Colorado State is attracting a rising number of student-veterans – and national attention – by valuing the abilities of former service members now readying for civilian careers
Joshua Griffin, U.S. Army Night Stalker, Rams football player, and philosophy major, is among an new wave of veterans surging on campus.
By Coleman Cornelius and Tony Phifer | Photography by Mary Neiberg
In July 2004, Phillip Chavez, just 20 years old, landed by military helicopter with 1st battalion, 4th Marines at a base near the holy city of Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad in Iraq. It was seven months after U.S. forces had captured Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from a spider hole in a dramatic mission known as Operation Red Dawn. Now Chavez and his buddies in Bravo Company were part of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit battling insurgents – mainly Sunni and Shia rebel fighters – to transition control of Iraq from coalition forces to a self-led democratic government. Chavez and fellow Marines, he recalled, “arrived to gunfire” with a security and stability objective that quickly exploded into the Battle of Najaf.
Their battalion, according to a military analysis titled U.S. Marines in Battle: Najaf, August 2004, “walked into the path of a raging storm, resulting in one of the most intense battles the Marine Corps had seen in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the city of Najaf, the battalion engaged a fanatical enemy in a place where it rained shrapnel, and machine gun, small arms, and rocket-propelled grenade fire reached intensities unknown to already battle-tested Marines.” Temperatures soared past 125 degrees F. Fighting conditions, according to the analysis, were “reminiscent of Vietnam at its height – and it cost Marine lives.”
Chavez, now a senior at Colorado State University, was an infantry machine gunner and was pictured in a Newsweek article about the violence in Najaf, his face illuminated by gunfire during a nighttime guerrilla attack. Discussing it recently, Chavez remembered combat that abated only during Islamic prayers; some of the worst fighting, before a negotiated cease-fire in Najaf, occurred in Wadi-us-Salaam, the largest cemetery in the Muslim world.
There – and, later, during intense fighting in Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Ramadi, and other cities in and around the Sunni Triangle – Chavez turned to Native American traditions to endure. His identity as a Native man, with Spanish and American Indian heritage, had become meaningful to him before he joined the Marines; now it was essential. During a tour of duty spanning nearly 11 months in Iraq, his Indigenous cultural beliefs added to military training and provided him with mental and emotional armor, Chavez said. He found several buddies who likewise relied on Native roots for spiritual sustenance.
Phillip Chavez was an infantry machine gunner who served in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps. He’s now a first-generation student at Colorado State University, active with the Native American Cultural Center, and studying human dimensions of natural resources. He’s interested in working as a cultural adviser for parks agencies.
“There was always a risk of dying, but the mindset was, ‘I’m going to go in and do a job and protect my brothers,’” Chavez said. “There were five or six of us who would get together in the calm before the storm. We would smoke and pray and smudge each other and prepare for battle. It helped me a lot, so that things wouldn’t attach. It was like, ‘This is what warriors do. This is our job.’ That helped me bring honor to myself and my friends. It has helped me keep my bearings.”
Fourteen years later, his Native American identity is fundamental to his life, a reservoir for healing. Chavez lost 13 buddies during deployment in Iraq, and he suffered a ruptured disk and related spinal injuries while jumping with 150 pounds of gear from a military truck under ambush. After his discharge from active duty, Chavez landed in Bozeman, Mont., met his wife, Dominique, and pursued his interests in hunting, fishing, and camping. He dedicated more time to Native sweat ceremonies, drumming, and singing. He returned to playing flutes in the tradition of many Indigenous people, an interest inspired by a dream he had as a teenager.
In 2014, Chavez and his wife arrived at Colorado State University, where she is pursuing a doctorate and he a bachelor’s degree, both in natural resources. It was vital for him to be welcomed not only as a student, he said, but as a veteran and Native American, aspects of his life that define him. “So many parts of my life have converged here,” said Chavez, 35, who grew up in Fort Collins and now has two children of his own. “When you’re in the service, there’s a brotherhood with the people in your unit. You develop a mindset between each other that helps you survive and get through the tough times. Once you get out, you miss that camaraderie, but I’ve found it with other vets here at CSU.”
Chavez and many other student-veterans have discovered an academic operating base in a Colorado State office called Adult Learner and Veteran Services. The office offers key services for student-veterans as they pursue college degrees and prepare for civilian careers. Its work has helped attract a growing enrollment of veterans at CSU: The number of students using educational benefits through the federal GI Bill has more than tripled in the past decade, from 454 to 1,596 students. Add in active-duty service members and dependents using federal education benefits, and Colorado State has about 2,000 students with strong military ties. And that number doesn’t include students enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, among others with direct military connections.
“We wanted to shift the narrative, to emphasize the strengths these students bring to campus. These student-veterans come to us from the most diverse employer in the world, and they have lived and worked around the world. Let’s utilize those strengths to build a better experience for the entire campus.”
– Marc Barker, Director, Adult Learner and Veteran Services
Programs provided by Adult Learner and Veteran Services are likewise contributing to Colorado State’s rising national profile in military circles: The independent news outlet Military Times, in its 2019 Best for Vets rankings, named CSU the No. 6 university in the country for student-veterans – and the No. 5 public university – based on programs to boost academic success. In January, the Student Veterans of America honored CSU President Tony Frank with the 2019 William Pearson Tolley Champion for Veterans in Higher Education Award, recognizing the University’s commitment to improving higher education for student-veterans.
That commitment is largely delivered through Adult Learner and Veteran Services. The office helps veterans, active-duty students, and their family members access tuition, housing, and other education benefits. It supports the CSU Student Veterans Organization and SALUTE, the national honor society for student-veterans. It offers peer mentoring, career counseling, child care, and referrals to health care and specialized campus services; among these is New Start for Student Veterans, a program housed in the CSU Department of Occupational Therapy, that helps vets overcome service-related physical, mental, and cognitive conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
More than that, the office fosters a community by viewing student-veterans as whole people – complex, strong, capable, and ready to blossom in a new stage of life through education and opportunity. Marc Barker, director of Adult Learner and Veteran Services since 2015, calls the approach a “values-based model” that respects student-veterans for their strengths and potential. “Most of the higher education community looked at these student-veterans through a negative lens,” Barker said. “We wanted to shift the narrative, to emphasize the strengths these students bring to campus. These student-veterans come to us from the most diverse employer in the world, and they have lived and worked around the world. Let’s utilize those strengths to build a better experience for the entire campus.”
Each year, hundreds of veterans find an energizing community in Adult Learner and Veteran Services. Josh Johnson, a 28-year-old Air Force veteran and current Air National Guardsman, used it as a base to launch into campus leadership. A junior majoring in industrial and organizational psychology, he is president of the CSU Student Veterans Organization, a senator in student government, a peer adviser for student-veterans, and a member of the nationally competitive CSU Triathlon Club. “When you spend a few years overseas, you learn to value what we have here,” he said, explaining his remarkable campus involvement.
Joshua Griffin is similarly focused. He has served 12 years in the Army, with 10th Special Forces Group, Airborne, based at Fort Carson, Colo., and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the Night Stalkers. Griffin remains on active duty as he studies philosophy at CSU, with plans to step up service after earning a bachelor’s degree. As with many student-veterans, Griffin has served the nation – and now is serving campus: He is a mentor for cadets in CSU’s Army ROTC program and is a defensive player on the Rams football team. (His position hasn’t been finalized for the coming season.) “CSU has been phenomenal for me. I could not ask for a better situation,” he said, adding, “There are a lot of veterans here who add to campus life every day.”
Priscilla Duron is another standout. A 33-year-old senior in criminology, Duron admitted she never cared about school and barely graduated from high school in her hometown of Fort Collins. Now, this former Army mechanic is attending CSU as a first-generation student. She mentors fellow student-veterans, carries a 3.35 grade point average, is aiming for a perfect GPA, and has her eye on law school – while also maintaining a household with her husband and parenting two elementary-aged children.
“When I think about walking across that stage at graduation to get my diploma, with my kids watching, I get very emotional,” Duron said. “I will be proving to them that anything is possible.”