When the noon whistle goes off in Arcata, most people just think it's time for lunch. But for James Frasche-Russell, a 26-year-old army veteran majoring in computer science and math at Humboldt State University, the whistle brings back bad memories.
"It really freaked me out, because that was the get-into-your-bunkers-we're-being-bombed alarm in Iraq," he says.
Frasche-Russell, a native of Eureka, enlisted in the army when he was 21 after having worked a string of odd jobs and taken a few classes at College of the Redwoods. He joined because of the educational benefits the military offered, he says. When he was discharged from the Army in 2005, he enrolled in the Veterans Upward Bound (VUB) program at Humboldt State University, the only university-affiliated VUB on the West Coast.
VUB offers vets of all ages free, not-for-credit college prep courses in math and English. Last year, Humboldt's VUB served 208 veterans, as well as providing services to their families. VUB is different from other veterans' educational benefits, such as the GI Bill, in that it targets those who would not otherwise be prepared to go straight into college — either they need additional academic preparation, or they're looking for a vet-friendly environment to help ease their transition.
But programs like VUB, a part of the Federal Trio Program, which also includes regular Upward Bound, a program that helps underprivileged high school students succeed at college, are few and far between. Last year, there were only 39 VUB programs in the United States. And funding is discretionary, which means that every four years Humboldt's VUB director Cai Williams has had to worry whether or not the grant money would be there.
Finally, after 33 years, her fears have proven true. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced that Humboldt State's VUB had lost its funding. Reached Tuesday, Williams was stunned. She said that she still didn't know how much money the program has left over from its previous grant. She wasn't sure what would become of the veterans currently at Humboldt's VUB. And she wasn't sure if she'd be able to appeal the department's decision.
Even before last week's news, some local veterans questioned the government's commitment to its vets and their post-military careers. "Funding for any program like that shouldn't be discretionary but mandatory, and we should be doing that at all college campuses across the country," said Carl Young, the president of the Humboldt Memorial chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America,
David Ortega Shaw, a veteran of Vietnam, who has served as Humboldt VUB's academic advisor for decades, said essentially the same thing to the San Francisco Chronicle a couple of months ago.
"The federal government is robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said. "They are funding the [Iraq and Afghanistan] war ... by taking revenue that deserves to be going to veterans in the form of health, education and welfare."
In March 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised more money for California veterans returning to school, but he's failed thus far to put his money where his mouth is. According to Kim Hall, Humboldt State's director of veterans enrollment services, the problem is that "there's good intentions and good ideas but there is very little funding."
Until last week, you wouldn't have guessed there was a funding problem from talking to the vets at Humboldt State who have completed VUB without a hitch. VUB taught them the ropes — they don't have any trouble navigating the serpentine bureaucracy that stands between them and accessing myriad other benefits.
Problem is, Veterans Upward Bound people are used to looking up. And so they failed to see the stumbling block that the Department of Education suddenly and unexpectedly thrust in their path. Just last week, there was every reason to expect four more years of funding. Former graduates were glowing in their description of how the program had helped them, and a new crop of ex-soldiers was eager to follow in their footsteps.
David Shaw's office in the University Annex is filled with natural light. A chair for guests is draped in a Native American blanket. (Shaw is a Mescalero/Lipan/Mexican American.) An army jacket from Vietnam hangs on his own chair. The walls are decorated with medals he brought back from that war.
Shaw has been with the Veteran's Upward Bound program from the very beginning, although he's not a graduate himself. VUB was started in 1973, after Shaw had already enrolled in college here. However, Shaw did do work-study in the VUB program as an undergrad. He spearheaded an initiative to provide Native American veterans on nearby tribal lands with government aid. And it was due to his efforts that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) eventually instituted a national program for direct home loans on reservations and trust lands. Over the years, Shaw's focus has shifted, and though he's still an active Native American advocate, he now serves as VUB's academic advisor, helping vets to transition through VUB and into a university setting — a job he's particularly well qualified for. In Vietnam, he served as a "tunnel rat," a soldier who crawled through narrow passageways in search of Viet Cong.
"Being a combat veteran, being a person of color, being bilingual, it helps to deal with those veterans who come in who have a combat background," Shaw says. "They don't always immediately relate to the individual that they're working with unless that individual has combat experience ... my having had combat experience eliminates barriers that might otherwise be artificially set up between advisor and advisee."
Over and over again, vets who have gone through the program mentioned the integral role Shaw played in their time with VUB, both as an academic advisor and a mentor who could empathize with the issues they were facing.
"The biggest difference between the military and higher education," Shaw explains "is that in the military they tell you when, where, and how everything is supposed to happen. But when you get into college you need to know when, where and how on your own."
It's an understandably slow process for vets to go from "being trained to being educated," as Shaw puts it. Until vets can do that, they have him to count on for help.
Still, it's false to assume that veterans are simply fish out of water in a college environment. In fact, they come equipped with plenty of advantages other students don't have.
"Veterans are more appreciative and less disparaging of their environment," Shaw says. And while in the military, many of them operated equipment worth millions of dollars which, according to Shaw, translates into a huge sense of "personal responsibility."
Shaw laments the fact that there was no VUB when he started college. "When I came back from Vietnam I would have liked to have gone to a program such as this, because my math skills were very bad," he says. He figures if someone had advised him, the way he advises students now, he probably would have gone to law school.
According to a 2001 national survey of veterans conducted by the VA, only 47 percent of the veterans surveyed said they fully understood what their educational benefits were. Over and over again, vets who graduated VUB at Humboldt State said they hadn't heard about the program when they were discharged from the military. It was something they learned about only later, either through an advertisement, the local VA clinic, the Internet or just by stumbling upon the office on campus.
But once they've made it through the door, VUB serves as their primary resource center and Shaw, aware of his own missed opportunities, makes sure that students take advantage of all the benefits available to them.
Matt Levesque likes to tell his students at Zoe Barnum High School that when he graduated from high school he was ranked 69 out of 76. Levesque spent 13 years in the Navy as an explosive ordnance technician. In short, he blew shit up. When he finally got out of the military, there was little incentive to go back to school because the money for blowing stuff up as a civilian was just too good.
In 1999, Levesque's GI Bill money was about to expire, so he decided to head back to university, but after having been away for so long, he needed a program like VUB to get back up to speed.
"It was a very useful time," he says of his VUB experience. "Especially when you've been out that long, to get ramped back up to academia and figure out what you need to do. I still have lesson plans that I did in VUB that I now teach to my students."
Levesque sits behind a big metal desk like one typically found in a high school classroom. But Levesque isn't your typical teacher. Nor, for that matter, are Zoe Barnum students typical high-schoolers. They're kids who've fallen behind in credit or gotten into trouble in a conventional school setting.
Levesque is a mix between drill sergeant and beat poet. His hair is gelled and tussled. He sports a thin soul patch and his thick eyebrows jut out abruptly. His transcript from high school — the series of Fs he received highlighted for everyone to see — hangs behind him on the wall. He'd never laid eyes on it until Veterans Upward Bound requested it (and paid to get it) for his application to Humboldt State. Beside the chalkboard on the wall is an image of Noam Chomsky.
"I always tell my students two things," he says. "One: I'm going to teach them how to be critical thinkers. And two: I'm going to teach them how to manipulate the bureaucracy."
The latter is a lesson Levesque learned from David Shaw. "[He] gives you an understanding of the system," Levesque says, "how to function within that system, how to function within bureaucracy."
"Yeah they bring your skills up," he continues, "But more importantly they tell you that you can do it, how to do it and how to navigate."
After he completed VUB, Levesque earned a degree in English from Humboldt State and eventually got his teaching credentials. This will be his third year at Zoe Barnum. He and his class, typically around 18 students, read a novel a year. His first year, they read George Orwell's 1984 . The year after that it was Aldous Huxley's Brave New World . Levesque obviously values critical thinking, the seeds of which were planted in him during his time at VUB.
At first glance you wouldn't peg Priscilla Neff as a veteran. The willowy, long-haired 25-year-old worked at Yosemite National Park after high school, wrote poetry and dreamed of being a photographer. Now, after having completed a 10-week VUB program, she's a full-fledged HSU student, trying to figure out a way to study Eastern medicine even though it's not an official major.
But at the age of 21, Neff, who was looking for a change of direction in her life, joined the Air Force. When her mom first told her to go talk to the local Air Force recruiter in Fresno, Neff remembers saying: "What, the military?! I'm not going to do that." But in the end, she decided it was the right next step, and looking back, she's glad about the decision she made.
She had hoped to work as a photographer in the Air Force, but she ended up working as a meteorologist, mostly because she was told that meteorologists spend a lot of time outside looking at the clouds. In fact, she spent most of her three and a half years inside an Air Force base in southwestern Illinois, analyzing satellite and radar imagery on a computer screen. But jilted is far from how she feels.
"The people that I've met in the meantime and the experiences that I've had, I wouldn't trade it," she says.
When her service was almost up she had to decide whether to stay in the Air Force and get a degree in meteorology or to leave and try something new. The answer came in the form of a dream she had in which she had taken a great leap into the ocean. Her interpretation: leave the armed forces and go back to college to study traditional medicine. She scoured the West Coast in search of options and when she visited the VUB program here, she says, that's what made the decision for her.
"Everybody was so awesome and it sounded like a really cool program," she says. "I could go for free and catch up on all the things I hadn't paid attention to for the last seven years."
Only one thing has been cause for disappointment since coming here: "I thought the GI Bill was going to be supplementary to financial aid [for HSU]," she says, "but that's not the case. I don't get as much financial aid because of the GI bill."
This, according to David Shaw, is a conundrum. When veterans calculate their eligibility for scholarship money, their VA benefits are counted against them. "The military gives them financial educational benefits that they have earned as opposed to financial aid that is given to you because you are a 'left-hand tennis player,' or a 'direct descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence,'" he says.
That's why many vets end up doing work-study at VUB, where in addition to being in a vet-friendly environment, their earnings are tax-free.
But some, like Jared Chase-Dunn , take on a third job. Chase-Dunn, who is majoring in Business and German at Humboldt State, works nights at Bed Bath & Beyond.
An Arcata native, Chase-Dunn — who is like Ferdinand the Bull, big-framed but gentle and shy — joined the Marine Corp's delayed entry program when he was 17 years old. He enlisted two weeks after his high school graduation in 2001. He chose the Marines because he was "the kind of kid who was never happy unless I was going 100 mph with my hair on fire." Chase-Dunn thought the military would satisfy his need for adventure.
Shortly after enlisting, the Twin Towers fell, and Chase-Dunn knew that the threat of winding up in a combat situation was real. He trained as a helicopter mechanic in Pensacola, Florida and was eventually deployed to Ali Al Salam air base in Kuwait, just miles from the Iraqi border. He was there for the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but he doesn't remember a whole lot of details.
"It's hard for me to remember because I worked pretty much every day from the day after Christmas in 2002 through May 5 of 2003," he says. "I didn't get a whole lot of sleep out there, so it's all just kind of a big blur."
Work wasn't the only thing that was cause for anxiety. "We were under Scud missile attack a lot of the time so we were always very much on edge, under the threat of invasion," he says. It's clear he doesn't like talking about his experiences. "There were a lot of insurgents who tried to make their way into the base, but security was real tight ... there was always the threat of snipers in the nearby area ... it was a very stressful situation trying to work under those conditions."
After about four months in Iraq, Chase-Dunn left for Okinawa, Japan to prepare for the North Korean threat, as he puts it. Then, he returned to the United States, where he ended up completing his five years of service in the Marines.
Chase-Dunn had hoped to study while he was in the military but he never had the time. "Due to the fact that the Marines were at such a high operation level pretty much most of the time I was in, and since 9/11 happened right after I got in, we were severely undermanned," he says. "What happened was I ended up just working a lot of long hours and didn't have the opportunity to really take any classes or go to school while I was in the service."
After being discharged, he stumbled across the Web site for the VUB program here. The Marines hadn't told him about it before he left. He'd been given some cursory classes on how to write a resume and get a job, but there had been very little emphasis put on education.
Now Chase-Dunn is in his third semester at Humboldt State, and VUB has been a big help.
"It was really what we needed," he says. "It's kind of a shame that you don't see this kind of thing in more places. This is really what veterans need if they want to get back into school ... and also a place where we can find out where to go to collect benefits, get the medical help we need — just all those things put together. It's really just a centralized thing in order to help veterans get on track."
If it hadn't been for VUB, Chase-Dunn assumes he would have ended up at College of the Redwoods first, and the transition from military to civilian life would have been difficult without the same network of vets and resources that VUB provides its students.
Last Thursday, just hours before VUB received the bad news, veterans gathered unaware on the VUB's porch for a luncheon for new students and former graduates. The fall semester was about to begin. Smokey the cat, a one-time stray who now serves as the program's de facto mascot, was sprawled lazily on one of the green picnic tables.
This semester, VUB had expected 25 to 30 new students. There were young faces and older ones — veterans of the Vietnam era and guys recently returned from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. The military wasn't the only topic of conversation, but it was definitely an icebreaker. A few vets shared stories about particularly memorable drill sergeants they had in basic training. Jared Chase-Dunn explained the tattoo on the inside of his lower arm — the Marine Corp emblem, with a thick vein in the background that looks like it's been peppered with bullet holes. "The Marine Corps is in my blood" — that's what Chase-Dunn thought just after he'd enlisted. But by the time he was finishing up his service, the symbolism had changed to "It's sucking the life out of me."
Milt Boyd, a professor of Biological Sciences at Humboldt State and a veteran himself, has been teaching at VUB since 1980. He arrived at the luncheon dressed meticulously in a thin button-down sweater, a bow tie and a pair of round-framed glasses.
For the vets enrolled in the program, he was a sterling example of how far a person can make it academically after leaving the military. Boyd has a Ph.D. in Zoology from UC Davis, and he's played an active role in VUB for almost three decades now.
For a while, starting in the late '80s and lasting into the first Bush administration, Boyd spearheaded a special for-credit math and science program at VUB that expedited the degree process for students. However, even though this intensive program was both extremely beneficial and successful, funding for it was cut.
"It is no secret," he said, "that once our forces are returning ... they're not getting the support that they need, and that goes for programs like the VUB program and the math and science initiative. Those programs are being subjected to pretty severe constraints."
Asked about Gov. Schwarzenegger's promise to increase funding to our vets, Boyd dismissed those as "commitments without substance." But the struggle to secure the benefits that our veterans deserve is one that has been going on for a long time, and will probably be with us forever.
"Veterans have formed groups to protest their lack of continued support ever since the Revolutionary War," Boyd said.
The 66-year-old professor said that one of his most vivid memories is the day he decided to sign up for his second two years of ROTC. It was the summer of 1961, and Boyd was walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley when someone shouted, "The Russians are building a wall in Berlin!" Two years later he was on active duty with the First Armored Division in Fort Hood, Texas. In the '80s, Boyd heeded the call to duty again, but this time he marched into the classroom for VUB.
Boyd, now semi-retired, said he had no plans to stop teaching vets, "As long I'm still able to provide some benefit to these veterans, I'm anxious to be of service."
James Frasche-Russell isn't fazed by the noon whistle anymore. At the luncheon, he stands away from the crowd, wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses and reading Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. Even in literature, Frasche-Russell finds solace in the words of a fellow veteran.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, once said: "Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war. And they can teach us how to make peace with ourselves and each other, so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again."
But before veterans can teach, they will have to be taught. Humboldt's VUB helped make that possible. It was also, until just last week, one of the many resources that drew veterans to the county, including a VA clinic, a halfway home, mental health services and the university itself. But now, those veterans who were looking to it to ease their transition into college and get their lives on track have lost their greatest ally in their next difficult tour of duty.
Humboldt's VUB program has been operating since 1973. Photo by Yulia Weeks.