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Campus Life

Veterans' stories intertwine at UMW

UMW News Bureau

On Veteran’s Day, all Americans are reminded to acknowledge the sacrifices made by U.S. veterans. For many at the University of Montana Western, every day is a reminder of those great sacrifices.

Although always considered a welcoming school, G.I. Jobs magazine recently validated Montana Western as a military friendly school for 2011. Only 15 percent of all higher education systems received this honor.

Of Montana Western’s 1,365 students, 43 veterans from all branches of the military are enrolled in addition to many currently serving alumni. Their service, spanning generations, is an integral part of Montana Western’s diversity.

“We are proud of the GI Jobs recognition of UMW, the large number and involvement of vets on our campus, and our hosting of the Montana Youth Challenge Academy,” Montana Western Chancellor Richard Storey says. “We love and respect the warrior, from vet graduates to vet students and parents of vets working at UMW. These are all truly remarkable and wonderfully courageous people.”

At Montana Western veterans from multiple conflicts across the globe attend classes and go about their daily lives, while many alumni have graduated and gone on to enlist or commission. Every veteran or currently serving alumni has a different story worth acknowledging. Whether serving in Vietnam or Operation Iraqi Freedom, Montana Western ties their experiences together as they continue on to the next stages of their lives.

A medic, meteorologist, minister and math student

michael mhoon veteran student displays his purple heart earned in VietnamMichael Mhoon is a non-traditional student at Montana Western working towards a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. In 1967, Mhoon served as a U.S. Army medic with the 11th Armored Cavalry during the Vietnam War.

“I was in Vietnam for 364 and a half days and two hours,” Mhoon remembers. “I don't like war. I enlisted so I would have the choice to be a medic.”

Although Mhoon received a Purple Heart during his service, he maintains he was no hero and, like so many Vietnam veterans, Mhoon did not receive a hero’s welcome upon his homecoming.

“It was worse coming back,” Mhoon says. “I felt isolated. You kept your mouth shut about Vietnam. It was a totally different time.”

After experiencing Vietnam’s controversy firsthand, Mhoon tried not to push his beliefs on anyone, but he maintains a firm opinion on the importance of Veteran's Day.

“It’s important to me because freedom isn't free,” Mhoon states. “The cost of freedom is dear.”

Today Mhoon is willing to talk of his experiences as a medic, but it wasn't always that way. After returning from Vietnam, Mhoon rarely talked about the war. Instead, he returned to school and became a meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS). He married Carolyn Diann Mhoon in 1968. They were married for nearly 42 years until Carolyn succumbed to cancer during the summer of 2010.

Now retired from the NWS, Mhoon’s love of learning has never faded. After moving to Dillon, Mont. he enrolled in UMW’s mathematics department.

“I like learning math,” Mhoon explains.  “It keeps my mind flowing.”

Despite the generational differences with other students, Mhoon says students as well as staff and faculty have been accepting of his beliefs and experiences.

“UMW is just friendly,” Mhoon states. “I don't think I would have liked it anywhere else. I love it here.”

An improbable journey

veteran student plays with her sonChristine Longacre found a home at Montana Western, but her journey here took many turns.

Longacre enrolled in the Montana Youth Challenge Academy (MYCA) on the UMW campus when she was 16. The Academy is a five-month program aiding “at-risk” Montana youth in becoming productive citizens.

Longacre says the program helped her look to the future. Shortly after graduating from MYCA in 2000, and 11 days after she turned 17, Longacre joined the Navy serving her entire term on the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier.

“I joined because of the travel,” Longacre explains. “I wouldn't have seen any of the places I have been without the Navy.”

After her four-year term of service was over, Longacre was not sure what she wanted to do.

“I wandered for a few years,” Longacre recalls. “I ended up in Butte, Mont. I was pregnant with my son Timothy and I started thinking about the future.”

In November 2007, Longacre enrolled in Montana Western’s English program.

“I have always loved to write,” Longacre states.

Longacre says the English department has been a pleasure to work with.

“When it comes to being a veteran, a mom and a student, everyone has been great,” Longacre adds. “Every one of my English professors has helped me out when Timothy’s daycare has been closed, or when something else has come up.”

Longacre says being on campus again after graduating from MYCA has made her experience at Montana Western special.

“It has been a privilege to have gone to MYCA and then be able to attend UMW as a student,” Longacre says.

As a veteran, Veteran’s Day bears a personal significance to her.

“It’s a way for the country to realize the importance of what veterans have done,” Longacre says. “Veteran’s deserve respect. We have done something important. We did what was asked.”

From UMW to Iraq and back

veteran and student trent gibsonOn the other side of the Youth Challenge Academy, MYCA Deputy Director Trent Gibson is a UMW alumnus and an officer in the Montana National Guard.

Gibson earned an environmental sciences degree in 1999 after enlisting in the National Guard during 1994 while attending UMW.

“The National Guard would allow me to serve and continue my education,” Gibson says.

After eight years in the National Guard he decided to seek a commission at Officer Candidate School (OCS).

“As far as the education component in the military, the quality of education I received at UMW certainly helped my success,” Gibson states.

Gibson received status as a lieutenant during 2001 and 2002 before being promoted to logistics captain and becoming an instructor at OCS in Helena, Mont. He is currently approaching 17 years in the National Guard.

From April 2005 to April 2006, Gibson served in Iraq as the Executive Officer for the 115th Maintenance Company, which was comprised of 220 National Guard soldiers.They performed security missions, as well as civilian affairs missions and base security.

His time in Iraq impacted many of Gibson’s views.

“It definitely gave me a better perspective and appreciation for the men and women who have served before me,” Gibson explains. “I became more appreciative than ever of what education provides to people and how education really is your ticket to freedom.”

Gibson, who has been with MYCA for 11 years, witnesses the benefits of education every day.

“We’re constantly trying to improve and provide stability, structure and discipline,” Gibson says. “MYCA applies to all aspects of life. Many of the cadets leave feeling better than they ever have about themselves.”

As MYCA deputy director and an officer in the National Guard, Veteran’s Day takes on new meaning for Gibson.

“Veteran’s Day is a time that I pause to think about those who have served our nation and honor that service, especially those who never came home,” Gibson explains. “I often think about our veterans from Vietnam and try to ensure that I find one and thank them and at least ‘welcome them home.’ They had a parade for me when I came home from war; they had protests for them.”

Veteran's Day is significant to Gibson due to his service, MYCA career, and because of his family history.

“My grandfather is a veteran of World War II,” Gibson adds.  “My father is a veteran of Vietnam. I am a Veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Having a wife and a child on one hand makes service tough, but on the other hand makes it that much more important.”

A new sense of purpose

Soldier geared up during a reconnaissance patrolMontana Western alumnus Jim Nash transitioned from being a full-time student to being one of the Marine Corps’ “the few, the proud.”

Nash graduated from Montana Western in May 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in Literature and Writing and applied to the Marine Corps OCS in April 2009.

“I decided to join the Marine Corps to serve my country in ways that I could never accomplish as a civilian,” Nash explains. “I chose the Marines because they are the best, the most challenging, the most respected, and the first to fight.”

Nash commissioned for an eight-year term and is a second lieutenant tank platoon commander stationed in Quantico, Va. Nash firmly believes his years at Montana Western aided him during his OCS training.

“I chose UMW for the area it is situated in and for the block program,” Nash says of Montana Western and the unique block-scheduling program in which students take one class at a time. “My years at UMW had a tremendous impact on my successes in the Marine Corps. The challenges the Marine Corps has thrown at me have been right out of the UMW playbook: three-hour classes, short deadline writing assignments, small amounts of time to learn large amounts of information, etc. I couldn't have been better prepared by any other institute.”

With several more years left on his term of service, Veteran's Day has taken on a new meaning to Nash.

“Veteran's Day has always had an impact on me since men from every generation of my family have served in every American War,” Nash states. “Now that I am amongst these warriors as a profession, I am forced to reconsider my mortality. I realize that one day I may be remembered only in the anonymous recognition given by Veteran's Day.”

While remembering to honor the past service of his family through his own military career, Nash has not forgotten to look ahead saying he intends to return to his family ranch in Oregon after completing his service.

From the sidelines

shandi keller bwMontana Western’s head basketball coach Steve Keller is used to taking charge, but with his daughter Shandi he must watch from the sidelines of her Army career.

Shandi, now a chief warrant officer two, has flown UH 60 Black Hawks in four countries. A highly successful student who could have easily claimed college scholarships, she enlisted in October 2003 as a 15T Black Hawk mechanic.

“It’s a little stressful being a parent with a kid in the military,” Keller says. “It’s nerve wracking but there’s nothing you can do about it.”

After basic training and further training in Ft. Eustis, Va., Shandi’s first year of service was in Korea. While in Korea she applied and was accepted to warrant officer candidate school (WOCS). She began her year and a half of training, which included flight school, in Fort Rucker, Ala. during 2006.

In 2008, she spent another year in Korea, this time as a pilot. From there she travelled to Honduras for 10 months and flew with a medevac company. She was able to help find victims of the 2009 Costa Rica earthquake before she had to leave early in order to deploy with a medevac company to Bagram, Afghanistan where she spent 13 months.

Shandi has served for nearly eight years but still has several years left on her term. Her father says she has honed her career focus in the past eight years.

“She likes it and there are lots of jobs for flying afterwards,” Keller explains of Shandi piloting Black Hawks. “She’s not interested in commercial flying but would like to remain a pilot. She could stay in for another 10 and retire, but she is planning on leaving once her current term of service is up.”

Although Keller always observed Veteran’s Day prior to his daughter’s military career, now it has a special meaning.

“It definitely makes you think more about it,” Keller explains. “It doesn’t truly hit until you have a kid in the military yourself. I’m proud to see how people treat her. We wouldn’t have the freedoms we have today without them.”