Protecting America: Student veterans reflect on their service experiences

By Nicole Veenstra

Veteran’s Day today holds a special place in the hearts of every American, especially  for individuals who have served in the military including Rider faculty and students who have risked their lives for their country.

Marine Corporal Chris Kraus poses with an Afghan child at a bazaar in Kandahar. Kraus said that enlisting in the military helped him learn about himself and cultures around the world.

Veteran’s Day, originally known as Armistice Day, began on Nov. 11, 1918 at the end of World War I, better known as “The War to End All Wars” at the time. Since then, it has been celebrated every year on the same day. President Woodrow Wilson later said that the day should be “filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory.”
Residence Life Manager Greg Hanf is just one of the veterans on Rider’s campus, though he has enough military experience for several people. Active for over 30 years, from 1967-1999, Hanf, a first sergeant, served in the Army, Navy and Marines.
Regardless of what part of the military one has served in, Veteran’s Day holds a special place in the hearts of servicemen and servicewomen.
“Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day are the only holidays I will ever celebrate from this point in my life,” freshman Catalin Lascu said. “I realized there’s a lot of people that gave up their lives in order to afford me the freedom to help others, so I honored that.”
Lascu, who joined the military when he was 32 years old and was deployed to Iraq as a part of the Army from Aug. 15, 2005 to Dec. 1, 2006, and credits his decision to join the Army to the events of Sept. 11.
“The events from 9/11 changed me,” he said. “I just felt so terrible for all those people who were affected by their families. Their husbands and wives and mothers and fathers were never coming home because of what some people did. I felt powerless and scared and I felt the only way to [overcome those emotions] was to take action, so I did.”
Not all veterans have the same reasons for joining, however. Dr. James Castagnera, professor and associate provost and associate counsel for Academic Affairs, said he joined the Coast Guard in 1969 because he was “about to be drafted,” while Hanf said he decided he wanted to become a soldier at 5 years old and never changed his mind.
Chris Kraus, a senior double major in history and education, remembers the day he signed up for the Marines as if it were yesterday.
While reminiscing about sitting at the dinner table with his parents and a recruiter, he said, “I made the decision at a young age; it’s something I always wanted to do. It was a pretty life-changing experience at such a young age, I still needed my parents’ consent.”
The decision to join the military is just the beginning, however. Once the men and women return home, readjusting to society can prove to be difficult.
“It took me at least a year to allow people to get within, like, five feet of me,” Lascu said. “Just seeing the crazy stuff that goes on there, you don’t really trust people to get within arm’s reach. I took five years after I came back. I travelled a lot, I got my head back together and then once I figured everything was back to normal I decided to come to school.”
To help with these adjustments, Rider participates in the yellow ribbon program, which provides tuition grants for those who have served in the military, and has people such as Boris Vilic, dean of the College of Continuing Studies (CCS), and Karen Crowell, assistant dean of CCS, to help the veterans during their studies.
“When the Yellow Ribbon Program was first launched, the veteran would sign up for the university but [Veteran’s Affairs] was so backed up in processing veteran paperwork that it took months for them to clear it,” Vilic said. “We would work with them so we enabled them to start. We would actually work with veterans as individuals, whatever that involved.”
Crowell also stressed the importance of getting the veterans involved in campus activities, especially with the student organization Rider University Veterans Association (RUVA), and working with the veterans on a personal level.
“We really try to work with them individually,” she said. “We try to work out courses, and work out whenever there are bumpy places in the road.”
Regardless of the struggles veterans have had to deal with throughout their service, however, most would not trade the experience for anything.
“I would never have thought of going off to Canada, or trying some other way to avoid the draft,” Castagnera said.
The people who have served also understand that life cannot be taken for granted.
“It was very trying, readjusting to the way people are oblivious to the fact that their life can come to an end just like that,” Lascu said. “But you know what? In life, there’s good and bad and if we only accept the good, then we’ll never appreciate it because we’ve never suffered what’s bad.”

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