Fresh from his deployment in the Middle East, Cpl. Juan De La Torre returned to his hometown of Bakersfield with a focus so sharp that it could only have been honed in the military: Finish that economics degree at Cal State Bakersfield, and do it on time.

De La Torre began his career in the Army National Guard, at least semiofficially, at age 17, before he even graduated from high school. Once in the military, he managed a full load of CSUB courses online while fighting wildfires with the National Guard and then, later, during his nine-month deployment to Qatar.

De La Torre was a man in a hurry. Making friends wasn’t on the itinerary.

But when the coordinator of CSUB’s Veterans Success Center asked him if he’d like to attend a conference for veterans in Florida with four other CSUB students, he decided to go. What followed, on Jan. 1 of this year, was a round-the-clock, white-knuckle race through ice, rain and thunderstorms from Bakersfield to Jacksonville, Fla., fueled by Monster energy drinks, turkey sandwiches and endless rounds of carpool karaoke (the No. 1 playlist choice: “Thank U, Next” by Ariana Grande).

Somewhere amid the junk food haze and dodging fleets of speed-demon semis, De La Torre, 23, realized that the camaraderie he felt in the rented Toyota van was something he had missed, born of a bond that runs so deep, it can be formed nowhere but in the military — and should never be ignored.

“We talked about our deepest concerns in life; depression, relationships, we talked about our finances,” De La Torre said. “We were able to be an open book because when you come from the military, you understand each other immediately and can bypass the formalities. When you meet another military member, you expect them to have certain qualities.”

That trip changed De La Torre’s outlook and inspired him to become involved in raising the profile of veterans at CSUB, through the Veterans Club and the Veterans Success Center, which offers an array of services to active military members, their families and those on campus who have served their country.

On Thursday, the Veterans Success Center will host the second annual Veterans Day Celebration, a joyous event intended to connect veterans, active military members and their families to resources. The event is open to all. Military vehicles will be displayed, free food is available and the highlight — besides patriotism and fellowship — will be the landing of a Black Hawk helicopter from the Air National Guard in Fresno.

“You could definitely hear it coming,” said Jamie Pacheco, coordinator of the Veterans Success Center, referring to the impact made by the Black Hawk last year. “It had never been done before at CSUB. The crew really showed off. It was a smooth but dramatic landing.”

Smooth landings are what the Veterans Success Center is all about. De La Torre counted on Pacheco for help navigating his GI Bill benefits and other paperwork while he was in Qatar, where he worked in a security detail, checking bags for explosives and contraband. He never saw combat.

“Besides my deployment, I did a couple of months fighting wildfires in Northern California. It was the toughest part of my service. The first month, I was volun-told. The second month, I volunteered.”

Now that he’s back, De La Torre doesn’t miss a day hanging out and offering assistance at the Veterans Success Center, near the Education Building.

“When I came back, they welcomed me with open arms,” said De La Torre, dressed casually on a recent Friday morning, an American flag lapel pin displayed on the collar of his polo, a gift from CSUB’s acting provost, Vernon Harper, a veteran himself.

“President (Lynnette) Zelezny has been really, really supportive of our veterans on campus,” De La Torre said. “With a lot of support from Jamie, they’ve really shed light on the challenges veterans face.”

Ulyses Rodriguez, 28, a Marine Corps sergeant who served two tours in Afghanistan, started his CSUB journey two days after being discharged in 2017. Like De La Torre, he is deeply committed to the cause of veterans on campus.

“My experience has always been I didn’t know I needed the Veterans Center until I became a part of it,” Rodriguez said. “I couldn’t relate to students in my classes who were 17, 18, 19 years old. I was 10 years older. That’s why I sought out the Veterans Center.”

The involvement of vets like De La Torre and Rodriguez is thanks in large part to the passion of Pacheco, who has revitalized CSUB’s outreach efforts. When she joined the university in 2017, four veterans had signed up with the Veterans Success Center on the first day of fall classes. This year, there were 50.

“I was reading testimonials, and I came across something a student said: ‘In the military, it’s all about status, rank who’s above you and who’s below you.’ I tell students when they come in here that we’re not above you or below you but right beside you. And we’re beside you every step of the way.”

For De La Torre, that assistance extended beyond the Veterans Success Center. When he was fighting fires and during his deployment in the Middle East, he relied on the encouragement and patience of his professors — especially Drs. Di Wu and Aaron Hegde — to complete his coursework.

De La Torre knows when he walks across the stage at Rabobank Arena on Dec. 11 during the first fall CSUB commencement ceremony in at least a decade that the achievement is not his alone.

“I finished my six-year contract with the National Guard at about the same time I’m graduating. From January 2015, when I started at CSUB, I went to school every day as a full-time student when I was in the National Guard.”

Going to college was always in the cards for the South High grad, but he never considered resisting the call to serve his country following a seminal event of his childhood: the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“I can’t tell you the patriotism my entire generation felt after 9/11. Plus, my grandfather was in World War II.”

Though he never met his grandfather, his mother and grandmother told De La Torre stories about his service in the Philippines. Later, when he was older, De La Torre uncovered his grandfather’s DD214 military record, a “golden” clue to his grandfather’s past. It contained information that even his grandmother didn’t know.

“It shows that he worked in military intelligence and was a counterintelligence agent. He spied on spies. He was in the Pacific, in the Army, and the record showed that he liberated a concentration camp and saved 20 POWs, along with a handful of others. That’s the only thing it shows on his record.”

De La Torre would like to put his bachelor’s degree in economics to work soon after graduation, and is open to staying in the area or moving on. Eventually, he’d like to return for his master’s.

He said he’s not interested in further military service, though he understands why many re-enlist.

“Purpose is big. A lot of veterans want to go back, not because they’re war junkies, but because they miss that purpose. It’s hard to find something so pure after, something that you’re willing to sacrifice your life for.”

Jennifer Self is director of communications and public affairs at Cal State Bakersfield.

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