Student veterans: From military to school life
by Sam Allen
Sun Star Editor-in-Chief
She raised her hand in a slow salute. Coffin after coffin of dead soldiers was carried into the back of the C-130. Macherie Dunbar, an Air Force reserve combat engineer, stood in silence amongst a column of soldiers behind the plane. She had just come off a 14-hour shift in Balad, Iraq.
“I just remember they kept coming. One after one. It was a crushing experience,” said Dunbar. Next she boarded the plane with a Chaplain who would read aloud the names of the fallen. This was called patriot detail.
“The first time I didn’t really volunteer as much as I was volun-told,”she said. She stood on the tarmac for more than an hour, with no instruction until an ambulance pulled up with coffins.
After her first experience with patriot detail she realized that this was something that needed to be done. She volunteered for patriot detail almost every night.
Dunbar, a senior communications student at UAF, was deployed twice in Iraq, for seven months in 2007 and six months in 2008.
She was part of the Air Force combat unit RED HORSE. Dunbar worked as a heavy equipment operator and a combat engineer. As part of the mobile pave team she and her fellow soldiers paved asphalt roads, extended taxi ways, build interrogation rooms, base camps, checkpoints and helio-pads. They worked anywhere from 12 to 18 hours a day.
Now she’s president of the Student Veterans Club at UAF and struggles with PTSD, which interrupts her classes and impacts her social life.
As a radio man and cryptologist for the United States Navy, UAF journalism student Brady Gross traveled by submarine from Connecticut, to the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Norway, decrypting and encoding message traffic to and from the submarine.
In the Mediterranean he participated in war games with France, Italy, and Spain the countries shooting each other with water pistols and hiding and finding each other’s submarines over and over. “It was like a giant game of battleship,” he said.
Gross was aboard an Arctic research submarine with scientists who were conducting studies of ice thickness. “We did a lot of studies where we stayed underneath the ice for 30 days at a time,” he said.
He put in five years, busted his back after slipping down a submarine hatch, was honorably discharged and now is a radio man at UAF, in his second year as KSUA general manager.
Three and a half months ago, 20-year-old James C. Gilchrest was working 16-hour days on a security detail in Guantanamo Bay. When he wasn’t working he was sleeping or trying to connect with his family over Skype. “Phones didn’t work down there, and the Internet was horrible,” he said. Now, he’s experiencing his first Fairbanks winter at UAF taking classes towards his emergency management and homeland security degree.
MaCherie Dunbar, 31, was in the Air Force reserves from 2002-2014.
“I was in a dead-end job and was initially looking for a way to college,” she said. In 2001, Dunbar graduated from high school with no scholarship opportunities, and worked at a gas station in Texas.
During he recruitment process, 9/11 happened and it reinvigorated and confirmed the desire to join.
Brady Gross lost his job at the age of 19 in Washington State. Too stubborn to ask his parents for help, he enlisted in the Navy. “I learned about their school program and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll go to for five years and go to school afterwards and they can pay for it,’” he said.
He went to basic training and was stationed Groton, Connecticut, in 2005. He worked on submarines for two years and then had shore duty for three, where he worked in a woodworking office that made plaques for distinguished Navy personnel. The U.S. Navy requires a five-year commitment to qualify for school benefits, one year more than other branches of the armed forces.
James Gilchrest joined the Alaska National Guard after graduating high school in Juneau, Alaska. He signed up in October 2011, and the next month was sent to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri for 19 weeks before starting worked as military police. Last September he was sent to Guantanamo Bay were he work in security operations for 10 months before returning to Juneau and moving to Fairbanks to take classes at UAF.
Dunbar was medically out-processed by the Air Force over a couple of years, so he transitory period to civilian life and taking college classes was gradual. She enrolled at Fresno Pacific University in California in 2010 before moving to Fairbanks and enrolling at UAF in 2012.
Gross drove up to Fairbanks from Seattle with very little money and paid for one months rent in a cabin. “I was like, I don’t have any more money. I have no more money. If I don’t get this paperwork in and I don’t start getting paid to go to college, I’m gonna be shit ass broke.” He called and went to the Veteran’s Affairs and business office everyday to make sure they were on top of it.
Gilchrest used the slow, inconsistent Internet of Guantanamo Bay to fill out admissions, housing, dining, and financial aid applications to attend UAF when he returned. This is his first semester getting tuition assistance and all of his classes are covered.
From Military Life to School Life
At the age of 25, when Gross first moved up to Fairbanks and started school at UAF he had a hard time relating to other freshman. Instead, he floated around the music scene and hung out with graduate students his age.
He remembers sitting in 100-level classes and looking around at all the kids who didn’t realize how good that had it. “ I went to the military for five years to get these benefits and get my school paid for and I try not to be bitter, but you see kids and their parents are just feeding them money to go, and they’re not really appreciative and they’re just like, ‘Oh whatever, this shit, I’m just here because it’s the next logical step.’”
Gilchrest is an outspoken assertive student who values himself on being prepared and persistent. He hangs out with and gets along with everyone, but says that sometimes it’s just different. “People complain about the food here, they’re always going to complain, but I’ll tell you it’s at least they’re not serving MRE’s in the cafeteria.
He describes student life as a whole different ball game.
“People complain about having a rough eight-hour day, and I’m really sorry that it’s rough, but after working 16 hour days, it’s not the same,” he said.
In Fresno, Dunbar remembers that there wasn’t a large veteran population or programs and resources available to veterans on campus. “I was a 26-year-old combat veteran. I’ve dealt with so much already—near death experiences and I’m interacting with kids who never left home. We didn’t have much to talk about.” She remembers meeting her first fellow veteran student in Fresno and clicking instantly.
Dunbar is qualified for disability services and is allowed a quiet setting for taking tests and given more time than other students, but it’s still a challenge to remain focused and balanced in class. Overseas she worked hard to detach herself by staying busying and not thinking about what she was doing.
She said she didn’t have time to think about mortar rounds that fired on her convoy or sleeping 350 meters outside a small town with villages chanting and ranging all night never knowing if they’re going to attack you or not. “You’ve got to just deal with it as it comes and then you’ve got to put it away or you’ve got to let it go. Otherwise you’re just not gonna make it.”
Back on campus she has had to reattach herself and focus on the present and not let experiences and memories from her service occupy her mind.
Dunbar has had a tough time adjusting to student life and doesn’t often go to student events. However, she has found a connection and a community with other veterans.
She went to Starvation Gulch this year and thought it was pretty cool, but doesn’t do well in large crowds, something she picked up after her being in the military.
Today, Dunbar organized Veterans Day Memorial Roll Call, where the names of every soldier who’s died in Afghanistan and Iraq a is read aloud in the courtyard of Constitution Park. Volunteers will read more than 6,000 names.
She is aware that reading off the names of the dead could send her back to the tarmac of Iraq watching the coffins roll by one by one. Dunbar is willing to risk that saying, “At the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s my duty to honor the fallen.”