Veterans’ mission now in classrooms

Veterans’ mission now in classrooms

Former Marine Chris Regula (far right) spends free time playing a game of foosball with his fraternity brothers.

Brianne Fleming, Staff Writer

Imagine living a college life full of normalcy until, one day, you are selected to begin a completely different and dangerous job in a foreign country. Your view of the world and the people around you is entirely altered, according to two Pitt-Johnstown veteran students.

The two U.S. Military combat veterans said after being deployed to war, the transition back to college wasn’t easy.

However, it is comforting for them to know there are other students who can relate to and learn from their unforgettable stories.

Pitt-Johnstown junior and Johnstown native Kala Ceryak said her four year experience with the U.S. Air Force Reserves was fulfilling, and that the rewards made the risks she took worthwhile.

Ceryak said she chose the Air Force for her military path because she was seeking to focus more on logistics. She later gained a senior airman rank in Air Transportation and Logistics.

Although she signed up to join the reserves, Ceryak spent three of her four years in the Armed Forces overseas: in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

“When I wasn’t deployed, I just did my training on the weekends or was spending time training for (another) deployment,” she said.

Ceryak started her Pitt-Johnstown education Summer 2010, returned in the spring of 2011 and again in the fall of 2012.

“I’m very passionate about what I did,” she said. “Your entire comprehension of the world is transformed; you are trained to think and view things differently.”

Going back and forth between military and college life was difficult at times, Ceryak said.

“You come back to a place you have known your entire life, but all of a sudden it seems foreign,” she said. “It’s hard, only because I have so much free time. I’m used to 12-hour days with no breaks.”

Ceryak said it was especially hard when she returned from her Iraq mission with only a three-week gap remaining before her Afghanistan mission.

“It’s like you’re on a vacation (when you are) home,” she said. “Once you’re used to all the comforts (of home), you’re thrust back into the chaos. But it makes you appreciate home.”

Ceryak said other campus veterans may be hesitant to identify themselves because they feel that no one will understand what they endured.

However, she said that it is important for campus veterans to relate to one another and share experiences with community members.

“We (veterans) don’t want to be distinguished as different from others,” she said. “We just did what we did; we don’t want the attention. But, at the same time, if students are seeking information about (military life), someone should be able to give it to them.”

Ceryak said more veterans stepping forward and being proud of the courage they have shown could benefit the university in general.

“I’d like to encourage people with military experience to embrace and share it with the people who want to know about it or be a part of it,” she said. “I think it would help UPJ to be a better, more accepting school for veterans and people in general to come to.”

Ceryak said she thinks it could be a good idea to have a Meet the Vets Day on campus. That way, willing campus veterans could share their experiences and advice with students interested in the military.

Although Ceryak knows war can be recognized for negative experiences, life after deployment depends on the veteran’s attitude, she said.

“A lot of what happens to you when you come home depends on your outlook and willingness to make adjustments to better your situation.”

One of the reasons she returned to UPJ for her degree was because of Mountain Cat Veterans Program Coordinator Paul Newman, Ceryak said.

“His passion to expand (the program) for current and future (veteran) students is something I could help with and be a part of,” she said. “That attracted me back to UPJ.”

Pitt-Johnstown Academic Affairs Assistant Vice President Paul Newman said there are perks to being a military veteran on campus.

Students who served in the U.S. Armed Forces are able to receive free campus parking, priority registration and tickets to Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center events.

Newman said although there are 50 or 60 veteran students in the program each semester, he knows that there are more military students on campus.

“A lot of vets on campus don’t want to be recognized,” he said. “They see and experience things that we can’t relate to, and part of them wants to forget.”

Newman said the adjustments between military and college schedules can sometimes be challenging for students.

“In combat, they are used to everyday rules and a clear mission,” he said. “Coming back to school, everyday contains multiple tasks.”

Newman said his family history of combat veterans is part of the reason why he feels dedicated to helping them receive more benefits and support from the university and the community.

“(Veterans) understand one another and need to have time together and have a common space,” he said. “These people undergo extreme sacrifice on my behalf, and they deserve to be treated exceptionally well when they come home.”

Many Pitt-Johnstown students and professors mourned the 2012 loss of Marine Corps veteran and former Delta Chi brother Brian Gindlesperger. He was considered a Mountain Cat Veterans Program leader and role model.

Newman said he became even more devoted to the program after the loss of Gindlesperger because it is imperative that veterans have a solid support system.

“I think about him every day,” Newman said. “Every time I walk past the Delta Chi fraternity house, I think of him.”

Pitt-Johnstown sophomore, Delta Chi brother and former Marine Christopher Regula said other campus veterans may find it comforting to join an organization where they are able to form a brotherhood bond with members.

Regula attended UPJ for three semesters before he joined the Marines, where he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 and 2012 on combat tours.

When he decided to join a campus fraternity, Regula was seeking a union of friends similar to one he had in the military. Since many brothers are prior military members as well, the adjustment back into the college lifestyle has been somewhat easier, he said.

“The brotherhood formed in these organizations can help make the transition less stressful,” he said. “Having guys you can go to for advice or help with (your) problems creates the same nostalgic atmosphere you miss when you leave a unit.”

Regula said, although it is hard to adjust to a college agenda after military life, his time enlisted taught him to be more prompt with everything he does.

“You learn not to put off a task,” he said. “The military teaches you not to procrastinate in your work and to always be on time.”

Regula said he received a lot of support and guidance from Newman as he was getting settled again on campus.

“I believe that UPJ has a good support network (for veterans), but it is up to the individual to take advantage of it,” Regula said. “Faculty support is there, but, as far as students are concerned, participation is lacking.”

His experience in the Marines also gave him four years to decide what education path he would pursue when he returned to UPJ, Regula said.

“Being in the military has altered my views on what is really important in my life,” he said. “But there is so much to gain; whether it is for the sense of patriotic duty, the adrenaline of combat, the experience in something different, to pay for college or build a strong resume, the military is the way to go.”