Though they have since returned from their campaigns in the Middle East, student veterans like Oliver Kay have remained committed to their fellow soldiers long after stepping off the battlefield.
Kay served as a first lieutenant in the British army during Operation Iraqi Freedom. On a campaign, he said his first concern was always for his companion soldiers, who became like family in their months overseas.
After returning home to England in 2009, Kay moved to the United States to get married, and eventually transferred to UCLA. Now a second-year Arabic student, he serves in the U.S. Army Reserves’ 350th Combat Engineer Company and has joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
He has also not forgotten his commitment to his military family.
Kay will run the Los Angeles Marathon for the second time on March 20 to raise money for the United States Veterans Initiative, which helps injured veterans return to civilian life.
Kay raised $6,500 last year and hopes to raise $4,000 before this year’s marathon.
“I’m just playing my small part in a larger effort,” Kay said. “We all have to do what we can to help out the people who have given to their country, and my part is running.”
With less than two weeks until the race, Kay is training hard. Last year, he ran the entire 26-mile course in four hours and two minutes. He said he wants to break 3:45 this year.
He was driven to help injured veterans after watching some of his comrades return home to find little support and sometimes even abandonment.
“The guys I knew had gone through absolute physical, emotional and mental hell,” he said. “Some of them would get home and their wives were gone, or their bank accounts were wiped out.”
Soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder were especially vulnerable during their time adjusting to life off the battlefield, Kay said. He said his conversations with people suffering from PTSD were part of the reason he decided to run the marathon.
Students have found other ways to help their comrades, often by simply lending an ear to a fellow soldier’s story.
When Robert Park, a third-year philosophy student and emergency medic in the war, was rushing patients on a gurney to a helicopter amid the blasts of rockets and bombs, his only goal was to get the wounded soldiers to safety, he said.
During his time in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, Park suffered partial hearing loss in both ears and a significant back injury from a mortar after rushing a comrade onto a medical evacuation helicopter.
Park now works with the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization in the San Fernando Valley, where he listens to veterans’ stories about their time spent in the military and shares his own to help ease their transition, he said.
Veterans are likely to stick together long after they depart the war zone because they can relate to each other’s experiences, said Yunhe Kim, a fourth-year history student and a former officer during the war in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007.
“When I got back, I didn’t want to talk to anyone who wasn’t in the military,” she said. “It wasn’t that I was antisocial, it was just that nobody could relate to what I had been doing for two years.”
Kim has also helped veterans by volunteering as the Veterans Affairs representative for the Employment Development Department in Los Angeles, where she assisted veterans with writing resumes and finding jobs.
“It’s hard for military guys,” she said. “They don’t want to ask for help, but a lot of the time they need it, and it’s easier for us who have been there.”