From combat to college at ‘veteran-friendly’ LMU
‘It’s been a hard transition, a very hard transition back to full-time student.’
Growing up in Venice with three brothers — one older and younger twins — Daisy Casillas fell easily into the role of tomboy. She played with their G.I. Joe toys and competed against them mano-a-mano in sports. So when an U.S. Army recruiter called her up over Christmas vacation in 2003, it took her less than five minutes for the high school senior to make up her mind.
The only problem was she was 17 and needed her parents’ permission. At first her mother was adamant: “No!” But the precocious teenager got her mom to change her opinion by arguing that when she turned 18 she was going to join the Army anyway.
“So they signed, and I was in,” she recalls with a persuasive grin.
After graduating from Venice High School, basic training in South Carolina and a month leave back home, Casillas’ 437th Medical Company, ground ambulance unit, based in Moreno Valley, got its orders to go to Germany. All of a sudden, it hit her how far away from home she really would be.
“But then it turned out to be like the best thing that could have ever happened to me,” says the 27-year-old veteran and current college student. “We worked in the main hospital that took care of all the patients from Iraq and Afghanistan at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. I worked there for 2 1/2 years in, like, the civilian equivalent of human resources and I really enjoyed it. I think I grew up there and learned to mature faster than everyone else my age.”
Returning stateside and placed on reserve, she was able to earn an uninterrupted associate degree at West Los Angeles College before transferring to Loyola Marymount University. But before the fall 2008 semester at LMU was through, Casillas found out that in early 2009 she was being deployed with another medical unit to Kuwait.
This time the experience was anything but enjoyable.
For one thing, her base was just 45 miles from the Iraqi border, so there was the daily reminder that she was in a combat zone with a real war going on not far away. For another, she was working inside a tent in a hot desert environment.
But worst of all was her boss and commander who, Casillas says, made blatant advances, told her she should go back to Mexico (even though she was a Mexican-American citizen), and displayed drastic mood swings she had to constantly deal with.
“From day to day, you never knew what he would be like,” she remembers. “I’ve never been like so stressed in my life as I was there. I was really miserable.”
That lasted for the better part of 15 months, until she was taken off active duty and sent back to California. On reserve again, she re-enrolled at LMU as a liberal studies major in the fall of 2010, and this month finished her second full academic year of studies on the Jesuit-run campus. She needs one more year to earn her bachelor’s degree; her goal is to become a special education elementary school teacher.
Indeed, balancing her military career — she reenlisted for another six years in 2009 — as well as her pursuit of higher education has been a long, and at times, really difficult struggle. “My first semester at LMU, it was horrible,” Casillas says with a sigh. “I came back and I didn’t want to be around too many people. I couldn’t sit still in class. It was hard concentrating. It was just like: ‘Oh, my gosh! I’d rather be back on deployment. This stinks.’”
There have been certain classes, like history, where unworldly-wise students in heated anti-war discussions have blurted out, “Why do we even need an army?” — not knowing a veteran is sitting directly behind them. Even just overhearing conversations among fellow students worried about what color shoes they’re going to wear that evening has bothered her.
And then there’s the overriding fact that most students have no idea about why Americans are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan — or, in fact, have any relationship to these long wars on terror that together have claimed more than 6,300 American lives and left over 42,000 wounded.
Moreover, two members of her unit, including a friend, committed suicide after deployments. At times she still wonders if she could have done something, and why she didn’t pick up any danger signs.
“It’s been a hard transition, a very hard transition back to full-time student,” says the promoted platoon sergeant. “I know I’m not that much older than they are, but I feel like I’ve had totally different experiences than they have. So most of the friends I’ve made on campus have been through the Student Veterans Organization. We try to recognize whoever’s a veteran and say, ‘Hey, we’re here if you want to come talk to us.’
“And LMU is doing a good job, although they could always do more,” Casillas adds. “But they’re definitely trying to make our transition a little bit easier. And I think I’ve learned to deal with it better, like trying not to let things affect me, and have gotten back into the routine of college life. But every now and then, I still have days where I don’t even want to get up. And I think it’s because of everything that I’ve seen and stuff.
“People have a misconception that a veteran is somebody who was in World War II or the Vietnam War,” she says, “But there are so many young veterans out there in need of help.”
During the last academic year, Anna Lock has been a postdoctoral fellow with LMU’s Student Psychological Services. She has worked with veterans and, especially, alerting faculty and staff to the special needs they face in adjusting to college life. For her doctoral studies in clinical psychology at Pepperdine University, the 30-year-old Pennsylvania native has also done therapy with vets through the VA (Veterans Administration) and at the University of Southern California’s student counseling center.
Many of the 60-plus vets who went to LMU during the 2011-12 school year had first attended community colleges, like Daisy Casillas. But they still faced “transitional issues” when they arrived at the Westchester campus, according to Lock.
“First of all, the transition from military life to civilian life is a big thing that comes up that we work on — and then, more specifically, transition into university life,” she points out. “There’s the age difference and life experience difference.
“There’s also a very specific military culture that is very different from what most people know and live. There are matters of respect and orders and following rank. Little things like being in a classroom when you’re trying to listen to the professor and the person next to you is texting or is on Facebook — that’s disrespecting a higher-up.”
The clinical psychologist says more serious struggles include depression, anxiety and simply not being able to concentrate on any subject. Plus there’s the social issue for veterans of feeling like they don’t fit in, either at home or on a college campus. Lock says universities, after all, are supposed to foster “critical discourses,” in and outside of classes and seminars. But it’s really tough for vets who have recently put their lives on the line in Iraq or Afghanistan to listen to some naïve teenager or liberal professor openly badmouth U.S. involvement in these wars.
And then there’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which Lock reports is a “lot more prevalent” in young veterans than their non-vet college peers.
“PTSD doesn’t necessarily just pop up right when you have a traumatic event,” she notes. “It’s often a delayed onset. Where the vets are coming back from overseas, they’re adjusting and there’s this period of ‘Oh, everything’s fine. I’m just happy to be back.’
“But then they start realizing the differences in their current life and start noticing how much they’ve been affected by the war and combat experiences. Overseas they just go into this sort of survival mode and the stuff doesn’t hit them. But then when they come back, it’s like all of that can sink in. So it’s actually about a year out when these symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD are really showing up.
“And PTSD, along with TBI [Traumatic Brain Injury], can really make it harder to pay attention in class,” she says. “With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, hyper-vigilance is a big issue. They have to sit with their back to the wall or right next to the door. And then if their hearing has been affected during the wars, that can be another issue. So it can be really tough for these vets.”
Lock, however, also believes that Loyola Marymount University, as well as many other colleges and universities, has stepped up to serve those who have served. LMU is developing a leadership credit class specifically to help its student veterans not only better adjust to campus life but really integrate into it.
“One of our biggest missions this year was to not just ask the veterans what they need, but to take the initiative in educating everybody about specific issues to be aware of,” she says. “What difficulties might they be having and how we can help them address them?
“So we’re really trying to educate our campus so that we are a ‘veteran-friendly’ campus. LMU just has a great commitment to service, and the service to veterans is no exception.”
U.S. Army veteran Trevor Scott from Cupertino, Calif., just finished his first year at Loyola Marymount University after going to Santa Monica Community College for two years. As an infantryman — who served deployments in Iraq, during the fierce fighting in Ramadi in 2006, and a couple years later at an outpost base in Afghanistan — he’s lost track of the number of firefights he was in.
“It was surreal,” he says. “It was an experience like no other. I think once you’re been to combat you kind of see what the world could be like if society had broken down completely. There’s no rules. It’s just chaos. It’s crazy. Yeah, it’s a life-changing experience.”
Scott started out as a private in Iraq and became a sergeant and squad leader in Afghanistan. He was a radio operator, rifleman, machine gunner and anything else he had to be to survive. When he finally got back to California in June of 2009, he stayed with his younger sister in Santa Monica, and enrolled in the city’s community college that August.
At first he had a hard time just being on campus with so many people, scrambling to get into overbooked classes and waiting in long lines at the busy bookstore. He couldn’t help himself from scanning windows and rooftops for possible “snipers” and being wary of bumping into people he didn’t know.
“They teach you in the Army when you’re deployed to be friendly to everyone, but always have a plan to kill them,” he explains matter of factly.
Scott also had problems sleeping more than a few hours at a time, another habit he picked up on deployments, when he was either out on a mission or pulling guard duty at the base.
“The combat stuff never affected me. Like all the blood and guts and firefights never really bothered me,” he maintains today. “I kind of had it all in context. I was in lots of firefights, but I always kind of felt like, you know, if I didn’t shoot back they were going to shoot me. So I never really felt guilty about that, but I know a lot of guys did later.”
What really helped get him back to normal day-to-day living was staying with his sister when he returned home.
There was also having a good friend he’d gone to Iraq with who came back to the states earlier and became a film major. The friend was doing a short student film about the military, in fact, and asked him not only to coach the actors about how to talk and behave like real soldiers, but also offered him a part in the production.
“And I spent a few days working on that film and I loved it,” recalls Scott. “It was like, ‘I want to do this for a living.’ It was awesome. So I just started acting classes at Santa Monica and then I changed my major to theater.”
At LMU Scott has already helped direct one play and acted in another student production. Ironically, he played a soldier again because he had uniforms not only for himself but also two other actors. This summer he’s been lucky to have lined up parts in three other short films, including the lead in one.
“It’s definitely an outlet for emotions,” says the former infantryman. “You always hear actors say they can go on stage and there’s this purgation of emotions and afterwards they feel better. But I think being in combat maybe put me in touch more deeply with my own emotions. I guess you kind of see humanity in its raw form. I guess you get in touch with yourself a little bit more.”