Heroes among us: Clemson’s student veterans
As Clemson University pays tribute to military service men and women at the annual Military Appreciation Day football game Nov. 23, fans will be cheering for football player Daniel Rodriguez, perhaps Clemson’s most famous student veteran. But Rodriguez is only one of approximately 150 veterans currently enrolled in Clemson’s student body.
Many of Clemson’s student veterans turn to the Clemson Student Veteran’s Association (CSVA), an organization dedicated to helping student veterans make the transition from military service to college life. The organization provides everything from resources to help with GI Bill paperwork to camaraderie among students who can share their experiences with one another.
Meet four members of the CSVA who have benefitted from their participation in the group and who are, in turn, helping their fellow student veterans.
Benjamin Curtis, CSVA president
Benjamin Curtis served nine years in the Marine Corps, earning the rank of Staff Sergeant. He was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Tulsa, Okla. After graduating high school in 2003, Curtis joined the Marine Corps where he served as a cryptologic linguist, intercepting enemy communications to translate.
Curtis attended language school for Arabic, served two seven-month tours in Iraq between 2006 and 2008, returned to language school for Persian-Farsi, then continued as a crypto-linguist until he left the Marine Corps in June 2012.
“I had spent a few years in North Carolina and Georgia while in the Marines and decided I liked this area.” From there, he says the choice was easy. “Naturally, I chose Clemson.”When it came to picking a university, Curtis took his time in the service into account.
After growing up in a big city, switching to life in a smaller town took some getting used to, and it was hard to connect with people on campus who were often a decade younger than him.
“When I showed up in Clemson I didn’t know a single person here, so finding the veterans group was a huge boon to getting adjusted to campus,” he said.
Now, many of his good friends on campus are in the Student Veterans Association. Curtis also says its nice to have a group of people with shared experiences to relate to.
Curtis is majoring in mechanical engineering.
Katie Keck, at the young age of 17, enlisted in the Ohio Army National Guard. After serving two years and graduating high school, she went on active duty as a combat medic in the 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Ky. In August of 2005 she deployed for a yearlong tour in Iraq. There, she worked as a medic in a prison, emergency room and at a level-two aid station.
After fulfilling her contract, Keck and her husband both decided to pursue a college education. Keck earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Arizona. Upon graduation, she was accepted to Clemson’s masters of wildlife and fisheries biology program. Keck’s goal is to be a conservation biologist, and she is set to graduate in May 2014.
During Keck’s time at the University of Arizona, she noted how difficult the transition to civilian life could be. However, she found help in the Student Veterans Association.
Coming to Clemson, Keck wanted to help share her transition experience with the Clemson Student Veterans Association. After having such a positive experience at the University of Arizona, she wanted to help Clemson’s program reach its full potential.
“When the transition from military to civilian life is smooth, it makes experiences in classes and with the university so much better as a whole,” said Keck.
Keck has helped push bills through student government to increase veteran benefits on campus. Specifically, she has pursued the idea of priority registration for veterans. The bill has passed through the undergraduate and graduate student senates.
“Veterans aren’t your typical students,” said Keck. “Many of us have spouses or families. Priority registration would allow us to schedule classes around our lives and would enhance our college experience.”
Victor Montilla joined the U.S. Army straight out of high school in 2006. He was deployed to Iraq, where he conducted convoy security operations as a gunner and a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle driver.
“I was born in Venezuela, but I wanted to serve the country that had given me so many opportunities,” said Montilla. “Also, I was in the eighth grade during the September 11 attacks, and it always stuck in my mind that I wanted to serve my country.”
After returning from Iraq in 2010, Montilla returned to school right away, studying at community colleges for a few semesters before attending Clemson.
“When you’re in the military, you have a different way of learning; it’s very hands-on,” said Montilla. “But at school, you definitely have to buckle down and read. It was a little difficult at first, but Clemson has so many opportunities to help students.”
The Clemson Student Veterans Association played an important role in Montilla’s return to school.
“They basically guided me through, helped me get benefits through the Post-9/11 GI Bill and to sign up for classes. As a new student and a veteran, I think it’s great to have that support there,” said Montilla.
Currently a junior, Montilla is studying language and international health in hopes of helping the Hispanic community as a cultural liaison in hospital administration.
“While in the military, you are serving your country. I can see in the health field, you also help and serve people,” said Montilla. “In both fields, you make people your priority.”
Stephen Smallwood, CSVA treasurer
Stephen Smallwood is studying to earn a bachelor of science in economics. As a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, Smallwood’s military service is on-going — he is currently assigned to the United States Army Student Detachment at Fort Jackson with duty at Clemson, where he serves in Clemson’s Army ROTC Fightin’ Tiger Battalion.
During his service, Smallwood has earned many honors including the Bronze Star Medal, two Meritorious Service Medals, two Joint Service Commendation Medals, the Army Commendation Medal, the Joint Service Achievement Medal, two Army Achievement Medals, three Good Conduct Medals, the Combat Action Badge, the Ranger Tab and the Parachutist Badge.
To help explain his adjustment to campus life, Smallwood uses a metaphor of sheep, sheepdogs and wolves, which he credits to author and retired Army officer Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.
“The sheepdog is different, on the margin, from both the flock and the wolf. While he shares the sheep’s pursuit of happiness, he doesn’t look like them, nor does he act like them,” he explains. “Likewise, the sheepdog is similar to the wolf in that he too can be aggressive, he too, has large fangs, and he also stands at the ready surveying the flock. The main difference between the sheepdog and the wolf is intent: the sheepdog has made it his duty to protect and serve the flock.”
In this way, he says, student veterans are not the same as traditional students.
“I’ve spent the last decade running towards the sound of gunfire; most people run away from the possibility of death. So meeting another group of people like me at Clemson has really helped bridge the gap and minimize the difference between traditional student and student vets,” said Smallwood.
– Media Relations interns Blake Bachara, Ashley Hedrick and Samantha Warren contributed to this story