September 27, 2018
I am going to die. That’s what Andrew Salinas, a specialist in the Army, thought as he hunched down in the back of the Afghan Army pickup truck, bullets flying around him.
The 22-year-old in the U.S. Army was searching for Taliban caches— boxes of ammo and guns—stored in a village nearby. When Salinas and his squad of eight soldiers had first approached the village, it was empty. Dead silent.
“There’s a saying that if you go to a village and no one’s there, you will get into a firefight,” Salinas whispers as he sits in the library. He is a senior at Santa Clara. Yet, Salinas is not a typical Santa Clara student.
During Salinas’ tour of duty to Afghanistan four years ago, he endured 90 lb. rucksacks, improvised explosive devices and Taliban ambushes. While his fellow Santa Clara students worried about upcoming midterms, Salinas faced the reality of war, pain and death.
He had lost friends during deployment. The Taliban ambushed Salinas’ sister company, firing a rocket propelled grenade at their convoy.
“One of my buddies lost his left testicle,” Salinas said.“He got a silver star because he kept fighting. Two of the guys got messed up pretty badly. Nevertheless, they put on tourniquets and kept firing.”
More tragic even than combat, Salinas says he lost compatriots at home—friends who struggled with transitioning from military to civilian life. “We lost more soldiers back home than actually overseas,” he said, shaking his head slowly. “It’s the PTSD and the depression.”
Many veterans have a hard time adjusting to life as a civilian after leaving the military. The Military Times reports that 20 veterans commit suicide every day.
For Salinas, adapting to life as a college student was an uphill battle. When he returned from Afghanistan in 2014, he decided to go to college. He enrolled in De Anza College and then transferred to Santa Clara University as a 28-year-old college junior.
“I told myself, I am going to join a club, have a great time, do what college kids do. But I just stayed in my room and studied the whole time,” he said. “I was very nervous about meeting people who saw that I was older. All my friends are getting married and having kids. And here I am, starting school.”
Salinas forced himself to move on. He knew he could not stay in his room for two years. After a friend suggested he try a sport, Salinas decided to join the Santa Clara Rugby Team. It proved to be a welcome relief.
“The team does not care about anyone’s background,” Salinas said. “As long as you play the game, have your guys’ back— that’s all that matters. That’s the kind of structure that you look for, that’s what we miss—a sense of belonging.”
The military once gave Salinas a sense of purpose. He was used to having someone telling him when to sleep, where to go and what to do. This strict regime gave Salinas’ life structure. Universities, on the other hand, give students the freedom to be individuals, to pursue their aspirations. Yet, this freedom can be paralyzing for veterans.
“Veterans can be free and do whatever they want after leaving the military,” Salinas said.“Then they start thinking about what to do next. And that’s when they hit rock bottom and resort to drugs and alcohol. I miss my buddies. A lot them don’t know what they’re doing.”
Stephen Fraser, a Marine veteran who is currently a junior at Santa Clara, misses the camaraderie of the military. “It was like a family. It doesn’t matter whether you are black or white, old or young. It was all about the Marines, the mission, brotherhood, togetherness, the shared identity.”
In comparison, Fraser admits he has found it difficult to find this sense of belonging at Santa Clara. “The social life here revolves around Bellomy, the frats and the parties. I feel like there is no real place for veterans here.”
In response to this perceived lack of support on campus, Salinas andFraser are starting a Student Veterans Association. The university doesn’t keep a record of the number of veterans on campus, and since many veterans don’t talk about their experiences, no one knows how many veterans are studying at Santa Clara.
“Apparently there are more veterans here but we just don’t know who they are,” Fraser said. “I’ve heard there may be six or eight, but I have only met two. There might be veterans out there who might be having a hard time transitioning, or they might want other veterans to talk to. But there is no organized way for them to get involved and get identified.”
“We are just trying to be like normal college students,” Salinas said. “It takes time to reintegrate back here. We are still trying to find our way. It’s just that our experiences have been so different. But we are approachable, Just don’t ask the typical, ‘did you kill anybody?’ Everybody asks that.”
Because of such differences in life experience, students may find it difficult to connect with veterans at Santa Clara. Veterans have lost friends in combat, friends who died in enemy fire. Veterans have lost friends at home, friends who found it too difficult to reintegrate in civilian life.
Veterans have sacrificed their youth in service of our country, the youth that most Santa Clara students are still enjoying. Instead of seeing such differences as barriers, students should see this as an opportunity to learn from veterans as veterans can impart valuable wisdom to younger students.
As Salinas finishes his story, I couldn’t help but wonder what wisdom I could extract from his life experience. It is an unquestionable fact that life is hard. When we lose friends and loved ones, it is easy to question our purpose in life; when we endure difficult transitions, it becomes convenient to give up.
Despite such hardships, Salinas never stopped searching for his purpose. By joining the rugby team and establishing a Student Veterans Association, Salinas has once again found meaning.
The original verison of this story was created for a Writing For Publication class. Nicholas Chan is a junior economics major.