Justin Shults

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It was the summer of 2001 when I made a life-changing promise that would send me around the world and to eventually participate in OIF, OEF and a few other military operations other than war.  It was the last summer before my senior year in high school and many of my friends had already planned out the next steps of their lives.  I was content with going to the local junior college in Marysville, CA; however, education wasn’t really on the top of my list.

My father was the genius in my family; he was the reason why academics were important. Unfortunately, he was in an accident that would eventually take his life.  I was barely nine years old when he passed away. 2 years later, we left the Philippines to start a new life in California.  My mother raised my brother and me on her own, and in a new country with a whole new set of rules.  We survived through my mother’s hard work and a naturally high level of resilience.  While we were in the Philippines, my mother was working on her degree while my father was finishing his career in the United States Air Force.  Her efforts were immediately halted after my father’s accident.  Once we moved to California, school became merely the past for my mother and would eventually be a far reach for me.  My brother joined the Navy in ’96 and is getting ready to close out an exemplary career.  It seemed logical for me to follow in the family’s path into Duty, Service and Sacrifice.

I wasn’t sure of what it was I would do after I graduated high school.  I was convinced that I could go to college; however, I wasn’t committed to the idea of higher education.  I had dreamt of going to SDSU but I never prepared for it.  The focus in my household was to graduate high school and work.  I was being pushed in several directions but it wasn’t until I made a promise to a friend that would eventually lead me to writing this paper.  My friend was sold on service to the country and entered the Delayed Entry Program into the USMC in the summer of 2001.  He was trying to sell me on the idea of joining with him through the USMC’s “Buddy Program” where friends can join together, go through boot camp, specialized training schools as well as possibly being stationed together.  I was very familiar with the military lifestyle, and at the time, wasn’t appealing to me.  I had expressed my gratitude but explained that the military wasn’t “it” for me.  After weeks of being bludgeoned with propaganda by my friend, I finally agreed to join the military with one stipulation: War.

September 11, 2001.  Although post-high school education wasn’t necessarily on the top of my family’s priorities, a good education was still valued.  This would eventually lead to having to travel to another school several districts away from where I lived.  It normally took me 20-30 minutes of highway driving to get to school.  As I’m leaving my house, I decide that I needed to fill up at the local pump, guaranteeing me yet another late arrival to my first class.  Ahead of me was a gentleman in a suit rambling about some attack in New York City; it’s 0700 – UA Flight 175 hit the south tower less than an hour before this conversation.  I pay little attention to what exactly was being said and reverted back to the 1993 WTC bombing.  I was completely oblivious to what was happening in New York.

The campus parking lot was nearly empty when I got to school and I hadn’t noticed that the students from the local Air Force base were not around.  Since we didn't have the internet available in our pockets, news was delivered by paper or by the television.  This was about the time that my 2-way pager started getting message after message.  First messaged to come in were ticker updates regarding the attacks in NYC.  Then, another friend who lived in the military base notified me that they were locked-down and that no one was allow in or out of the installation.  It all became real at that moment.  Rather than turning around and going home, I walk into my home economics class just in time to hear the explanation of why I should buy canned peas from the bottom of the shelf rather than eye-level or above.  I barge into class to raise hell about not paying attention to the world that’s changing around us.  After processing my rant, my teacher stared at me for a bit, sat down and turned on the TV.  It didn’t matter what channel; they were all showing the same thing: UA Flight 175 crashing into the south tower of the World Trade Center.

The world we knew no longer existed.  By the time the world figured out that this was no accident, that these actions were deliberate, and that the towers weren't the only targets.  More news came in.  The Pentagon was hit.  Flight 93 crashed in PA.  This was about the time when my USMC buddy called my bluff.  He turned his combo desk-chair 90 degrees towards me while intently staring at his target and simply said, "You promised."  He was right, although I was still in denial.  "You don't think we're going to war after this?"  I was careful with my promise and said military, rather than Marine Corps, and apparently this was good enough.

I graduated high school in 2002.  Boot camp, April 2003.  Helicopter flight school, October 2003. Then England.  Then Africa.  Iraq.  Lebanon.  DC.  Afghanistan.  When all was said and done, I had been a part of several named conflicts, explored the many variations that sand can take, random countries around the world, a chest full of medals and a head full of problems.

The question then remains: How does this tie in to my experience as the first generation student at the University of Washington?  My time in UW-Bothell didn’t start until the Winter ’14.  Those mornings were spent slogging through mundane classes, wondering why I was even here.  I blamed my age for my neuroplasticity.  I blamed civilians for not being military.  I blamed the military for not teaching me how to be a civilian. I blamed the doctors for not being able to help.  I blamed myself for not asking for help.  Atop of not just being a 31 year old, non-traditional student, I’m also one out of 2.3 million Veterans with PTSD.  There were mornings where my blanket was layered with Kevlar, and the feeling of being safe was dangerously close to feeling of being imprisoned.

I’m currently in my second academic year in UW-Bothell.  Every decision I have made has lead me to this exact moment.  I chose to serve and my sacrifice is PTSD; some served and sacrificed it all.  I chose to move to our beautiful Pacific North West and the University of Washington Bothell granted me the opportunity to join all of you.  My path as a first generation student to walk the halls of the University of Washington just so happens to be my chosen path of recovery from PTSD.