Soldiers at Heart, Students at NDC

Meet Four Veterans Who Returned From Service to Find a Home on College Road:

With the passage of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, tens of billions of dollars in tuition money have become available to U.S. veterans who served on or after Sept. 11, 2001. In addition to those federal benefits based on public universities’ tuition, some private colleges including Notre Dame offer the optional Yellow Ribbon Program. The program is designed to fill the gap between the VA benefit and the tuition cost at a veteran’s private college of choice.

For its efforts to make a private college education affordable to veterans, Notre Dame College has now been recognized by G.I. Jobs magazine as a 2011 Military Friendly School.

G.I. Jobs honors the country’s top 15 percent of colleges, universities and trade schools, which are doing the most to embrace America’s veterans as students. The common bond is their shared priority of recruiting students with military experience.

“Notre Dame is proud to be designated as a military-friendly institution,” says Margaret Oakar, director of the Finn Center for Adult, Graduate and Professional Programs. “This distinction shows the commitment and dedication of the administration and the entire College community to the veteran population.”

“Veterans attend Notre Dame because of the resources and personal attention available to our students,” Oakar says. “Our small class sizes, outstanding faculty and our veterans team ease the transition from the military to academic life.”

On the following pages, you will meet four of those veterans who have found an educational home on College Road. They share their experiences in the military, talk about adjusting to civilian life, and explain why they chose Notre Dame College to launch a new career.

Keith Cavey, Nursing

Keith CaveyIn summer 2001, Keith Cavey lived in Cleveland Heights and worked as a valet. He wasn’t making a lot of money and didn’t have much going for him at the time. Joining the military had never even crossed his mind. Just a few months later, however, Cavey was graduating from boot camp a changed man ready to join one of the Marines' select units: Cavey became a piano player for one of the Marine Corps bands.

Music has a long tradition in the Marine Corps dating back to the drum and fife of the American Revolution. But of the about 225,000 Marines only 500 have the honor to be selected as musicians. They play in “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, “The Commandant’s Own” United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps, or one of the 12 other Marine Corps fleet bands. They perform at White House ceremonies, national events and in more than 500 public and official performances each year.

The musicians are selected through a rigorous audition process, during which they must prove they have what it takes to perform — musically and as Marines. For Cavey that process began with a piano audition in his home in Cleveland Heights and ended in boot camp in Paris Island, S.C.

“It was really tough,” Cavey says. “They break you down and build you back up. My parents didn’t recognize me when I graduated boot camp. Before, I had always slouched and then after boot camp I stood up straight.”

Drum and Fife: Keith Cavey was one of about 500 musicians in the Marine Corps.Cavey was in boot camp standing in line to get paperwork done when America was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. “The drill instructor comes walking down the line and was like, ‘Somebody just bombed the Pentagon. We’re all going to war,’” Cavey says.

But instead of going to Afghanistan, Cavey spent the next four years stationed in Twentynine Palms in the Mojave Desert. During that time he performed at the most memorable event in his 8-year-long military career – Ronald Reagan’s funeral.

“Because it happened suddenly, everything had to come together quickly,” Cavey remembers. “It was very disorganized. They couldn’t find anywhere for us to sleep so they ended up putting us in a warehouse. We just slept on the floor. We did a lot of standing around. But when we actually got to play, it was a very profound experience.”

Cavey made equally profound but very different experiences during the second half of his service, which he spent in Okinawa, Japan. He visited places such as Hiroshima, Guam and Korea. In Thailand, Cavey played with the Royal Thai Air Force at diplomatic parties, orphanages and humanitarian events.

In Japan, during jungle warfare training, Cavey learned how to navigate in the pouring jungle rain, what bugs are edible and what plants poisonous, and how to rappel off mountains. During one of these exercises a fellow Marine fell off a mountain and broke his leg. Cavey had to set it and help carry the wounded Marine back to the base. That’s when he discovered his interest in nursing, which he now studies at Notre Dame College.

The Pianist: Keith Cavey played the piano in the Marine Corps.Cavey left the Marines on Dec. 14, 2009; 20 days later he started the spring semester at Notre Dame. He admits that coming back to the U.S. to attend college was quite a lifestyle change.

“You don’t have anyone telling you what to do, but if you do poorly no one is there to help you out,” he says. “In the Marines, if you messed up somebody was there to pick you back up.”

The 29-year-old admits having been worried about going back to college, but says that Marine virtues such as punctuality and discipline helped him succeed.

That almost sounds like an understatement, as Cavey holds a 4.0 GPA. But regardless of his grades, one thing is certain: Cavey has come a long way from parking cars.  

Trevor Stevenson, Political Science

Trevor StevensonFebruary 15, 2008 was just like any other hot, dry and ordinary day in Baghdad. But in Iraq, ordinary days are filled with immense violence, destruction and death. Sgt. Trevor Stevenson experienced this fact that fateful day. It wasn’t the first time he had seen this kind of violence, but it was to be his last.

“We hadn’t had contact in three to four weeks and we expected something to happen,” Stevenson remembers. He and fellow soldiers were patrolling the streets of Sadr City, the Shi’a district of northeastern Baghdad, which saw some of the war’s most intense fighting between U.S. forces and the Mahdi Army in spring 2008. In this congested urban area, the insurgents relied heavily on the use of improvised explosive devices.

“We knew something was up because there weren’t any people in the streets,” Stevenson says. Knowing that an attack was just a matter of time, he and his unit slowly rolled through the streets of downtown Sadr City, when an explosive formed penetrator (EFP) suddenly pierced the right side of their Humvee, bounced around inside the vehicle, and detonated. The IED killed a lieutenant and a dismounted soldier instantly; a piece of metal hit Stevenson’s leg and shattered his hip; he survived but suffered traumatic brain injuries, a broken hip and shrapnel in his leg.

Battle Experienced: Trevor Stevenson saw intense fighting in Iraq.Stevenson can’t remember what happened after the explosion. He was stabilized and brought to Joint Base Balad, nicknamed “Camp Anaconda” and sometimes colloquially referred to as “Life Support Area Anaconda.” From there he was flown to Landstuhl, Germany, where the shrapnel was removed from his legs. He then spent the next six months at Walter Reid Hospital in Washington, D.C., two months in a hospital at Fort Carson, Colo., and another six months in physical therapy in Cleveland.

After five years of service and two 15-month-long tours in Iraq, the injuries – Stevenson’s dead brain tissue is the size of a quarter – meant the end of his military career. 

The 27-year-old says he joined the army out of “general patriotism” and had imagined a career in the military. With that dream taken from him, Stevenson decided to pursue a political career instead.

“When you see all this corruption in government today, you think, ‘What did my friends die for? They were trying to make the world a better place,’” Stevenson says. “I want to have an impact on something. I want to give people their voice back. The government should be afraid of the people, the people shouldn’t be afraid of their government.”

Originally from Detroit, Stevenson moved to Cleveland to be with his parents. He joined Notre Dame to pursue a bachelor’s in political science in spring 2010 after a friend had heard a radio broadcast announcing the College’s participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program and encouraged him to apply.

Trevor Stevenson plays the tube in Notre Dame's marching band. Photo: Ryan BakerStevenson is determined to make the most out of his education. He took 12 credits the first semester and another 13 this summer. Taking 16 this fall, he hopes to eventually graduate ahead of schedule. The fact that he can attend NDC at no cost is additional motivation for Stevenson. “If you don’t take advantage of it, you’re an idiot,” he says.

Besides studying, Stevenson works in the advising center and plays tuba for the marching band. He admits that adjusting to and understanding civilian life is a challenge. The military expedites the process of growing up, he says, and there’s a generational difference between him and his fellow students, who not always share his discipline and commitment to learning.

Stevenson maintains close relationships with his teachers. Having trained young privates in the Army, he says he did everything to help them learn. He sees that same commitment in Notre Dame’s faculty. “The faculty here is phenomenal,” he says. “It’s nice to see they have this drive. They have great personalities and they challenge you.”

Challenges are something Stevenson is all too familiar with. Having survived IEDs in Iraq, things like GPAs don’t worry him too much.

Amanda Gonzalez, Education

Amanda GonzalezEducation major Amanda Gonzalez, 29, admits she felt a little awkward the first time she stepped into a Notre Dame College classroom 10 months ago. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I feel so old,” Gonzalez says. That feeling of being out of place, however, didn’t last very long. Now in her second semester at College Road, the mother of two has adjusted well to her new life as an adult student. Besides, being part of a minority group was something she had experienced before.

Prior to joining Notre Dame, Gonzalez served as a fire controlman in the Navy for six years. The term “fire controlwoman” doesn’t exist in military jargon illustrating that women are still something of a rarity on the Navy’s submarines and aircraft carriers. Of the more than 330,000 Navy members only about 16 percent are women, and only about six percent of these women work with combat systems, according to statistics from the Navy Personnel Command.

Fire controlmen typically operate weapon systems on-board surface combatant ships. They are trained in the repair, maintenance and employment of weapons with names such as the Tomahawk Missile System, the Sea Sparrow Missile System and the Goalkeeper CIWS. Their job is somewhat unique in that they are trained to repair their systems as well as operate them.

Fire Controlman: Amanda Gonzalez was one of a small number of women in the Navy.Gonzalez worked with a gun-based close-in weapon system or CIWS (pronounced “sea-whiz”), a weapon for detecting and destroying incoming anti-ship missiles and enemy aircraft at short range. The gun-based CIWS consists of a combination of radars, computers, and multiple rapid-fire, medium-caliber guns placed on a rotating gun mount.   

When Gonzalez joined the Navy in March 2001, the likelihood of her operating such a weapon in combat was small. “It was the best time to join, because nothing was happening,” says Gonzalez, who viewed the service as an opportunity to travel the globe. “It was the quietest time in the world.” That of course all changed six months later.

“When you are a weapons tech in a quiet, peace-time Navy, you don’t do a lot,” Gonzalez says. “But when there’s something going on, you feel like you actually have a point, your job is actually useful.”

Gonzalez spent six months of that job on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf in 2004, just after the U.S. forces had turned over control to the Iraqis. She then did a couple of years of shore duty that involved much less excitement: Gonzalez did taxes for the Naval Legal Services. That skill still comes in handy every winter when she does taxes on a part-time basis.

Something else Gonzalez took home from the Navy is her husband Michael, also a former fire controlman. Together they left the Navy and moved to Cleveland after realizing they didn’t want to miss any more of their sons’ birthdays. While her husband found work as a laser technician, Gonzalez enrolled at Notre Dame to become a science teacher.

Full College Experience: Amanda Gonzalez combines being a full-time student with being a mother.A graduate of St. Mary School in Vermillion, Ohio, and Lorain Catholic High School, Gonzalez always wanted to attend a catholic college. “I thought if I go to school I want to experience college, being in classes with both young people and adults, not just at night but during the day,” she says.  

Notre Dame offers that full college experience Gonzalez is looking for. “I quickly learned that all the classes have both adult and fresh-out-of-high-school students,” Gonzalez says. “I was really impressed with how the balance and the times worked for me.”

During her first semester, Gonzalez has impressed her teachers as well, as she made the dean’s list. She credits the personal attention she receives from her professors for her success. “I’ve been in many places where there are so many people you don’t know who anyone is,” she says. “I enjoy that your teachers know their students’ names within a week.”

One thing is certain: Gonzalez is sure to make a name for herself, whether she sits behind the desk at a small private college or behind the weapons system of an aircraft carrier.

Joe Scibana, Education

Joe ScibanaJoe Scibana says he was never going to go to college. Almost every male in his family had served in the military at some point: his dad had been in the Navy for three years during Vietnam, one grandfather served in the Air Force during World War II, the other was in the Army during the Korean War. In 2000, it was Scibana’s turn to continue that family tradition. He joined the Navy to become a meteorologist on-board the U.S.S. Enterprise, the world’s longest naval vessel and first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

During his two deployments to the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, Scibana used radar and satellite to monitor weather characteristics such as air pressure, temperature, and wind speed and direction. Sitting in the base of the U.S.S. Enterprise’s control tower in front of half a dozen computers, Scibana shared that data with aircrafts, ships and shore-based commands to assist with Navy missions.

Scibana began his first overseas deployment on April 25, 2001. From June 18 to 28, the U.S.S. Enterprise participated in a joint warfare training exercise with the British Royal Navy in the North Sea, near the Hebrides Islands and in Scotland. During that time, Scibana visited several countries in Europe and the Middle East including Spain, Greece and the United Arab Emirates.

But the vacation was soon to be over.

Day at the Office: Joe Scibana worked in the control tower of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

The Enterprise was on her voyage home from the Persian Gulf when the 9/11 attacks were carried out. Without orders, the carrier returned at flank speed to the waters off Southwest Asia near the Persian Gulf. When the United States launched air attacks against Al Qaeda training camps and Taliban military installations in Afghanistan in October 2001, aircraft from the Enterprise flew nearly 700 missions over Afghanistan.

After having been able to sightsee places in England, Italy and Bahrain for the past several months, the unexpected mission was “quite a reality check,” Scibana says. 

On Nov. 10, the Enterprise and Scibana arrived back at their home port of Norfolk, Va., 16 days later than originally planned. In 2003, they set out for a second deployment to the Persian Gulf to provide air support for Operation Iraqi Freedom. After that second tour in 2004, Scibana left the Navy to be able to spend more time with his wife and two daughters.

Scibana admits adjusting to civilian life has been a challenge. “The hardest adjustment after serving after 9/11, after doing a job for such a serious purpose, is dealing with this feeling of urgency that you always have,” Scibana says. “I find it difficult to just relax and do nothing.”

At High Sea: Joe Scibana spent a combined 18 months on the U.S.S. Enterprise.He says he sometimes sees a complacency in his fellow students that he doesn’t have. “I had it when I was growing up, but the military changed that,” he says. The Navy taught him that when you have a certain goal you work hard to achieve it, Scibana says.

Scibana’s dream is to become a marine biologist and he believes that Notre Dame College can help him achieve that goal. At first he wasn’t sure he would be able to afford a private college education, but then Margaret Oakar, director of the Finn Center for Adult, Graduate and Professional Programs, told him about the College’s participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program, which allows him to attend NDC at virtually no cost.

“The adult admissions staff helps me keep up with my benefits and is very eager to make me feel welcome,” Scibana says, adding that the entire college community has been welcoming.

After spending a combined 18 months on a ship that holds up to 6,000 people, Notre Dame’s small college atmosphere is a welcome change for Scibana. Even though he never thought he would go to college.

Christian Taske ’07 is the editor and writer at Notre Dame College.

E.g., 06/23/19
E.g., 06/23/19