Lois Capps and Das Williams spoke Tuesday afternoon at Santa Barbara City College for Veterans Appreciation Week. Both the congressmember and state assemblymember were on hand to recognize the academic achievements and to express their appreciation of the college’s students who have served in the armed forces.

Dr. Lori Gaskin, president of the SBCC, welcomed those who attended and expressed her “heartfelt appreciation to our students who have fought for or sustained our liberties,” of which she said none was greater than access to education.

“It’s a gift someone gives to themselves that can never be taken away,” she said, noting that the college counts 250 veterans, both past and present, among its faculty and staff. “Thank you for your valor in serving our country,” she said.

Williams, who chaired the state’s Higher Education Committee, served two years on the Veterans Affairs Committee, and is an SBCC alumni, then spoke. “This is a time when the fewest Americans know a veteran,” he said. “It’s important to understand what they go through. We may not pay enough attention to their needs.” That neglect, warned Williams, puts our democracy in peril.

Capps voiced similar support, urging those assembled to commit to helping veterans. “Few things are more important than sharing our support for the men and women who’ve sacrificed for this country.” For what they sacrifice or simply risk, she said “we benefit for our lifetimes.” She also touched on her pro-veteran voting record and City College’s support for former service members.

“I found out today there are 500 veterans studying on campus. Of that number, over 200 are on the GI Bill,” which she said she helped expand to cover STEM degrees. Capps also mentioned that City College provides vets with an “accelerated opportunity” for its EMT program.

Deputy District Attorney and fellow veteran Michael Carrozzo then spoke about his office’s Veterans Treatment Court (VTC), which provides an alternative to incarceration for some of the communities’ veterans who, according to the program’s literature, are in danger of “falling into a life of crime.”

Carrozzo said Santa Barbara is one of the first districts in the country to offer treatment rather than punishment for those who qualify and that the VTC’s most recent graduates will be honored at a lunch scheduled to be held this Friday at the Veterans Memorial Building.

SBCC and UCSB alum Max Ramirez Luna, Calvin Angel from the California Department of Veterans Affairs, and Dano Pagenkopf then shared their thanks and, in Pagenkopf’s case, an alarming statistic.

Pagenkopf used to run a nuclear reactor for the Navy aboard the USS Carl Vinson, a Nimitz-class supercarrier, and later came to SBCC to pursue his dream of becoming a commercial diver. He thanked the college and in particular Magdalena Torres, SBCC’s Veterans Program advisor and the head organizer of the day’s event. Then he explained how there are a lot of misconceptions about veterans.

“Veterans are a quiet, reserved bunch of people — not exactly extroverts. Because of this, people don’t know what we go through,” said Pagenkopf. Then he dropped the equivalent of a statistical bomb: that 20 veterans a day commit suicide.

Pagenkopf was referring to a figure recently announced by the Center for Public Integrity that estimates nearly one in every five suicides nationally is a veteran; 49,000 took their own lives between 2005 and 2011.

But to Pagenkopf, despite the toll it takes on some, the military life grants purpose. “Some people live an entire lifetime and wonder if they have ever made a difference in the world, but veterans don’t have that problem.”

Deputy District Director James Joyce, there on behalf of Hannah-Beth Jackson, followed Pagenkopf and called the suicide rate “startling.” But he emphasized that resources were available as he held up a copy of the Veteran’s Resource Book, a free publication by the California Department of Veterans Affairs.

Then it was time for the event’s keynote speaker, Raymond Morua, an alumni of the school and now a district representative for Capps. He thanked SBCC for helping him maneuver through difficult times and negotiate academic terrain, saying, “I can’t say how much SBCC’s helped me get to where I am today.”

Morua served in Iraq 10 years ago followed by four years of transition, which he called the hardest time for veterans. “It’s difficult being away from the world. Everything’s different.” Morua acknowledged those teachers who tested him, pushed him to be better than he was, and expanded him. “Community colleges give you a second chance.”

He noted that student veterans are usually older but are very good at being where they have to be at the right time. Meeting deadlines is second nature, but they might have trouble with writing an essay, he said. For Morua, the support provided by SBCC helped bridge the gap between highly regimented lifestyle and days spent in classrooms and the library.

“There’s no [physical training], no cleaning weapons,” said Morua. “I took myself from the battlefield to the battlefield of academics.” To Morua, academics was another mission with a definite timetable. “Being a student is a race against time. The GI Bill only lasts 36 months.”

He urged other veterans to connect with their civilian surroundings once they get home. “Get involved in community organizations. There is life after the military. Feel free to always expose yourself. That’s very beneficial.”

Co-emcees Stephanie Otanez and Robert Selner then reintroduced Williams, who awarded Morua and 16 others certificates of Special Recognition on behalf of the 37th District.

In addition to those who spoke, the following individuals also received the accolade: Vietnam veteran and SBCC student Martin Caballero, SBCC MESA Program director Virginia Estrella, Veteran and SBCC student Aaron Lopez, Sandra Lugo of Aveda, Maria Teresa Napoli of UCSB INSET, Victor Orta, Robert Selner, Jessie Suaranyi, Marc Sullivan, Enrique Valladares, and SBCC Director of EOPS Marsha Wright.

SBCC’s Student Senate and the school’s Express to Success program were also recognized.

City College will continue to highlight its veterans through Saturday, when some will act as Honorary Captains at this week’s football home game against Glendale. Torre’s office will sponsor a Recognition of Women Veterans and Women in the Armed Services in March 2014 and name the school’s Outstanding Veteran Student of the Year at the end of the spring semester.


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