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Homeward bound: Veterans at DePaul

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War has been a part of the American narrative since its inception. Memorial Day is more than a day off from classes. It’s a time to observe the sacrifices of our veterans, both living and dead.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, approximately 300,000 troops have flown over the Atlantic Ocean, sacrificing their safety and proximity to family and friends to fight a war in the unforgiving desert terrains of the Middle East. The troops land in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.

The men and women who serve are American citizens, compelled to fight for their country and to adopt the honorable traditions of the American military into their lives.

Some see war as a bloody scourge. Others see it as necessary action to bring peace. But none see it quite as vividly as the veterans who have been there, stepped foot on the desert sand and experienced the sounds, sights, psychological shifts and impending danger of war.

Many of these veterans are young men and women whose military careers end when they return home. Then they must pick their lives back up where they left them. For many, this means going back to school.

About 500 current DePaul students are veterans, according to Haydee Nunez, the director of DePaul’s Office of Veteran Affairs, which was created in 2009. DePaul is one of several universities across the nation that voluntarily participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program, meaning they pay whatever the G.I. Bill doesn’t cover for tuition costs.

On June 22, 1944, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 became a law, commonly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights. It granted returning soldiers from World War II certain loans and tuition grants to help them ease back into American life.

Veterans at DePaul are using a variation of the G.I. Bill called the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill to help them catch up with their peers who didn’t serve. This bill allows them to earn degrees without paying the high costs in return for their service.

This Memorial Day, remember the soldiers who died in service to the country, but also those who surround you every day.

Celebrate Memorial Day at DePaul

A theater production called “Veterans Voices” will show in the lower-level theater of the Daley Building (14 E. Jackson St.) from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m May 23.

The show will feature stories of veterans who have experienced mental health issues. The goal is to generate awareness of these issues and break the stigma associated with them.

The performance is sponsored by the School for New Learning Men of Color, the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity and the Veterans Affairs Unit in collaboration with the Chicago-based theater group Erasing the Difference, which was started by a DePaul alumnus in 2005.

From soldier to student

The stories of two DePaul student veterans who went from the deserts of the Middle East to the urban campus of DePaul.

Jeremy Giacomino, 27, was deployed twice as a Marine, in 2006 and 2008, and served for a total of five years in the military.

Jeremy Giacomino is a veteran and economics student at DePaul.

Jeremy Giacomino is a veteran and economics student at DePaul.

Giacomino was in the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment. While in the Middle East, he served as an illustrator and combat photographer.

Giacomino is now an economics student at DePaul, a far cry from the deserts of the Middle East. But he said his transition to DePaul wasn’t too traumatic. While he did hear shots fired during his time abroad, and once an Improvised Explosive Device hit a truck behind him on a convoy, he was never directly in combat. He said his deployments were safe compared to what others have been through.

During his last deployment, the focus in Iraq was on rebuilding and training their security forces.

“I was on the base at Fallujah most of the time for my first deployment,” Giacomino said. “But on my second deployment to Ramadi, I went on foot patrols and lived out in the city very often.”

Fallujah has a reputation of being one of the bloodiest war zones, but Giacomino returned home safely. Giacomino said some of the things he missed the most were pizza and his friends. He also missed such simple amenities as sidewalks.

“You’re on sand all day,” he said. “You miss running water, McDonald’s, even carpeting. You forget all of the little luxuries we have in America.”

Giacomino also had to adjust to cultural and structural differences in Iraq. He noticed these differences while helping to rebuild Iraqi security forces, one of his responsibilities in the military.

“You don’t realize that their police force is like, everyone shows up wearing something different,” Giacomino said. “It’s not like in America where you can immediately identify one. It’s very disorganized.”

When his service ended, Giacomino started a new mission — to find a university. He ended up choosing DePaul over a handful of other schools because of how welcoming it is to veterans. He later became involved with the DePaul Office of Veteran Affairs as a veteran liaison.

“I always heard good things about DePaul and how student-oriented it is,” Giacomino said. “It was a great choice. DePaul is veteran friendly. I met three veterans my first day here.”

Before he was a student at DePaul, Kevin Barszcz was in the Navy. He joined in 2008 and then traveled with a crew of 5,000 to Afghanistan on a

Kevin Barszcz is a veteran and public relations and advertising student at DePaul.

Kevin Barszcz is a veteran and public relations and advertising student at DePaul.

carrier, the boat you see in the Navy commercials with fighter jets on them. He said his transition to DePaul following his service was “a huge, huge, drastic change.”

“Over here, there’s a lot of stuff that goes on in the classrooms that wouldn’t fly in the military,” Barszcz said. “We fought for people to be able to speak freely so that everyone can have their own opinion and voice it. I don’t get upset when people say negative things against us, but I might talk to them after class and explain to them what we did it for.”

Despite the tough transition, Barszcz said he couldn’t be happier with DePaul and how it treats veterans. He decided to join the Navy because he didn’t have enough money to pay for school. He heard about DePaul through word of mouth.

“I have loved DePaul 110 percent,” Barszcz said. “From the moment I walked in two years ago, DePaul has exceeded my expectations. DePaul picks everything up from the Yellow Ribbon Program.”

Barszcz started a local nonprofit organization six months ago called Chicago Veterans. With the help of professors, Barszcz began the process of attaining a 501c3 nonprofit status for the organization. He took the role of president of the group, which is based out of DePaul but welcomes veterans across the city. The group has networked with more than 200 members from colleges all around Chicago.

“We help veterans transition from military to civilian life,” Barszcz said. “And I always encourage any veteran I know who comes home to come to DePaul.”

In addition to running the nonprofit, Barszcz is a senior public relations and advertising student. He sacrificed four years in the military so he could live this dream. He now encourages other veterans finishing their service to come to DePaul to take advantage of the benefits from the Yellow Ribbon Program and network with members of Chicago Veterans.

“I always wanted to go to a four-year college and the military made that possible,” Barczsz said. “DePaul made it even more possible by electing to participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program. I would recommend DePaul to all returning veterans. I applaud them for their devotion to us.”

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