Young Veterans Turn To UNCC Club As They Transition To 'Civilian'
Pete Kneski and Victoria Blumenberg In the 10 years since the September 11th attacks, a new generation of young people has joined the ranks of U.S. military veteran. Many enlisted after 9-11 fully expecting - even hoping - they'd deploy to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Often the military is all these young men and women have known in their adult lives. Now they're home, trying to be civilians and sometimes finding the transition tough. Most Monday nights you'll find 15 or 20 of them at a bar somewhere near the campus of UNC Charlotte. "We drink and we talk and it's - I don't know - it's very cathartic," says Juan Euvin, a veteran of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division. There are Marines here tonight, too. . . and Guardsmen and Air Force Reservists. They found each other through the UNC Charlotte Veterans Club which has been picking up steam since early 2009. More than 100 veterans are club members now - of an estimated 1,000 on campus. Most have deployed at least once. Now, they're in college with peers who tend to be a bit younger and not always able to handle the heavy stuff these veterans have been through. "When you actually want to talk about something serious that we experienced, civilians feel overwhelmed," says Euvin. With the Veterans Club, he can let down his guard. The club also hosts guest speakers and service projects and social gatherings on campus. Their unofficial social coordinator is one of the club's few women - a charismatic 26-year-old named Victoria Blumenberg. She's at ease arguing the merits of different aircraft with fellow veterans. "C-130s were my plane," she tells one club member at the bar. "I've spent days and days and days on C-130s." Blumenberg has a silver nose ring and dramatic black hair chopped at an angle. She's a poignant example of the tricky transition young veterans face. She literally came of age in the military, joining the Air Force Reserves at 17 to become an intelligence analyst. She turned 18 in boot camp and did four deployments to the Middle East - all before she was 23. "I had spent my whole adult life in the military, so my identity was based on that - I couldn't picture myself as a person if I wasn't in the military," says Blumenberg. That's what worried the doctors when she landed in the hospital because she tried to commit suicide. She's been in a spiral of depression, anxiety and alcoholism stemming from her last deployment in Baghdad - six straight months of 12 hour days and the constant threat of rocket attack. She was diagnosed with PTSD and started getting treatment. A little over two and a half years later, Blumenberg says the picture of her life out of uniform is finally taking shape. She's a junior in geography and political science at UNC Charlotte. Instead of terrorist activity, she's now mapping public policy trends and getting a 3.9 GPA. But the PTSD is always there. She's prone to crippling anxiety attacks. Her class work hasn't suffered, but she says maintaining relationships is tough. "I have days where I don't leave my house," says Blumenberg. "I lay in my bed in my dark room without the TV on and I just lay there. So if you need me to reassure you, everyday, chances are you're going to be disappointed." Blumenberg says dating veterans hasn't gone well because their instant military connection tends to mask the fact they have little else in common. Civilian guys, on the other hand, haven't been able to handle her military baggage and PTSD. Until she met Pete Kneski. "She says she's not capable emotionally, but she does just fine," says Kneski. "I couldn't ask for really anything more." Kneski and Blumenberg have been dating for a few months. He has no military experience, but seems to fit-in fine with her Veterans Club friends. "He's dealt with every bit of crazy that I've thrown his way thus far," says Blumenberg. "I don't know. . . he's definitely different." The relationship is something of a revelation for Blumenberg, who just a few years ago couldn't picture herself as anything other than a hard-charging single woman in uniform handling top secret information. Had the PTSD and suicide attempt not forced her to change career plans, she would have stayed in the military for good. The official certificate of her military discharge recently came in the mail. It was kind of upsetting because it felt so final. "You only get certificates at the end of things and it's done and then you move on to the next thing," says Blumenberg. "I guess it feels like I'll just never be in the military again." Wich is why she clings to membership in the Veterans Club on campus - even as she builds her new civilian life.