The Marine recruiter couldn’t have timed his call to Tom Wiltshire any better if he tried. In 2005, amid a stubborn insurgency in Iraq, then-19-year-old Wiltshire was fresh out of high school — and a job. The military was short on new recruits, and Wiltshire’s 1.8 high-school GPA wasn’t getting him anywhere fast.
“I had no political motivations for wanting to join the Marines,” said Wiltshire, now a UC Berkeley junior. “I didn’t join out of any sense of patriotism or family history in the military. It’s just kind of how it worked out, I guess. The Marine recruiter snagged me first.”
The next five years saw a previously underachieving high school graduate transform into a globe-trotting combat photographer who shot images of humanitarian efforts in Bangladesh, interviewed prominent Iraqi officials and witnessed the violence of the Iraq War through the lens of his camera. Even though Wiltshire wasn’t an infantryman, he said he regularly joined Marine convoys on roads riddled with improvised explosive devices and other dangers. Like many veterans, he considers himself lucky to be alive.
From the beginning, however, Wiltshire knew the military wouldn’t be a career for him. Motivated by a romantic interest to remain in the United States after returning from Iraq, Wiltshire turned down a lucrative government contracting job in Afghanistan and moved to San Diego — where the recession had cut huge swaths out of the civilian job market.
With few employment prospects, Wiltshire turned to the GI Bill to keep himself afloat financially — the legislation covers educational costs and a living stipend. His initial motivation was primarily economic, and his attitude was decidedly ho-hum.
“I figured I might as well go to school,” he said. “I didn’t figure I’d do particularly well.”
It was a shock to him, then, when he learned he could pull his weight as well as anyone else at San Diego City College. In his first semester in 2011, Wiltshire earned straight A’s.
“Nobody was more surprised than I was,” he said. “I realized college was relatively easy compared with being in the Marines.”
Wiltshire would continue to build on that initial success in the coming years, eventually finding himself in a place he couldn’t have imagined before: UC Berkeley.
A group of 150 or so student veterans at UC Berkeley in 2008 has since ballooned to more than 300, and approximately 1,300 student veterans are currently enrolled at campuses across the UC system. That figure will continue to rise as veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan return home to sometimes-bleak employment prospects and a job market that can treat college education as a prerequisite.
UC President and former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, campus officials and students systemwide are mobilizing in an effort to improve veterans services across the university by providing designated resource centers, hiring staff and reworking campus policies.
Just as Wiltshire found himself back in school after leaving the Marines, veterans across the country have flocked to America’s universities on the 2008 post-9/11 GI Bill — the single largest expansion of veterans’ education benefits since the original GI Bill of 1944. More than one million veterans are expected to exit the armed forces in the next five years, and many will choose to pursue higher education, according to Student Veterans of America’s vice president of external affairs William Hubbard.
The impact on California’s higher education system has already been significant — in the 2010-11 academic year alone, more than 50,000 veterans and active duty military personnel were enrolled at California community colleges.
“We have our own set of issues that stem from our background, but our status doesn’t exist because of genetic predispositions or ethnic backgrounds.”
— Tom Wiltshire, UC Berkeley junior and Marine veteran
“The numbers that we’ll see in the very near future are going to skyrocket,” said Ron Williams, who has worked on veterans issues at UC Berkeley for more than a decade and currently serves as the program director of re-entry student and veteran services at UC Berkeley.
Momentum is gathering at UC Berkeley to improve veterans services and attract new students. Facing a rapidly growing student veteran population, the campus is increasingly confronted with the challenge of providing for a diverse and uniquely situated demographic.
Student veterans carry a burden of personal experiences that few can relate to. They are more than 10 years older than the average four-year university student; their financial support system is often bureaucratically convoluted and many have spouses, partners or children to care for.
“One thing that’s unique to vets as a status (is that) it transcends gender, sexual preference, race,” said Wiltshire, now the public affairs officer for the Cal Veterans student group. “We have our own set of issues that stem from our background, but our status doesn’t exist because of genetic predispositions or ethnic backgrounds.”
In January, UC Berkeley’s first full-time employee devoted to veterans affairs began working. The following month, in response to conversations with student veterans during tours of many UC campuses last fall, Napolitano called the first meeting of a student veterans’ advisory group composed of a representative from each UC campus.
In March, representatives of each of the major UC Berkeley student veteran groups — including undergraduate and graduate students, alumni and staff — gathered in a single, comprehensive strategy meeting for the first time.
“There’s a lot of momentum around veterans stuff right now,” said John Ready, Graduate Assembly campus affairs vice president and Navy veteran, indicating that Napolitano’s recent initiative may be sparking further action on campus. “Maybe it’s kind of all the right people converging at the same time.”
Still, UC Berkeley and the UC system have lagged behind other universities in responding to student veterans’ requests for additional support.
In 2009, San Diego State University became the first college campus in the nation to make veteran-specific housing available for some of its approximately 3,000 student veterans. Numerous California community colleges, including the City College of San Francisco, Las Positas College in Livermore and other local schools, have opened veterans’ resource centers to help student veterans more easily ensure their GI Bill benefits are paying out as planned, get academic advising, talk with fellow veterans and receive professional mental health care and counseling.
“It’s disappointing,” said student veteran Christopher Nichols, a UC Berkeley junior. “It would be nice to have at least as good a set up (at UC Berkeley) as I had at the community college.”
Student veteran activists on campus are pushing for a veterans’ resource center of their own, similar to the spaces provided at community colleges and nearly 55 percent of other public four-year universities.
“It’s not so much about all getting in a room and talking about how awesome military life was and how amazing America is and throwing back a beer and standing in front of the flag,” Ready said. “It’s more about having a community of people that you’ve shared a common experience with and (who are) at a similar place in your life. There’s just an instant bond among veterans.”
More than anything, however, most student veterans simply want to fit in. Their push for resources isn’t so much about social separation from campus life as it is an effort provide veterans with opportunities to fully integrate into the college experience.
Cal Veterans Group President Mike Drake and Williams both said the stigma that veterans are “damaged” by post-traumatic stress disorder and waiting to explode is unfair and widespread. Veterans who earn admittance to one of the nation’s elite public universities have, to some extent, already proven their ability to adapt to civilian life, Drake said.
Still, there’s no denying that mental health will continue to be a priority for universities as they provide veterans with services, Williams said.
Since returning to the United States, Air Force veteran Nichols said he has found himself uncharacteristically irritable, hypervigilant and uncomfortable in social settings, especially in large crowds and cramped UC Berkeley classrooms. He said he was prescribed drugs for insomnia in the past but doesn’t care for the way they alter his mental state.
“There’s a lot of times people will get too close to me or come up and be talking to me, and I just don’t feel like talking to them. I’ll just be silent, and it comes across like I’m a huge prick, but I’m doing everything I can not to scream.”
— Christopher Nichols, UC Berkeley junior and U.S. Air Force veteran
“It’s tough sometimes,” Nichols said. “There’s a lot of times people will get too close to me or come up and be talking to me, and I just don’t feel like talking to them. I’ll just be silent, and it comes across like I’m a huge prick, but I’m doing everything I can not to scream.”
In the fall, Wiltshire transferred to UC Berkeley on the encouragement and advice of numerous UC Berkeley student veterans and alumni. He is currently a media studies major, building on the skills he developed in the Marine Corps, and serves as an officer in the Cal Veterans Group. He hopes to work for the State Department one day.
Though integrating his personal past into the fabric of student life on campus continues to pose challenges, as it does for many student veterans, he’s grateful for the opportunity he has to earn a college degree.
Still, Wiltshire is never quite sure how to respond when someone on campus thanks him for his military service.
“It’s almost easier for me when they say it to stick to script,” he said. “But when people genuinely thank you, it makes you feel uncomfortable, because we know people who died. We’re very lucky to be here physically intact, mentally intact. It’s not just all resolve, it’s not that we’re magnificent people — it’s just luck. We’re lucky we didn’t get blown up. I usually get panged with a little bit of survivor guilt when people thank me for my service. But it’s a very kind gesture.”