The Act of Adapting

The Veteran Services Center is off to the side on the third floor of the Student Center, obscurely hidden away from the main offices. The veteran population at UC Irvine is relatively small, consisting of about 220 people. But despite the numbers, they are a group that should not be overlooked.

To gain more visibility for the office and the campus’s vets, the Veteran Services Center held a survival bracelet making event on Tues., Feb. 11 as a way to reach out to the veteran and civilian population.

The afternoon started quietly, with 10 people sitting down at a table in the CORE office learning how to make survival bracelets while Melissa Cintron and Shannen Allado, student staffers of the Veteran Service Center, engaged the group with a presentation.

“The purpose of our event is to unite veterans, dependents and friends in sharing a skill that we can all benefit from while we intermingle with one another,”  Allado said.

As the event continued that Tuesday afternoon, 16 more people trickled in, filling the room with a noisy, cheerful chatter. Campus staff workers and administrators taking a lunch break came to enjoy learning a new craft, while students socialized with others. Billy Lesher, a UCI veteran, walked around the room helping people weld the ends of their bracelet ropes together with a fire.

The events that the Veteran Services Center creates are meant to give both the student and veteran population a chance to get to know each other. Some of the events the Center hosts are also meant to raise awareness toward veteran issues such as adjustment.

“For us to be at UCI, there’s a higher rate that we are adjusting better than some veterans,” Matt Hoeffner, a veteran and current UCI student, said. “Some veterans come out (of the war) and are homeless. We are not as needy as a group because we have taken steps forward already, whereas a lot haven’t. Re-entry into college life can be really hard for someone. Especially if someone has post-traumatic stress disorder, re-entry into civilian life is hard.”

Hoeffner has dealt with adjustment  after coming back from his first deployment to the Middle East in 2008. Being in the war locked him into a specific mindset where he wasn’t thinking about the effect of his actions, but was rather desensitized to violence, death and brutality. Being in the war zone, everything hinged on making the most strategic choice. He had to make quick decisions on the spot, which inadvertently affected the lives of others.

“You get numb to it when you’re there, but when you come back and realize what happened, it affects you,” Hoeffner said. “I did what I had to do to get through the situation that I was in; it was a robotic mindset. Some of my decisions  I made… caused anxiety; I definitely needed counseling.”

Vets often are left to deal with the hard aftermath and the effects of the war when they re-enter into society. For Hoeffner and Lesher, the dramatic change of their war  mentality and routine was one of their biggest struggles.

“Going from one lifestyle where you are constantly on the lookout and being aware of your surroundings to not having to worry about any of that was hard,” Lesher recalled.   “It was hard for me to feel comfortable at home. I thought, ‘this person is walking up to me, why are they walking up to me, what are they going to do.’”

Despite their hardships and having gone through a very unique life experience, being a vet is only part of their identity. Lesher has a wife and a 10-month-old daughter, and also spends a lot of time with his family who lives in Tustin. He is studying business information management and aims for a career where he can help others. Hoeffner is soon to be married to his fiancé Adriana and aspires to be a lawyer.

Melissa Cintron, whose father served in the U.S. Navy, shared her thoughts about a veteran’s lifestyle.

“They are people just like us,” she said. “A lot of people when they see veterans, they just see them for their service and what they’ve done for the country. When you really get to know them, they aren’t just veterans. They have their own lives, and you just treat them as you would treat anyone else. They are an important part of our campus and we want them to feel welcome.”

For Lesher and Hoeffner, the Veteran Services Center provides them a place where they can feel welcome, a place where they can feel comfortable and safe and a place where they can be more integrated into the campus life. Being part of the Center helps them to not only get resources and  veteran benefits, but also gives them a platform to connect with other students through the events that they host, easing their transition into normal life.

“Outreach (events) are also about veterans welcoming civilians into our space, and giving the campus a chance to meet the veterans,” Hoeffner stated.  “It’s not just a one way effort, it’s a two way effort. This is the vet’s way of trying to get to know the students on campus.”