Twenty-six combat veterans launched academic careers Saturday with a weekend excursion to the San Jacinto Mountains.
They were members of the Veterans' Learning Collaborative at Pasadena City College, a new program designed to help veterans adjust to the challenges of higher education and overcome the physical injuries and lingering anxieties of battlefield service.
"The move from military to college is a natural transition, but a difficult one," said Harold Martin, an associate professor of psychology at the college and a member of the program. "So we start by getting these students as far away from distractions and escapist activities as possible."
The program starts with a retreat in Idyllwild, where former warriors spend plenty of time chatting around campfires about their lives. The discussions are intended to help participants bond as college students, and not just veterans.
"The first step is to have them discard certain aspects of military life that are not conducive to the college experience," Martin said. "For example, not questioning authority, a priority in the military, but the opposite of what you want from a student. These are men and women who would take a bullet for a buddy in combat. But in peacetime, you have to lighten up."
Until he met Martin, Marine Corps veteran Nathan Kemitt, 27, wondered whether he would ever be able to set aside wrenching memories of what he experienced in Iraq and focus instead on attaining a college degree.
"My best friend was killed next to me and I lost use of my right arm in a roadside bomb blast in 2007," Kemitt said. "I spent the next three years in hospitals, and in wasted days and nights with the wrong people."
"A year ago, I moved to Southern California from Houston to make a fresh start," he said. "Now, I'm majoring in U.S. history. That wouldn't be possible if I wasn't surrounded by veterans who understand what I've been through, and are learning together to move forward with their lives."
Lisa Castaneda, 23, who worked on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis for three years, enrolled in the program shortly after she was discharged from the Navy on July 4.
"Veterans have more in common than other students," said Castaneda, a business major at Pasadena City College. "No matter what kind of problem I'm facing, I can count on them to step up and help."
Martin said the collaborative aims to help veterans avoid the kinds of obstacles he faced after serving as an Army infantryman during the Vietnam War.
"I felt isolated, angry and alone," he said. "I made a personal commitment that this generation would not have to deal with the treatment I got."
When the students return to school later this week, Martin said, "they will take with them a new social structure that they can count on for support in everything from completing assignments to coping with the bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration and ongoing medical issues."
"As if all that were not enough," Martin added, "the job market isn't there for them. So they can use all the support they can get."