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At NEC, veterans come to class with a different mindset

Steven Paquette, 38, of Henniker, poses in his home, where he lives with his wife and six-year-old son, on Friday, September 27, 2013. Paquette served in Guam with the Air Force and is taking classes in criminal justice at New England College

(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

Steven Paquette, 38, of Henniker, poses in his home, where he lives with his wife and six-year-old son, on Friday, September 27, 2013. Paquette served in Guam with the Air Force and is taking classes in criminal justice at New England College (WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)

You know what I mean?

Steven Paquette says that a lot. He often ends sentences with that phrase, turning his statements into questions, looking expectantly into an unsure gaze.

Then he lets out an easy laugh, a chuckle that bubbles up from underneath the silent uncertainty that meets his question. He knows the answer is no. He gets it, because he lives in world where, when he talks about the path that brought him here, few know what he means.

Paquette is a military veteran. He was once an Air Force cop, guarding Kurdish refugees in Guam and working with a top secret security clearance.

Paquette is also a student at New England College in Henniker. He is now a 38-year-old sophomore studying criminal justice alongside approximately 2,000 other students who are, for the most part, right out of high school.

New England College was founded in 1946 for veterans returning from World War II, and it has been more recently recognized as a “military-friendly school” by Victory Media, the veteran-owned publisher of G.I. Jobs magazine. Servicemen and women like Paquette are still earning degrees from New England College every year.

But even here, even on this quiet campus off Route 114, there is a disconnect that cannot be bridged between a veteran who has come from a military base and an 18-year-old who has come from high school graduation.

“I haven’t been with anybody yet in any of my classes that was more than double their age, most of these kids,” Paquette said. “They’ve never been overseas, they’ve never served in the military, they’ve never owned their own house, they’ve never paid their own bills.”

But they keep him feeling younger, he joked. In the classroom with younger students, he’s learned how to use new technology, new programs, a Kindle.

“It has opened me up to, you know, I never touched a Kindle before,” Paquette said. “I’m learning all that kind of stuff, and that can only help me in the future. I never downloaded an mp3 or downloaded on an iPod or any of that kind of stuff. . . . Learning all that kind of stuff has been a positive too.

“If you hang out with people that are of your own age, you kind of get sheltered in your own little bubble.”

Part of something bigger

Six years ago, Karl Marston sat in a New England College information session. Like many of the prospective students in the room, he didn’t have a clear idea what major he wanted to choose or where his career should go. Unlike many of the prospective students in the room, he was 30.

“Most of the people in the room were probably seniors in high school,” Marston said. “Younger. The director of admissions came over and said, ‘If you want to talk afterward, we can meet up and go over any questions.’ She could probably tell I was not there to look at the dorms.”

Marston wasn’t there to look at the dorms. He was there because he wanted a degree and a better-paying job. He was there because he had spent four years in the Army, came home and needed to start fresh. This week, he still stood out among the students moving through the College’s Simon Center because he’s definitely older, because he keeps his dark hair cropped almost Army short, because he now has that degree. Marston, now 36, earned his degree in education and graduated from New England College in May.

New England College is part of the Yellow Ribbon Program, meaning its student veterans who served in the last 12 years like Marston are eligible for educational benefits under the post-9/11 GI Bill. The bill pays for education and housing for individuals with at least 90 days of aggregate military service and an honorable discharge after Sept. 10, 2001, or individuals discharged with a service-connected disability after 30 days. For veterans who left the military prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the College’s Russell Durgin Military Scholarship is designed to help with the costs of earning a degree.

Dr. Philip Cate Huckins, who just recently stepped down as New England College’s director of veterans services, said approximately 30 student veterans or family members of veterans are currently receiving educational benefits at the school.

“It’s very difficult to go from the battlefields of Afghanistan to a writing course with an 18-year-old kid who’s just come from home,” he said. “Your perspective of the world and their perspective of the world are very different.”

The 26-year-old Marston, who spotted a recruiting poster in Keene and joined the Army one Wednesday “on a whim,” he said, might not recognize himself 10 years later. That younger version of himself didn’t have a wide-ranging perspective of the world or, really, a desire to find one.

“I was looking for a job, to be quite honest with you,” he said.

It was 2003. Marston had never thought about enlisting, he said. Well, maybe once, around the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks two years earlier. But not really. And suddenly he was on his way to boot camp in South Carolina.

“It starts right away,” Marston said. “It started to become a whirlwind. . . . I remember specifically getting off the bus, and you’ve seen it in movies maybe, the recruits get off the bus and they yell at ’em to line up, and it’s very much like that.”

The whirlwind took him from South Carolina to Georgia to South Korea to Texas. He married a girlfriend from home just a few months after joining. He visited a Korean amusement park. He didn’t like wearing his dress uniform. He liked the camaraderie of guys in his unit. He counted the days until he could come home.

“It was an experience, you know, something I think a lot of people would benefit from.
. . . It wasn’t for me, per se,” he said, choosing his words with care. “Certainly, I didn’t make a career out of it.”

He worked odd jobs, including the night shift stocking shelves at Hannaford. He got a divorce. He doesn’t have a veteran’s license plate. And he used his GI Bill benefits to pay for education courses at New England College, hoping to teach, hoping to coach. He liked the camaraderie of a small college campus. He got a job working as a military academic adviser at Southern New Hampshire University, though he said he would like to come work at New England College someday.

On the door to Huckins’s own office at New England College is a picture of the professor from his service days, a black-and-white photo of himself in uniform as an Air Force police officer from the 1970s. Huckins wore a bow tie and bright red pants that were anything but military as he strode across campus this week, but he said he can usually recognize the veterans in his classroom right away. He talks about the Army-issue boots a student veteran wore in his classroom that morning.

“There’s a language, there’s a demeanor, there’s a carriage of the individual that goes across time,” he said.

His primary job as director of veterans services was sorting out financial questions, working through the red tape of the GI Bill and getting rid of the bills his student veterans brought to him.

“It’s wonderful to teach at a place that has a tradition (of working with veterans),” Huckins said. “It’s wonderful to be a part of a place that has a sense of responding to duty with another duty.”

Huckins and Marston were among the individuals at New England College who got its fledgling student veterans association, called Students Engaged with Respect to Veterans Education (SERVE), off the ground several years ago. The group has trouble regularly getting together with its members, who usually commute to campus and have jobs, but SERVE hosts an annual dinner to honor the veterans who are now a part of the campus community.

“I did my time; I did what I was told,” Marston said. “There’s others that have done a lot more. And that was one of the things in the creation of the veterans’ association of New England College. We had a dinner. I started looking at it differently. I didn’t put on this dinner for me, I didn’t put on this dinner so I could have a place for me as a veteran to come, but I did it for you guys. For the other veterans who have potentially done much more than I ever did.”

Marston’s voice was soft and pensive, not like when he joked about his dress uniform or the packed Korean subways.

“I appreciate that I’m part of people who have done something bigger for others. So I guess that’s how I carry it. I feel a part of that in some way.”

‘That sticks with you’

As Karen Barilani sat near neat rows of student mailboxes in the Simon Center at New England College this week, her hair was swept into a tidy bun on the back of her head. She was talking about another day, years ago, when she was wearing her hair in the same way.

It was the day she came home from Iraq in 2003, the day she saw her son for the first time in more than seven months. She had spent more time away from him in the first year of his life than she had with him.

“At first, my son didn’t recognize me,” Barilani said. “He had just turned 1, two days before. So I took my hair down and he’s like, ‘Oh, Mommy!’ You know, happy.”

Barilani joined the Marines when she was 18. It was 2001. And then Sept. 11 happened, and she knew she was going to war.

“The country just got attacked,” she said. “You’re going.”

She went. In February 2002, Barilani deployed to Kuwait, and she spent the next several months moving through Iraq with her unit and working as a radio operator. She wasn’t in direct combat, but she was close to it.

“You’re going into a war zone,” she said. “You don’t know what that’s going to be like. You can talk about it. You can see it on the news. But you don’t know what it’s going to be like.”

Barilani, now 30, was quiet for a moment as she remembered those weeks and months in the Middle East. Her eye shadow was bright green, to match her green shirt and make the green in her eyes pop. She finally spoke in the same matter-of-fact, no-nonsense tone she used when she talked about forbidding her son to wear pajamas outside their home.

She could be any young mother. But when she spoke, it became clear she’s not.

“I was involved in a Humvee accident,” she started. “My head got put through the windshield. I got covered in . . . battery acid, which ate my MOPP suit. . . . I got hit with shrapnel in the foot one night when I had three hours of sleep. It wasn’t a major injury, but it was enough to wake me up and annoy me.”

She paused. Her tone changed, and became less brisk.

“We lost a sergeant over there. That was a really crappy experience. He was heading home in a Humvee, and the Humvee flipped over, so that killed him.”

Her earrings, dangling in the bright lights of the student center, were little silver teddy bears. There were also positive days, days she loved, Barilani said, like the weeks she spent repainting and repairing a school in the Iraqi city of Al Diwaniyah. One of the local translators working with the Marine crew on the project gave her a teddy bear to bring home to her son.

“That sticks with you,” Barilani said. “I still have that teddy bear.”

Barilani came home in September 2002. She reunited with her son and divorced her then-husband, who had also been a Marine. She wanted to go back to Iraq, she wanted to do 20 years in the Marines. Then her knee popped on a training run, and her body persuaded her to leave the military in 2005. Barilani and her son came back to New Hampshire, where she got a job at the Hillsboro police dispatch center.

She begrudgingly signed up for Intro to Psychology at New England College at the prompting of a military friend. Three years later, she has made Dean’s List every semester except her first.

“I’m doing four classes this semester,” she said. “A couple people were like, ‘You can’t get good grades if you do four classes.’ I’m like, watch me.”

She doesn’t often have time to spend with other students. She also just doesn’t get them.

“When I’m in class, I see people playing on Facebook,” she said, her voice incredulous. “I see people texting. You’re in class, pay attention. Do what you’re supposed to be doing. Why are you sitting there texting while the teacher is talking? Why am I looking at you on Facebook talking to your friends? . . . When I’m in class, I’m here to do a job. I’m here to complete my work, get good grades and graduate.”

When she does graduate, Barilani wants to get a job working with military veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Five of the guys she served with in Iraq have committed suicide, she said. So she works 40 hours a week and pays her mortgage and takes her son to school, and then she goes to class to become a psychologist.

“It’s a different mentality, a different mindset,” she said. “I’m of this generation, but I’m not part of this generation.”

Impossible to relate

Paquette wants to continue working in federal law enforcement when he graduates. The military career he began when he joined the Air Force in 1995 has informed the type of cop he wants to be.

Most of the kids in Paquette’s U.S. Politics and Criminal Law classes this semester were just babies when he joined the Air Force in 1995, still in elementary school when he left in 2000. Most of them are not informed about what a military career means.

But when he was their age, Paquette didn’t know what he thought about current events, he said with a shrug, and he talks about his fellow students without blaming them.

“I think there’s a lot of topics that come up, especially in world news or politics, where a lot of students don’t know how they feel about, like if you bring up Syria,” he said. “If they grew up in a town near here and just moved out of their parents’ house and came to college, how can they give an informed opinion on Syria or anything like that?”

He participates actively in his small classes and talks about his opinions. But he doesn’t participate in the veterans’ group on campus. He doesn’t talk about his military service with his wife, his friends or his classmates.

“It’s impossible to relate to,” he said with a shrug.

So he doesn’t talk about it. He doesn’t want to.

“I kind of shut that door when I left and moved on,” Paquette said.

He’s not laughing now.

“You know what I mean?”

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@
cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

Legacy Comments1

Great article! This is the type of reporting our heroes deserve and we enjoy reading. Good, local stories of how people get their lives together through hard work and determination, after serving our country.

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