Soldiers in disguise

Courtesy of Blason Toan
Courtesy of Blason Toan

While many are out and about enjoying the day off at the beach, others are taking a moment to appreciate the hard work and dedication given to serve our country. Veterans Day was made in honor of our beloved heroes: those who work diligently day-in and day-out to protect our freedom. What many fail to realize is that heroes walk among us every day. In fact more than 150 student veterans are scattered across campus today.

UCR is an extremely diverse school with students from different races, genders and religions but one of the greatest of all is background. Two incredible former soldiers and current UCR students, Blason Taon and Nathan Anderson, opened up about their experiences as students transitioning from life in the armed forces. Both are active in the Association of Veterans and Servicemembers (AVS), which provides resources for veterans and to help them establish themselves at the university.

Taon, president of the AVS, grew up in West Covina, Calif. He was raised in a home where education was at the top of the list. In high school, he was unsure of what to do as the next step. Prior to high school graduation, he received a call from a recruiter encouraging him to join the military. “The military was offering funds, tuition coverage and I was sold,” he said. In less than a month, soon after his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the Army and was shipped off a thousand miles away from home without a clue on what to expect.

Coming from a tight-knit family, however, it was upsetting to see his parents sad. “After I enlisted my mom was like unhappy, she didn’t talk to me,” Taon explained, as he felt like he broke the family culture by not taking over the family business. “It was a hard decision for his parents to comprehend, yet he added, “But as years went by they were so proud. They would tell all their friends, ‘My son is in the Army, he wears a uniform’ and still to this day.”

Being in the army, he faced many challenges. Some people say basic training is hard, but not for Taon. “My parents are very high-disciplinary individuals so the drill sergeants were kind of like my parents,” he laughed. Reflecting on the Army, it was an overall exciting time, even with the few bumps in the road. “I don’t know whether it was part of growing up or the age or if it was part of the maturing process, but I feel the military has made me more responsible for my actions.” Everything he did had a purpose — elevating the process to achieve each goal.

He was in the Army for six years and on reserve for two, returning home in 2011. While in the Army he worked as a cable installer. But this back-breaking career was not for him. “I want a job that doesn’t just expand my physical attributes but also my mind,” he shared. It took his counseling of soldiers to show him that hands-on training and constructive criticism was what he really wanted.

After having this realization, he decided to attend Riverside Community College and find something suitable for him. He is now a fourth-year psychology major at UCR. He shared the conversation with his father about what Taon wanted to so with his psychology major. With a blank stare as his answer, he thought his ending goal could be chancellor. His father’s advice? “Get a dog and name it Chancellor … That way every time you call him you remember what you want to become,” he shared lightheartedly.

Although he was used to a completely different scenario from the college environment, the only stressful part for him was adapting to the new social culture here in Riverside. “Coming back to school I see people and I was like, why are they so strung-out? Like I don’t understand, it’s so chill. It’s not life or death out here,” Taon said. Being part of AVS has helped contribute to making his transition from soldier to student easier. Creating families on campus, AVS has established networks to help students build relationships after returning from the hardships of war.

Anderson grew up in California in the city of La Verne and is now the vice president of the organization. After his high school graduation he attended Mt. San Antonio College for a year. He would miss class consistently and his grades were low. It was then where he realized school just wasn’t working for him so he decided to choose an alternative. “It was a better option than what I was doing at the time, it was guaranteed pay, I was getting out of La Verne, I was going to travel the world, supposedly, even though I never did, and plus the benefits of an education afterwards,” he said after having talked to a recruiter.

Soon after his 21st birthday he enlisted in the Air Force. His parents were in disbelief because no one in his family had ever joined the military. “They were happy I had made the decision to do something kind of bigger than me because before I joined I was always like ‘What am I doing this weekend, where is the next party?’ Then you start to realize that your actions in and out of your duties affect others,” Anderson said.

One of the greatest obstacles he had to face being in the Air Force was separation from family. He shared, “It was hard because all of my family was in California … and I moved around a lot … had to establish new families and new friends.” He was the first one to ever take such a risk, and nevertheless his family was proud of him, but unfortunately it was heartbreaking for his younger brother. He left two weeks prior to his brother’s high school graduation and was not there to see his “becoming a man.” His brother held some resentment toward him, “but as he’s gotten older, we’ve gotten closer,” he shared blissfully. He did two enlistments which totaled up to eight years.  He came back home in 2012 to his wife, and a newborn daughter.

While being in the Air Force he worked as a space operator where he dealt with space satellites. Because of his job, the transition from soldier to student was easy. Used to instruction, Anderson felt right at home in the classroom. Two weeks after arriving he began community college and later transferred. He is now a fourth-year business major. Being in the military impacted his life in a grand way. “It makes you realize that you’re not invincible and that you have to care about the things that you do, and everything that you do is going to have an impact in your life whether positive or negative,” he said. After graduation he plans to find a stable job and continue to work hard toward success.

Even though they come from a completely different background, they are students trying to figure out a career. Along with Blason and Anderson, there are hundreds of veterans with a unique background that walk among us every day. Honor and respect to those who give their all for our country: Heroes are everywhere.

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