UA student veterans tell stories of service, sacrifice

Adrienne Burch

As Grey Westbrook sat back relaxing at a table in the Ferguson Center, he resembled any ordinary University of Alabama student taking a break from a day filled with classes. But his experiences make him far from ordinary.

At 18, Westbrook decided to forgo attending the Capstone and enlisted in the United States Army. Six years later, he has finally returned to the University.

There are approximately 800,000 military veterans currently attending colleges across the United States, including many who attend the University. These troops are able to attend advanced schooling and earn a college degree free of charge as part of the G.I. Bill.

For Westbrook, the college degree he is working toward was something he always thought he wanted. He was accepted to the University his senior year of high school, but over Christmas break he watched a movie that changed the course of his life.

“It was ‘Fahrenheit 9/11,’” Westbrook said. “It made me realize the negative views of the military, and I thought maybe I can change that. Maybe I can make a difference.”

Westbrook spent three years in Iraq as an infantry fire team leader.

He worked 16 to 18 hour days, alternating between eight hour combat patrols, eight hours of tower guard and eight hours of rest. However, most of these rest periods were not spent sleeping, but preparing equipment and getting his team ready to go on their next patrol. He said the most important thing he learned from his time overseas was not to take the small things for granted.

“People take for granted that they get hot showers, hot food and eight hours of sleep,” he said. “We were lucky if we got these things on a regular basis.”

Westbrook said it was the sense of camaraderie and the bond between troop members that made it all worth it.

“I was in a lot of crappy situations,” he said. “But the guys you are with are what make it special. I may have been running drills out in Kentucky in the freezing snow, but I wasn’t the only one going through it. I knew the boy next to me was freezing his butt off too.”

Westbrook is currently working for a degree in advertising but hopes to return to the military soon after graduation.

“I’m going back in the military,” he said. “I loved what I did.”

However, for other veterans, leaving the military and starting college represents a fresh start and the beginning of a new career. Zach Boyd, 25, is a Tuscaloosa native who enlisted in the United States Navy right out of high school in 2005. He was stationed on the U.S.S. Rhode Island submarine out of Kings Bay, Ga.

For Boyd, joining the military was a way to get away from the real world for a few years to figure out what he really wanted to do.

“You don’t have to pay bills or make any real decisions,” he said.

Boyd discovered during his time in the Navy that he was interested in finance, currently his major at the University, through serving as the command financial specialist.

Boyd said being back at school has been pretty different. He compared life on the submarine to the movie “Groundhog Day,” where the main character experience the same day over and over again.

“The same thing happens every day,” he said. “You don’t really know what day or what time it is or if the sun is out. I just knew when I started getting tired it must be getting close to the end of my watch.”

Coming back to school, Boyd left behind many of his closest friends and lost a lot of the camaraderie he had built through his time in the service. He said he traded these friendships for time with his family, including his 2- year-old son, who was born two weeks after he was discharged.

For U.S. Army veteran Will Suclupe, the transition from life in the military to the University was difficult as well.

Suclupe worked in the U.S. Army Medical Department serving two years in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He helped service members cope with the stress of combat and to better deal with traumatic experiences and mental health injuries.

“I enjoyed my experience to serve my comrades and to minimize, as best we could, the injuries that come from the overwhelming, life-altering experience of serving in a combat zone,” Suclupe said.

Suclupe returned from overseas in June 2009 and began attending classes at Wallace Community College in August. He then transferred to the University in January 2010 to pursue an undergraduate degree in social work. He said the transition from life overseas to life back in the states was difficult.

“I was released from active duty fairly quickly and started college rather soon,” he said. “There was little time to adjust from being in Iraq.”

Suclupe said it was difficult for him to relate to traditional students and he felt really isolated, but eventually he found help through the Campus Veterans Association.

“The CVA was helpful in providing the opportunity to develop friendships, but more importantly, it gave me a cause to help veterans transition at UA. It provided me many opportunities to continue to share my passion for helping our comrades,” he said.

The University of Alabama Office of Veteran and Military Affairs offers many resources to help assist veterans with the transition to University life. They will be opening a brand new office Friday, Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. in B.B. Comer Hall to celebrate the culmination of their Veteran’s Week.