant so much; it was the thought.  I had never seen a truly selfless act of kindness.  I thought I had.  I thought that the letters and the care packages were kindness.  They were, but not the same kind.  A quick letter, a package of used books, they were kindness too but this was something wholly different.  This stuck out.

That quilt never made it home.  Sadly, it was lost in the mail but it wasn’t the quilt that was important.  It was the memory.  There are many memories that stick out from Iraq but this may have been the most important.  This one doesn’t stick out because my life was in danger.  This one doesn’t stick out because I was afraid.  This one sticks out for the right reasons.

While I haven’t spoken to the girl made that quilt for a couple years now, I think about it from time to time.  It’s funny that something as simple as a quilt could change my outlook on life.  I never went to Iraq expecting to learn the meaning of kindness but that’s exactly what happened.

I realize this is supposed to be a blog about student veterans and I realize this story doesn’t have much to do with CMC.  Well too bad.  Today I want people to be a little bit nicer to each other so you’ll just have to deal with stories about quilts.

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”  Aesop

Challenges

Good morning.  I hope everyone had a great spring break and isn’t too hung over.  I know having both spring break and St. Patty’s day in the same week can be a bit overwhelming for some.  I doubt many veterans had any problems with it though as we have been training for it for every weekend since boot camp.

One of my favorite benefits of being a veteran is the discounts.  Sure the GI Bill is great and being able to go to the VA hospital for only five bucks is pretty good too.  But the 10% discount at a lot of businesses is the icing on the cake.  Actually, now that I think about it, it may just be the letters on the icing but its delicious none the less.  I use it at a lot of restaurants and sporting goods stores.  This weekend I used it at the Bass Pro Shop in Denver as I always do.  When I asked for it this time though the lady in line behind me joked about how she would sometimes like to join the military just for the discounts.  It wasn’t the first time I had heard someone say that.

As veterans we do get a lot of benefits; I actually joined the military specifically for the GI Bill.  One of the factors that helped me decide to join was that the benefits alone were worth more than what I would have made working at the job I had at the time.  But every once in a while someone will make a sour comment about it, usually someone who doesn’t like the military and loves to tell everyone all about it whether they wanted to hear it or not.

There is a long list of benefits available to us as veterans.  The biggest for me, by far, is the GI Bill.  But as veterans we also face a long list of challenges.  When I took this job, I was shocked to hear some of the statistics.  Many veterans go back to school after they leave active duty.  To those on the outside looking in, it looks like college should be a breeze for veterans since they don’t have to worry about how they are going to pay their tuition or how they will afford books.  The GI Bill even pays my rent.  College should be easy when you don’t have to worry about money.  But yet, it isn’t easy.  The truth is veteran’s face more challenges then most people would think.

One of the statistics that shocked me was that 85% of veterans going to college dropout 10-14 months after starting; 85% dropout in that small 4 month window.  I was stunned.  Another statistic that shocked me was that only 3% of veterans that go to college actually graduate.

Statistically, veterans get better grades then civilian students.  We miss fewer classes and are even on time more often.  On paper we are a demographic of good, well-rounded students.   But there is obviously something wrong.

What isn’t taken into consideration is that 11-20% of veterans have had a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  10-30% still suffer from Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) a year after leaving combat.  According to the National institute on Drug Abuse, 1 in 4 veterans are alcoholics.   And the saddest statistic of all is that 50% of veterans have contemplated suicide.

The challenges we face are private.  Many times we face them alone as we generally don’t like to talk about it, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

When I came to CMC, I was surprised by the number of veterans here.  I couldn’t figure out why there was such a disproportional amount of veterans at such a small, isolated school up in the mountains.  But that actually was why there were so many here.

Last Friday, I took a campus tour of Colorado State University in Fort Collins.  It was overwhelming, 27,000 students on one campus.  I couldn’t even comprehend a class size of 300.  Fort Collins itself is never quiet either.  It’s hectic, as you could imagine having that many college kids.  Colorado Mountain College is just the opposite.

After seeing that I understood why veterans preferred to go to school here.  I’ve been going to school here for two years.  During that whole time, I don’t think I have ever had a class size of more than 30.  If you like to study in the library, there is always a quiet corner somewhere.  Walk into the computer lab and you will never have to wait for a computer.  In the Student Affair office they actually know your name.  It made me appreciate what I had.

I celebrated St. Patty’s day with veterans I go to school with.  This morning I had breakfast in the cafeteria with veterans.  Whether we realize it or not, we’ve made this place our own.  We have been slowly turning this school into a school for veterans.  Five year ago there were 12 vets at this school, now there are 120, and that is expected to double in the next five years.  We’re taking over and CMC realized this.

Because of the growing percentage of vets going to school here, CMC started programs to help student veterans with the unique challenges we face.  Partnerships with Colorado West and West Central Mental Health provide confidential counseling for veterans to help with PTSD.  Programs like Healing Waters are specifically for those with service related injuries.  I even hear CMC has a very well-written veteran’s blog :)

My point is that just because we face challenges that many know or care little about doesn’t mean we have to face them alone.  Student veterans will always walk that knifes edge, balancing between school, work, life, and our own personal demons, but we don’t have to slay them by ourselves.  Seeking confidential help is literally only a phone call away.

It’s easy to criticize people for what they have when you don’t stop to think about how they got it.  Veterans do get a lot of benefits, but we earned those benefits many times over.  The challenges we face don’t end when we leave active duty.  They are still there every day.  It’s easier though, when we have someone to talk to about them.  If something as small as a little encouragement can go a long way then maybe a shoulder to lean on can save a life.

I think the reason so many veterans are drawn to this school isn’t only because of the peaceful surrounding and epic skiing, but more so because people here actually care.  The faculty and staff know your name.  If you need help in class, it’s there, and if you need help outside of class, it’s there too.  As veterans we have been inadvertently shaping this school over the years into something great.  We changed it into something of our own.  We have turned it into a home.

If you are a veteran who has questions about the confidential services offered through CMC and its partners feel free to email me for more information.

Also, before I sign off I would like to congratulate CMC on recently being rated one of the top 20 two year colleges in the country.

If You Like to Ski, Thank a Veteran

Miners may have settled the mountains, but veterans conquered them.

I love to ski.  I get out every couple weeks but not nearly as much as I would like to.  I like to think that I’m good skier but I’ve seen people who are actually good do things on skis that I wouldn’t even have thought possible.

I grew up in the Midwest where nobody skis or rides.  Wintertime in the Midwest just meant a lot of bare trees and dead grass.  There just weren’t too many outdoor activities.  There wasn’t enough snow for a lot of snow sports and there weren’t very many hills big enough to do much more then sled down.

It was a shock when I moved to Colorado.  Here, wintertime is fun.  There is stuff to do.  Many people here are actually more active in the wintertime then in the summer.  When it snows, people get excited.  At home they would have been annoyed.  It’s amazing what a few ski areas can do.  We are lucky here to have so many different ski areas to choose from, and the big resorts make it as easy as possible to have fun here in the mountains too, for a price of course.

I went to Beaver Creek this weekend to enjoy some of their 14 inches of powder.  The really good crunchy gnar sauce pow pow that Colorado is famous for.  If you have never been to Beaver Creek before I would recommend it.  There is an escalator that takes you right to the bottom of the lift.  People walk around and hand out free warm chocolate chip cookies.  There is a free champagne toast and even a free keg of beer (it doesn’t last very long).  I ate at a restaurant that had a house magician that came around and did magic tricks at your table while you wait for your food.  It’s pretty luxurious.  It wasn’t always that way though.

It’s hard to imagine today but many of today’s ski areas owe their beginnings to veterans.  In fact, the sport itself is as big as it is today due to a hand full of veterans from the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division.  Ski resorts like Vail and Aspen would not be here otherwise.  Aspen was a dying silver town, Vail didn’t even exist.  It wasn’t until a few determined veterans developed them into ski areas that the sport took off.

During the winter of 1939, Russia decided to invade Finland.  Russia invaded with 1.5 million men, 6,541 tanks, and 3,800 airplanes.  Finland had only 250,000 men, 30 tanks, and 130 aircraft.  The Finns were greatly outgunned and outnumbered.   It looked like it would be a quick victory.  But those crazy Finns could ski.  The Russian army relied on heavy vehicles that did poorly in the snow while the Finnish army trained on skis and were perfectly suited for winter combat.

Russia suffered embarrassing loses.  226,875 Russians were killed, 264,908 were wounded, 5,600 were captured, and over 400,000 were never seen again and were presumed dead.  Finland had 30 tanks; they captured or destroyed 2,268 tanks.  Needless to say, it was largely one-sided and people here in America were watching.

America decided that it too needed soldiers trained on skis; soldiers who were perfectly suited for mountain warfare.  We had the 10th Mountain Division, but they trained in Kansas.  That was about to change.  Camp Hale, an area just south of Vail between the towns of Redcliff and Leadville, became the new home of the 10th.  They found an ideal area to train nearby; an area that had snow six months out of the year.  You know it today as Ski Cooper.  Soldiers would walk to the top and ski down.  4,000 soldiers in two years were trained to shoot while skiing down the side of a mountain with packs on their backs.  That would be hard do to even with today’s gear much less 1940’s era ski gear.

After WWII a few of those veterans returned here to the mountains.  They started ski schools and opened ski resorts.  Prior to WWII, skiing wasn’t a very popular sport here in America.  After WWII however, skiing became very popular.  The military and few motivated veterans were responsible for that.  It was a veteran that turned Aspen Mountain into a ski resort.  It was a veteran that turned a ranch in Eagle County into the town of Vail.

I was surprised when I moved here that there were so many veterans here.  I’m not sure why, but the mountains just seem to appeal to us.  Five years ago, CMC had only a handful of veterans; today it has well over a hundred.  Five years from now, that number is expected to double.  It’s appropriate though.  It was veterans that made this area what it today and it’s a place that for some reason still calls to us.

The veterans here today aren’t just skiing though.  Veterans here at Colorado Mountain College are raft guides and EMT’s.  We are climbing mountains and guiding your fishing trips.  There are student veterans making sure your water is clean and building habitat for wildlife.  There are even a few working at the ski resorts making sure others enjoy skiing as much as we do.

Three years ago I found an advertisement for CMC randomly one night while surfing the internet in a cyber café on COB Speicher in Iraq.  Little did I know that it would change the course of my life.  Looking back, it was the best decision I could have made.  I like it here.  I’m not sure why the mountains appeal to us veterans, but Im glad I came.  I’m also glad that CMC and the GI Bill made it so easy for me to come here.  So what brought you here?

Brothers

So here we are at the beginning of the new year and a new semester.  I hope everyone had a great holiday break.   After a whole month off from school I’m sure everyone was eager to get back to class.  I know I sure wasn’t.  When that alarm went off Monday morning I was ready for the weekend already.  But I got up none the less and since you’re reading this I guess you did too.

I usually spend the holidays with my family but this year was different, this year I spent the holidays with my other family, my platoon.

My dad is 88 years old.  In case you’re doing the math, yes he is quite a bit older than me. In fact, he was already 60 years old when I was born.  He was born in 1924 and served in Germany in WWII.  I remember the day we first got internet at our house.  He asked me what he should look up.  I told him everything and everyone was on the internet and he could simply search for whatever he wanted to know.   With all that information at his fingertips, and all the years that had passed, the first thing he looked for was the remaining members of his old platoon.

I left active duty a couple of years ago.  My old platoon all went in their separate directions.  Some went home to their families; others didn’t as years overseas had taken its toll on their marriages.  Some went to college like myself; others fell through the cracks while battling substance abuse.  Some are no longer with us.  But all of us remain brothers.

It’s hard to explain to anybody who has never served.  The connection we have is different.  Our friendships were born of blood, sweat, tears, and despair and then forged in the fires of war.  After not seeing many of them since leaving Iraq in 2010, we all picked up right where we left off, as if no time had passed at all.

Psychologists say that shared intense instances create strong emotional bonds.  These intense moments can be anything; skydiving, a car wreck, a wild night on the town, the death of a loved one, any moment of heightened emotions, good or bad, will create an emotional bond with whoever shared that experience.  War is an intense experience.   Not one that lasts for just a moment or even hours or days or weeks but years.  It’s not an intense moment but an intense way of life.

I’ve always considered my platoon family.  Seeing them was the best Christmas present I could have ever hoped for.  In many ways, it meant more to me than spending Christmas with my real family.

My dad was only able to find one member of his old platoon that day.  They talked for a long time and afterword my dad didn’t say much for the rest of the day.  I guess he was lost in thought.  I found out later that he and his friend were the only members of his platoon left.  I had heard many of his stories of his old platoon when I was growing up, the good and the bad.  Learning that most of his old platoon was dead was probably a big shock.  I can understand why he didn’t have much to say.

Last spring my dad found out that he had stage four cancer and was dying.  He had battled cancer before and had beaten it, but this time he declined treatment.  The doctors had given him five months to live and he said he would rather not spend his remaining time in a hospital bed sick from treatment.  I went to visit him at his home in South Dakota.  While there with the rest of my family he took me aside and gave me a photo album that I had never seen before.  He told me not to say anything about it to the rest of the family and to look through it some night after I had gotten home.

One night I sat down and looked through that tattered old photo album and in that moment, I realized why he had wanted me to have it.  My dad had nine children of which I was the only one who joined the military.  He wanted me to have it because it would mean something to me that it wouldn’t to the others.  It was his platoon.  His pictures were the same as mine.  Sure they were of different people in a different war and they were in black and white, but they were the same.  They were pictures of tired, dirty, solders.  They were posing holding light machine guns with belts of ammo wrapped around themselves; smoking cigars while sitting on cases of high explosives; filling sandbags; burning shit.  They were the same pictures I had of my own platoon.  They were pictures of his brothers.

My platoon, my brothers, were here for a week.  Saying goodbye to them was hard.  And coming home to an empty house afterward was kinda depressing.  I sat there for a while thinking about Iraq and how terrible and awesome it was.  If you were to ask any of us if we would do it again the answer would always be the same; yes.  Despite all the bad things none of us would have changed anything.

Before I go, I would like to do something.  I would like to introduce you to the craziest, most irrational, unpredictable, and indestructible group of guys that I know of,,,, my platoon.

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Finals Week

Finals week, it’s everyone’s favorite time of the semester.  That time when sleep requirements seem to disappear and caffeine consumption hits a record high.  It’s the time when you say to yourself; “Why did I take 18 credits again?”  If you’re like me, you become a very unfriendly person about this time of the semester.  Last year I kicked two of my roommates out during finals week.  If they happen to be reading this then I would like to apologize for that, and I would like my coffee pot back.

Because it’s finals week, I would like to mention some good study habits.  I have always been told that before a test you should get plenty of sleep and eat a breakfast high in protein.   I sometime think about that for a brief moment while I’m running out the door, eating a piece of pizza that I found between the couch cushions and chugging day old coffee after having pulled an all-nighter.  They also say that you should take plenty of notes so that you have something to reference while studying.  Notes might have come in handy, but instead of taking notes, I’m usually day-dreaming about fishing, or texting some girl that I met while not studying the night before.  The only thing I seem to have going in my favor is the fact that I test well.  I don’t think I would do very well at all if I was one of those people that are terrible test takers.  There is still one weekend though to buckle down and study hard, but aren’t we supposed to get five inches of snow tomorrow?  I never said that I was a good example.

Today is the 71st anniversary of Pearl Harbor.  On this day, 71 years ago, 2,402 American military men died and another 1,282 were wounded.  The Japanese had only 65 killed and wounded.  It wasn’t a very bright day in American history.   It is important though that we remember that day.  Many of your grandparents still remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the news.  A few of you have grandparents that were actually there.

USS Arizona 2012

USS Arizona 1941

On the other side of the world, in Great Britain, Winston Churchill opened a bottle of champagne and made a toast when he heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  England was not in a very good place at that point in the war but Winston Churchill opened his bottle of champagne, made a toast and said “We have just won the war.”  His advisors thought he was nuts.  When asked, he said “The United States is like a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it, there is no limit to the power it can generate.”  Japan later found out just how right he was.

We need to remember that day 71 years ago.  Not just because it’s on your history final but because it was one of the lowest times in American history, but we came back.  We overcame our defeat and became even stronger for it.  Pearl Harbor was our dark time.  We would be tested in the war to come and things looked bleak, but we pushed on, we gave it our all and we passed.  So study hard.

Before I go, I would like to mention that in honor of those who died at Pearl Harbor there will be a 1940s Ball at Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum tonight at 6pm.  Stop by and say hi, I’ll be the one studying.

Happy Thanksgiving

So it’s that time of year again, Thanksgiving.   I can almost smell the turkey already.  I can’t help though but to think back to some of my past thanksgivings.  Being a veteran means that at some point you gave up spending a few holidays with your loved ones in order to spend them with Uncle Sam.  I gave up four Thanksgivings.  The first I gave to my drill sergeant in Fort Sill, Drill Sergeant Monsanto.  The second was at the National Training Center in California.  I got to spend that thanksgiving standing guard against OP4.  The last two I spent in Iraq, one in Baghdad and one in Tikrit.  They weren’t too bad.  I may not have been able to spend them with my actual family but I spent them with brothers none the less.

SPC John Dever of Chicago, IL with Blackfoot Company 1st Battalion 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment has Thanksgiving dinner while standing watch in a guard tower November 26, 2009 in Matakhan, Afghanistan.  The soldiers of Blackfoot were served pre-packaged turkey breasts, cranberries, potatoes, stuffing and pie.

U.S. Army Soldiers Celebrate Thanksgiving in Afghanistan

This holiday season there will be some postcards floating around campus.  I urge you to fill one out.  These postcards will be sent to our brothers and sister in arms in Afghanistan.   I will have a table set up in the cafeteria of the Leadville campus periodically over the next few weeks.  Stop by and fill out a postcard.  Your message will be sent to a soldier who will be spending the holidays in a combat zone on the other side of the world.

I know many do not agree with the governments reasons for being in the Middle East.  It’s important though to remember that those soldiers are people too.  Just because they are in the military doesn’t necessarily mean that they agree with everything it does.  They are normal people who just happen to have a very long commute to work.  They work long hours for low pay and miss their families dearly.  So this holiday season, stop and fill out a postcard and let a solider/sailor/airman/marine know that they are appreciated.

I hope all of you have a wonderful Thanksgiving and I’ll see you in December.

October in the High Rockies

October has been a busy month.  Thanks to the VA being behind on everything it’s been a very frustrating month too.  Last week, I had a nice conversation with Congressman Doug Lamborn who has been helping some of the veterans who haven’t received their benefits yet.  I’m not really the type of person who follows politics, but it’s nice to have political weight in your corner when you’re dealing with government agencies.  If you’re a student veteran who hasn’t received your benefits yet let me know and I’ll pass on the contact information.

If you’ve never had to deal with Veterans Affairs count yourself lucky.  You thought the DMV was bad, with the VA you have to make an appointment just to call them, several days in advance.  VA employees have even been getting paid weeks late.  It’s no wonder they are soo slow processing benefits.  They have, however, just recently authorized overtime and holiday pay in order to speed up the process.  Hopefully that helps speed everything up.

Not all has been bad in October though, the ski resorts are opening and Halloween is almost here.  I got to spend a day at A-Basin this weekend.  The lines were pretty long and it was kinda icy but it was definitely worth it.  The Bacon Bloody Mary’s are a great après ski beverage too.  As chilly as it was it didn’t stop too many from going out and shredding in costume.

Keystone and Copper open this week and I hear that Loveland is open now too.  Winter is coming and I can’t wait.  It’s kind of different here compared to the rest of the country.  Everywhere else people dread winter with the icy roads, the bad weather, and the cold, but here people celebrate winter.  I like it.

I got the chance to talk with some veterans this week about why they came to CMC.  Army veteran Marcus Sewell said he came here for the outdoor program.  “My favorite part of this school is that I get to go kayaking for class.  I love this school.”  Marine veteran Dan Honeycut said “There is a campus a mile from my house; it’s so convenient how could I not take advantage of it.  I like it here, that’s why I transferred.”  Air Force veteran Josh Clark said, “I’m here for the chicks.”  I can’t help but admire his priorities.  Personally, I visited the campus when I returned from my last deployment and knew that this was the place for me.  The mountains were beautiful, the people were friendly, and the NRM program was everything I had been looking for.  And as Josh pointed out, the chicks aren’t too bad either.

Be sure to check out the new Colorado Mountain College website here.

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