Guez Salinas, left, shakes hands with fellow Marine Sebastian Gould. They… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Palo Alto — On his first day as a student at Stanford University after serving as an enlisted Marine in Iraq, William Treseder rushed to get to the dining hall by 6 a.m.
Stanford dining halls, it turned out, open in the morning at the same time that Marine chow halls close: 8 a.m.
"That was the beginning of understanding of what a different place this is," said Treseder, now 28 and just a few classes away from graduating with a degree in science, technology and society.
Soon he found that Stanford students — bright, hardworking and focused on their careers — were not necessarily anti-military, just ignorant of military service and their generational cohorts who have enlisted.
When Veterans Day came and went without any acknowledgement from the student body or administration, Treseder was furious at the oversight.
He went to see the university president to ask for an outreach program to help other military veterans gain admission. It was the first of several meetings. Treseder found that Stanford and the Marine Corps have at least one thing in common: Institutional change does not happen overnight.
"William has gotten us to think about a number of issues," said Jeff Wachtel, senior assistant to Stanford President John Hennessy.
Treseder spoke to several student groups to break down their suspicion of military veterans. He read a portion of the poem "In Flanders Fields" to a fall gathering of new students.
Along with his studies, Treseder has become an unofficial leader of a small group of students who have made the same journey: Marine grunts who are now undergraduates at an elite university.
By Treseder's count, among Stanford's roughly 7,000 undergraduates there are 10 students who are former members of the military. Seven are Marines.
Of those, six served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Treseder and Chuck Stern, 27, an English major, served in both.
After a year and a half at Stanford, Treseder's student career was interrupted in early 2010 when he volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan, attached to the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.
If transitioning from Iraq to Stanford in fall 2008 was an adjustment, so was switching from Stanford back to the Marine Corps in April 2010. At Stanford the emphasis is on individual achievement, in the Marine Corps, it is the group — the fire team, the squad, the platoon — that matters.
When he went to Twentynine Palms for predeployment training, the "me-first" attitude he had picked up at Stanford was deemed unsatisfactory.
"I was a pompous, ego-driven Stanford undergraduate who had had some good experiences in the Marines and thought he was hot-stuff," he said. "I was called up pretty short by a gunny," or gunnery sergeant.
In Afghanistan, he served in a civil affairs unit, assigned to try to win hearts and minds of suspicious, war-weary villagers in Sangin, long dominated by the Taliban. He has recorded his view of the war and U.S. strategy in his occasional blog postings.
"What's the real solution here?" he wrote near the end of the deployment. "I am not the Wizard dispensing answers from behind the veil — I can't answer that.
"What I can tell you is the organization needed to provide security in Afghanistan probably can't be developed in the timeline we're stuck with. Keep your eyes and ears open for timeline extensions, lowered expectations or a depressing mix of the two."
His battalion, the famed Blackhorse, returned to Camp Pendleton in late March, after 25 were killed and more than 200 wounded. Treseder, a sergeant, arrived in time for the debate about whether Stanford should allow ROTC on campus.
After graduating from high school in Davis, Treseder did four years of stateside service in the Marine Corps before attending West Valley College in Saratoga. He was accepted as a transfer student to Stanford in 2007 but before he could enroll, he was ordered to Iraq.
The Marines at Stanford know they are getting a top-notch education. The school has provided financial support so they do not have to drain their veterans' benefits or be burdened by student loans.
Still, they never lose sight of the fact that they are different from other students. An estimated 90% of undergraduates are "traditional" students who arrived at Stanford directly from high school. Most Marines are community college transfers.
From their classmates, they get the occasional intrusive question: Did you kill anyone in the war?
Chris Clark, 25, who served two tours with a reconnaissance unit in Iraq, received a Combat Action Ribbon and a Purple Heart. Now he's a political science major.
He dodges the question about killing — not because it is a painful subject but because it requires an explanation about the complexity and moral grayness of combat that most Stanford students probably would not understand.
"Everything about it is ambiguous for me," Clark said. "To answer it, yes or no, does not do it justice."