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Veterans Resource Office’s class, Boots to Bruins, helps student veterans transition back

By Samantha Schaefer

Nov. 9, 2009 10:10 p.m.

As a soldier in Afghanistan, Yun Hee Kim drove around at night without her headlights to avoid giving away her position.

So when an officer pulled her over when she got back to the United States, she didn’t notice her lights were off until he pointed it out to her.

Transitioning back into civilian life has been a challenge for the third-year history student.

“Coming back and adjusting was harder than being deployed,” she said. “Over there, you don’t have lights on because … you just have night vision goggles. When you’re on convoy you don’t stop. It’s little things like that.”

To help student veterans transition back into civilian life and meet other veterans, the Veterans Resource Office developed Boots to Bruins, a class that is being offered for the first time at UCLA this quarter.

The class is designed to help veterans address issues that many face upon returning home ““ from interpersonal relationships to how to answer uncomfortable questions about their wartime experiences, Student Veterans Services Coordinator Matthew Nichols said.

“Students (sometimes) make offhand comments about the war, and it’s impossible to not impact a veteran who may be sitting with you in class,” he said. “It’s much more complex … for someone who served and put their life on the line.”

Offered to both combat and noncombat veterans, the class helps students cope with their experiences in war or with the hierarchy and camaraderie they found in the service that differs in civilian life.

“You get to meet other veterans that have been through the same experiences, have the same mentality, understand what its like to go from being in a group of guys that would do anything for you as a person, as a friend and as a brother, to come into a place like UCLA that’s more individualistic,” Sergeant Alfredo Gonzalez said.

Boots to Bruins is a great forum for discussion, he said, adding that students are given a textbook to read, which they discuss each time the class meets. The class focuses on coping with loss, reconnecting with family and developing relationships with other veterans, he added.

Kim, a student enrolled in the class, enlisted in the army when she was 18, a choice she said helped her find her career path.

She mobilized for Afghanistan in 2005 where she pulled security for an engineer construction platoon.

As the only woman in a platoon of about 40 men, Kim said she was often referred to as “Mom.”

“I’d yell at them a lot, and they used to give me Mother’s Day cards. We were like a family,” she laughed, smiling as she recalled memories of “Camp Christmas” and pranks she and her soldiers pulled on their squad leader.

However, the intense camaraderie that was natural within her platoon in Afghanistan was lost at home, out of the dire situation of war.

“I used to go everywhere with my soldiers, and all of a sudden you’re sleeping by yourself, you’re eating by yourself,” Kim said. “You feel like when you come home it would be like heaven, but once you get (home), you want to go back.”

Nichols emphasized that there is no “normal” readjustment time and that coping methods vary from person to person.

Especially with improvements in medical treatment, he added, problems may be more based in areas like concentration, or in “training down” skills learned in the military.

“Veterans will come out of military and won’t recognize that their strengths are transferable,” Tina Oakland, director of the Bruin Resource Center, said. “They know based on past experience they can take on things and make it through things.”

There are about 200 to 300 veterans at UCLA, she said.

Nichols said the class allows veterans to foster relationships in an academic setting and discuss similar experiences.

The first year and a half back home were the hardest, Kim said.

She also said she felt as though she had lost some of her femininity when she was deployed, as personal privacy and appearance were the least of her concerns.

“You feel out of place; I can’t pinpoint it,” Kim said. “There, you have sense of mission. Every day you know exactly what needs to be accomplished. You feel like you accomplished something, everyone is alive, everybody is safe.”

Kim transferred to UCLA in the fall and has not deactivated from service. She is serving in the National Guard and is currently part of the ROTC program at UCLA.

She said the experience she had in the military has shaped her. She retains a strong sense of pride in what she accomplished and still keeps in close contact with many of her former platoon members, despite the physical separation.

Echoing Kim’s sentiments, Gonzalez, now a third-year political science student, said he misses the brotherhood the military fostered.

After growing up in Los Angeles, Gonzalez said it was in the Marines that he first experienced racism, which he felt hindered his military career and motivated him to work even harder so he could advance.

Gonzalez is nearing the end of his inactive service, but he hasn’t ruled out going back because he said he feels like he still has a lot to offer.

His research in school and his relationships with other veterans are what have helped him the most in his transition out of service and are helping him regain a sense of his Hispanic identity, he added.

“Boots to Bruins is great,” Gonzalez said. “Every time I go to class, I know I’m going to connect with somebody.”

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Samantha Schaefer
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