In honor of Veterans Day Nov. 11, The PHOENIX spoke with several veterans and Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) cadets at Loyola and found that their military identities influence their everyday student life.
Loyola has more than 200 student veterans and 70 cadets. The university’s Military Veteran Student Services (MVSS) department helps veterans transition into life on campus, while the Department of Military Science works with ROTC cadets.
Both veterans and cadets benefit from military scholarships that pay for their schooling, such as veterans’ Post-9/11 GI Bill, which gives student veterans up to $22,500 in financial aid.
Hannah Gryska, 25, is a double major in economics and international business. At 17, she left her small town in Kansas to serve in the United States Navy for four years. She was an aviation ground support technician who maintained the ship’s mechanical operations.
Gryska said she was part of Operation Tomodachi, a United States Army Forces operation assistance that aided Japan after its 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Her ship, The Reagan, was one of the 16 ships contaminated with radiation.
Gryska joined the Navy because she needed financial aid to go to college — a dream she’s always had.
“I wanted to get out of Kansas and I wanted to do something bigger than myself and [the Navy] allowed me to go to school … I would’ve never been able to afford an opportunity like that,” Gryska said. “I go to Loyola and that’s not something a lot of people can say.”
Gryska said her experiences in the Navy directly impacted her appreciation of her education and her time at Loyola.
“I show up on time, I’m here in the front row and I pay attention … I’m not going to take this for granted,” Gryska said. “I went through a lot … to get here and I see these 17-year-old kids … some of them don’t show up on time, or they’re texting and being disrespectful … and to me I’m thinking, ‘Some people did a lot to get here.’”
Gryska said the Navy inspired her to someday work for the State Department’s foreign services sector.
One of the challenges Gryska said she’s experienced in the Navy, and now as a veteran, is people’s misconception of women in the military.
“Female veterans definitely have to deal with a lot more nonsense … no one has ever looked at me and said, ‘That woman, she was in the military’ and that’s kind of hurtful,” Gryska said. “Women don’t get a lot of respect I think and there’s not many of us [in the Navy] either.”
Gryska said she’s never forgotten one comment made by a man in the Navy: “Ships were still better when women weren’t on here.”
Ross Burgess, 30, is a health systems management major who was deployed to Afghanistan at 23 years old as an Army medic with the elite 82nd Airborne Division. He completed active duty in 2015 and, since then, has been working with the National Guard.
Burgess said he enlisted in the Army to find direction in his life.
“[The Army] has helped me learn what I’m capable of and I learned how to apply myself. When I was younger, I couldn’t study for an exam and I was kind of a slacker … I knew I had some talent but I didn’t feel like doing the work to apply it,” Burgess said. “[In the Army] I became an expert field medic, went to Airborne school [and] went to Jumpmaster school … I did all these things that were challenging and I succeeded.”
Burgess currently works as a program assistant for the MVSS to help other veterans adjust to campus. After graduation, he said he wants to attend law school and eventually work in health law. But Burgess said his military experience will always be a part of his identity.
“I think your experiences in uniform will always be with you… it’s forever,” Burgess said.
Loyola’s ROTC cadets train about 10 hours or more per week and learn the ins and outs of the military. This consists of physical training, leadership classes, military science and field and summer training. Loyola cadets also train with DePaul University’s cadets.
Cadets can volunteer in ROTC’s varsity sport, the Ranger Challenge, where Loyola cadets compete with other schools in military tasks. This year — for the first time in Loyola ROTC history — the cadets’ five-person team took first place and the nine-person team placed second against all ROTC universities in Illinois.
Brendan Filip, 22, is a senior nursing student and is the Ranger Challenge Officer in Charge, a role in which he coordinates the Ranger Challenge. Through his major and ROTC contract, Filip hopes to work as a Reserve Nursing Officer in the Army Medical Unit while also working as a registered civilian nurse.
Filip said the ROTC program will help him accomplish two things that matter to him: serving his country and working in the medical field. He said his biggest challenge as a student cadet has been time management.
“Balance is a huge struggle and you have to prioritize a lot of things when that extra commitment comes into play. I think the coolest thing about cadets in ROTC is that everyone really cares about their academics,” Filip said. “Even during physical training in the morning … a significant number of cadets have their note cards that they’re flipping through while [running] on the treadmill.”
Thomas McVey, 24, is a law school student and recently became part of ROTC at Loyola. McVey completed his undergraduate degree at Illinois State University and didn’t have any interest in the ROTC program until his internship with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which introduced him to becoming a military lawyer through ROTC.
McVey said he applies what he’s learned at ROTC to his law education.
“The Army teaches you a lot of time persistence [and] a lot of leadership,” McVey said. “Whenever I get a problem in law school or a conflicting schedule because I have a lot going on, I basically sit down and try to figure it out the way [ROTC] showed me how to.”
Lewis Trotsky, 21, is a senior criminal justice major on track to be a Reserve Military Intelligence Officer. Trotsky said he always saw himself getting into the military and the ROTC program guided him through that vision.
“If anything [ROTC] enhanced it even further … it made me a better student [and] leader,” Trotsky said.
Trotsky said ROTC creates a more structured college experience than that of the average student, which often leads to misconceptions from other college students.
“It’s easy for people to judge us … look at us in a certain way whether that we’re uptight, rigid or that we’re not very sociable. But this is something we do … something we love. We are normal people,” Trotsky said.
Trotsky hopes to follow his family’s law enforcement tradition and attend graduate school after completing his years in the Army.
Patrick Hogan, 21, is a junior studying anthropology and Islamic world studies. Hogan said he never envisioned his life in the military until his senior year of high school when he was applying for colleges. He said ROTC allowed him to accomplish two important goals: obtain an education and serve his country.
“I didn’t know ROTC was a thing. I knew I wanted to go to college, but I also wanted to help people make a change,” Hogan said. “My mom, when she found out I was doing this, [she] thought I was going to die, and my dad was very excited he didn’t have to pay for college.”
Cesar Zavala, 20, an economics major at DePaul University, spends a lot of his training at Loyola where he also takes his military science class. Coming from an immigrant household, Zavala said his enlisting in the Army was his way of giving back to the nation for the opportunities he’s had. ROTC has helped Zavala personally and academically.
“It brought me out of my shell a lot. I was always a quiet, shy person,” Zavala said. “Being in a sport where you have to be a leader and be something … it makes you very proactive and makes you very aware of what’s important to you and what is not.”
Zavala signed his contract with the National Guard and wants to work full-time active duty military.