By Seth Culp-Ressler | Features Editor
It’s Veterans Week on the Bluff. Building from the midweek Veterans Day, the Duquesne community is coming together for talks, movie screenings and breakfasts, all to honor and thank those men and women who have served our country.
Keeping in line with that sentiment, we at The Duke thought it appropriate to pay some respects of our own in the only way we know how – by telling stories. Elsewhere in this issue can be found our annual basketball preview. A large focus for this year’s edition, with it being Duquesne’s 100th season, is the history of the program. In a similar fashion, the following stories come from student veterans new and old, current and long graduated.
Duquesne’s veteran community isn’t overwhelmingly large. Presently, the total veteran population hovers around a low single digit percentage of the total student body. What it lacks in size, however, it makes up for in strength.
Gabriella Aguilar, fresh out of high school in California, got to live the dream of many a recent graduate – she spent the next four years of her life in Hawaii. But her trip wasn’t a vacation. It was a Navy tour.
Aguilar’s duties aren’t something she can talk about to just anybody. From 2009 to 2013 she worked intelligence with the National Security Agency. That’s a job that tends to have a “highly classified” side effect.
So, jumping forward, Aguilar had to make plans for when her time in Hawaii came to a close. She knew a few things: she wanted to go to school for public relations, and she wanted to do it in Pittsburgh. Why? Because she’s a massive Steelers fan, of course.
After comparing the public relations programs her options provided, she settled on Duquesne. She then bet it all on red and blue.
“[Duquesne] happened to be the only school I applied to,” she said. “I just crossed my fingers and went on a whim. I did it and got accepted.”
At a current age of 25, and with just about two years of college under her belt, Aguilar is finally settling in – not that it’s been an easy journey. Transitioning from four years of military life to a college campus can be difficult.
It’s even more so when all of your classmates are four years younger than you and fresh out of high school. Aguilar freely admits that she sometimes finds the concerns of her fellow classmates a little trivial.
“I’m like, ‘There’s just so much more out there, c’mon!’” she laughed.
She also stressed that for many veterans, being thanked for serving gets bland after a while. If someone really wants to connect with a veteran, there’s one easy way: care.
“You don’t necessarily need to be a veteran to bond with us,” Aguilar said, “You just need to understand our story.”
For Theo Collins, returning to school after serving in the Marines Corps was a welcome change of pace.
Collins, currently 27, spent a total of six years in the Marines, which included a deployment to Afghanistan in both 2010 and 2011. He graduated from the State University of New York at Fredonia in 2012 and then more recently from Duquesne’s law school.
Collins said that for him, the transition into the world of higher education was smooth. He found being in school far easier than being in the military.
“I really enjoyed my time in school,” Collins said. “And all of my friends who are veterans that were going to school at the same time also really enjoyed their time in school. I really looked forward to going back to school after Afghanistan.”
Collins is currently a practicing attorney in the Pittsburgh area.
The story that Collins is eager to tell, however, isn’t his own. That story would be of the documentary “Project 22.” Released just over a year ago, the film follows two veterans – Doc King and Daniel Egbert – as they take a motorcycle trip across the country, all in the hopes of raising awareness for the struggles veterans deal with after serving.
The film’s name comes from a 2012 Department for Veteran Affairs study that found 22 veterans commit suicide everyday. Collins said more recent studies show that number creeping toward 30.
As for Collins’ involvement, he originally was connected with the project through Egbert, who was his squad leader in the Marines. Collins played an integral role in bringing the trip to both Pittsburgh and, through psychology professor Roger Brooke, at Duquesne. Ultimately Collins ended up being an executive producer for the documentary.
Duquesne wasn’t where Raymond Amelio wanted to be in 1964. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, he had dreams of going away for school. His “old Italian father” had a different idea. He thought Amelio should commute to school, just as his two older brothers had.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to do that,’” Amelio, now 70, said laughing. “He said, ‘I don’t care.’ So I went to Duquesne in protest.”
By June 1965, however, there was a problem. Amelio and his best friend both got letters from Duquesne President the Rev. Henry McAnulty telling them to sit out for a semester. McAnulty said that before continuing their studies at Duquesne, they needed to figure out what to do with their lives.
It was a somewhat unfortunate circumstance for the two young men, as in 1965 and 1966 there was a draft for the Vietnam War. Being out of school meant they both received notices. Neither had interest in joining the Army, so they enlisted in the Navy for a three-year term. From that point on they found themselves on very different paths.
“Long story short,” Amelio explained, “ultimately he ended up in Europe. I ended up in Vietnam.”
In ’67 Amelio was ordered to attend fleet Marine training to be a corpsman for the Marines. He spent ’68 and part of ’69 in Vietnam, where he joined the 26th Marines in the biggest battle of the war, Khe Sanh. After being wounded twice, he was moved to the third medical battalion, where he stayed until finishing his tour. Amelio was discharged in February 1969.
He returned home to Pittsburgh and got a job at U.S. Steel. His plan was to work full time and go to night school. By the end of July, he realized that what he really needed to do was return to school full-time. He sent a letter to Duquesne asking to be reinstated. They said yes.
Amelio found himself back on Duquesne’s campus in September 1969 majoring in political science. He said that his readjustment to college life wasn’t as difficult as one might think. Yes, he was older than most of his classmates, but he was still able to interact with them all the same.
“I think a lot of the students, the younger students that had matriculated, they were kind of fascinated that I had been to war,” he said. “A lot of them had questions, about ‘how was it.’ They were in school, so they for the most part were protected.”
It’s true that he was different than those regular students, though. For that reason he found himself spending more and more time with veterans like himself, people he could relate with. In the end, it all worked itself out.
“When I came back, I was a much more mature person,” he said, “And I really did enjoy my Duquesne experience.”
When Phil Ward joined the Navy, he didn’t think he’d find himself in Korea. That, of course, would not have been an ideal place to be in the early 1950s, not with the Korean War in full swing. Ward was assigned to an aircraft carrier based out of New Jersey, a far cry from the East Asian nation.
“I thought, ‘Well, the war’s in the Pacific and I’m in the Atlantic,’” Ward said. “They didn’t tell me the ship would go down around the bottom of South America. You cross the equator and then go around Cape Horn. There aren’t too many ships that go around there. So we ended up in Korea.”
After Korea, Ward was sent to Barbers Point, Hawaii. His assignment was with Distant Early Warning Squadron VW-14, whose task was to fly between Midway Island and the Aleutian Islands with radar-equipped planes. The DEW line they were patrolling was set up as a way to detect an oncoming attack, primarily from the Soviet Union.
The squadron embarked on 16- to 18- hour flights every other day for two-week periods. They’d fly north from Midway until reaching Adak, an island in the Aleutians. After establishing radar contact, they’d turn around and head back to Hawaii. Ward was discharged from the Navy in 1957.
Originally from Clairton, after leaving the Navy, Ward did what many a Pittsburgh man would – he got a job at U.S. Steel. Unfortunately, on January 4 of 1958, he was laid off.
He went to the Veterans Affairs office for counseling and was advised that going to school might be a good next step. They recommended medicine, dentistry or pharmacy. Ward chose pharmacy and had the option of attending either the University of Pittsburgh or Duquesne. One of those two he was previously familiar with.
“I had applied to Duquesne before when I was coming out of high school,” Ward said, “But my dad worked at the steel mill, and he was laid off. It was eight dollars a credit hour, and we couldn’t afford that.”
He decided that now he could do what wasn’t possible prior to his time in the Navy. However, when he met with the dean of the pharmacy school, a flaw presented itself in his plan. It was the end of June and classes had filled up the prior March. Luckily enough, the dean told Ward that he “always makes room for a vet.”
He began his studies on the Bluff in September of 1958. As a 23-year-old freshman, Ward was quite a bit older than his peers, and he had a maturity they clearly didn’t. He was acing his classes, even the five-credit chemistry lab the other students were struggling with. The dean asked Ward to knock some sense into them.
“He said, ‘Phil, why don’t you talk to some of these young kids. They’re flunking, they’re not paying attention and you did a real good job,’” Ward recalled.
He said he tried but wasn’t completely successful. Some kids still dropped out. Not him, though, and in 1962 he graduated. He went on to work for 40 years and has been retired for the last 19. Ward turns 81 this April.