The gradual degree: from boot camp to a bachelor’s

Title to story: The gradual degree: from boot camp to a bachelor's

Photo from U.S. Army.

Growing up in central Michigan, Greg van Houten didn’t seem like the most likely candidate for a career in law enforcement — or even college.

“I had some trouble growing up,” van Houten said, with an air of understatement.

“With high school, and authority.” He clears his throat.

It was the early 1990s, and van Houten didn’t see much value in school. He missed a lot of class, and it showed on his transcript. “I had a grade point average of about 0.001,” he said with a laugh, scratching his short brown hair at the line where his camo Ferguson baseball cap ends just above his ears. “I dropped out my junior year.”

A call from an Army recruiter proved fortuitous. “I didn’t even know he had my number,” van Houten said.

Taking the practice Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test that determines placement into a range of occupational specialties, van Houten missed the cutoff score by one, getting a total of 49 out of 100. Undeterred, the recruiter drove him to Grand Rapids to take the test for real. He scored a 55. He was in.

It was 1993, and what was then known as the Persian Gulf War was over. Neither van Houten nor anyone else knew there would be another. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference if he had, though. Even though he joined up in peacetime, he expected another war would come eventually.

Come it did. Van Houten served two tours in Iraq before leaving active duty in March 2014, at which point he enrolled in classes at UAF’s Community and Technical College. He had plenty of company. Even as the campus saw a slight decline in overall enrollment over the past five years, the number of veterans taking classes skyrocketed by more than 60 percent. Members of the Fort Wainwright–based brigade have streamed into classrooms across campus, making good use of the GI Bill for the 21st Century.

Van Houten’s decision to attend college reflects a nationwide trend as well. Soldiers no longer have lengthy deployments on the horizon, and they can anticipate the armed forces drawing back in peacetime after more than a decade fighting two wars. Just as basic and advanced infantry training prepared them for the battlefield, UAF and schools around the country are helping prepare soldiers for the transition into civilian employment.

Van Houten’s path to UAF took years to cover, though, and it had many bumps.

Waiting for the call

After he first joined up, he spent eight years moving from duty station to duty station. Tennessee and Kentucky. Germany. North Carolina. “I look back at all the duty stations, places I went to, and I just wish I’d gotten out more,” he said. Still, he saw plenty. He also got married and had two daughters. It was a marriage that, like many in the service, became strained when van Houten would go out on weekslong training trips. The marriage lasted as long as he and his wife could sustain it, but after terrorists brought a war to America’s doorstep, they couldn’t sustain it long.

By Sept. 11, 2001, van Houten was stationed at Fort Bragg, participating in airborne training. At his morning PT session, van Houten arranged with his squad leader to take an hour or two off before reporting for duty that day — he had bills to pay in town.

He went home to change clothes and didn’t turn the TV on before heading out to run his errands. “I got to the place to pay my bill, and they were closed, and I thought, ‘What’s going on?’” van Houten said. “Then my phone rang, and it was my squad leader.” Minutes later, he was headed back to base as fast as he could, and spent the rest of the morning watching CNN. He and his fellow soldiers gave up their cell phones in preparation for orders they expected would follow almost immediately. “At Fort Bragg, we were basically waiting for the call: ‘Get your guys ready, go to green ramp, get in the airplane and go.’ But that never happened.”

Instead, as the Army geared up for war in Afghanistan, van Houten was trained as a recruiter. He proved less apt at the task than the man who had changed his life at age 18. “I just wasn’t very good at it,” van Houten said. “It could be because I told the truth. I wasn’t going to sugarcoat it for them.”

But while van Houten might not have been the world’s best recruiter for the Army, he did recruit — in a manner of speaking — the most important soldier of his life: He met a woman named Julie who was in the process of getting back into the service. She had left the military a few years prior, but after the Sept. 11 attacks she decided to rejoin the Army. Van Houten took a personal interest in her case, and a courtship followed. The two married in 2004.

The couple didn’t have much time to get used to married life. They joined a unit preparing to deploy to Iraq in 2005. It It was a brigade formed around a new armored fighting vehicle that had been named after two Medal of Honor winners from wars past. Greg and Julie headed north to Alaska, joining Fort Wainwright’s 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

“We had a deal.
I kept him safe
and he’d keep me safe.
It worked;
we both got home OK.”

UAF photo by JR Ancheta and photo from U.S. Army.

The 172nd SBCT deployed to Iraq in August of 2005, working to secure an area of operations around the city of Mosul in the north of the country. Greg was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, known informally within the brigade as the 2–1. The battalion was headquartered at Forward Operating Base Courage, but the brigade’s main force was at Forward Operating Base Marez. Less than a year before, FOB Marez had experienced the worst suicide bombing attack of the war when 14 soldiers were killed by a man who came into a crowded mess tent wearing an Iraqi Army uniform and a suicide vest.

Greg and Julie, deployed together, were in separate battalions but shared a Containerized Housing Unit, the sparsely appointed shipping–container bedrooms that were home for the majority of deployed soldiers. It was an odd, 21st–century military parallel of civilian life back home in America. Both went out to do their jobs during the day, and at night — at least, most nights — came back and spent the evening together. If the neighborhood hadn’t been a northern Iraq city rife with insurgents and their jobs hadn’t entailed carrying M4 rifles everywhere they went, it might have felt domestic.

Harsh introduction

By the time the 172nd arrived, things had calmed down somewhat at FOB Marez, but it was by no means quiet. Greg’s unit had just finished its training rides with the soldiers they were replacing when they went on their first solo logistics patrol in September.

He was at the front of the patrol, driving an up–armored Humvee with his company commander in the passenger’s seat and a gunner in the back. They hadn’t been “outside the wire” — off base — for more than half an hour when the view through the windshield exploded. It was the loudest thing he had ever heard.

Back at the forward operating base, Julie was doing radio operations when she got an unexpected call from her company commander. He told her he had news about Greg. “‘You should sit down,’” Julie remembers him saying. “He told me Greg had gotten hit. It stuns you.”

“We knew immediately what it was,” Greg said. An improvised explosive device, by then common enough to have been dubbed an “IED,” had exploded in the median, just in front of the vehicle. “We think it was remote — triggered remotely, by someone who was watching. Because where we were it was open desert.” Fortunately for van Houten and the others in the Humvee, the bomber’s detonation command had gone through one second too soon.

The IED had exploded 10 to 15 feet in front of the vehicle, shattering the bulletproof glass in the Humvee’s windshield but leaving everyone inside physically unharmed. After a quick survey of the vehicle’s occupants made it clear no one was hurt, Greg pushed the pedal to the floor, the Humvee barreling the rest of the way to FOB Courage in what, by his reckoning, was no more than 15 or 20 minutes.

Compared to getting hit by a roadside bomb on his first night driving solo in Iraq, the rest of Greg’s deployment passed relatively without incident, though the 172nd suffered more than two dozen deaths and 350 injuries during its 16–month tour.

Two years later, the brigade was back in Iraq again, having been reflagged in the intervening time as the 1st Infantry Division, 25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team. In late 2008, the brigade was farther south in Iraq, headquartered at Forward Operating Base Warhorse near the city of Baqubah, a short distance north of Baghdad. Their area of operations was the vast Diyala Province. The region, once known for its date farms, had been economically ravaged both by several years of war and al Qaeda factions’ tactic of destroying the canal system feeding the area’s farms.

“They’re making this huge transition
from the military into the civilian world,
and then on top of that they’re making
a big step into the academic world.”

Photo from U.S. Army.

An unexpected companion

The van Houtens’ second deployment was far more enjoyable than the first, owing more to the nature of Greg’s assignment than the fact that he managed to avoid getting hit by an IED the second time around. Greg spent 12 months as a kennel master with the military working dog program, stationed at FOB Normandy.

“Dogs are so much smarter than people,” van Houten said, and by the tenor of his voice it’s clear he means it. The working dog he was responsible for was named Temper, and, to be fair, Temper was a very smart dog. A Czechoslovakian shepherd, he went out on patrols, seeking out explosives and helping deal with insurgents. “We had a deal,” van Houten said, “I kept him safe and he’d keep me safe. It worked; we both got home OK. Wish I could find that dog now.”

Julie, too, was fond of Temper. “I always think Temper saved my life,” she said. One morning, Greg had gone elsewhere but Julie was still at the housing unit on base. “He said stay with the dog, and for some reason Temper stood in front of the door and wouldn’t let me leave.” Minutes later, a rocket attack rocked the base.

Other people, and one of the brigade’s working dogs, weren’t so lucky. More than a dozen soldiers died during the 2008–2009 deployment, and a military working dog named Jok was killed by an IED inside a house that soldiers were searching. Jok’s death hit the brigade hard, especially van Houten’s fellow kennel masters. In death, Jok was given the posthumous rank of sergeant. He remains memorialized along with the soldiers killed on the deployment.

Internal drive

Greg had started giving thought to life after the Army in between his two deployments, and after returning to Fort Wainwright from Iraq in 2009, he began looking into college more seriously. He initially took courses online from the University of Maryland and Ashford University in services offered by the Army, but it was hard for him to stay on track without in–person support. He decided to turn to an option closer to home: UAF.

Veterans are a group with specialized and diverse needs, even more so than most students. Van Houten, for instance, opted to take as many of his classes as possible online. It’s easier to fit them into your schedule, he said before offering up another reason — one that might be a bigger factor for him and other veterans. “Really, I don’t like crowds,” he said. “Not in the classroom or the store or anything. Bad things happen in crowds.”

To help accommodate veterans’ challenges attending university, UAF — like many universities — has a Veterans’ Services office where soldiers and airmen can go for help navigating enrollment, choosing classes to ensure on–time graduation and dealing with a host of other problem spots.

The UAF Office of Veterans’ Services was established to work with Greg and other soldiers like him, and there were many from the 125th Stryker Brigade who made the same choice to remain in Fairbanks after their service ended. “The idea was to get someone who is basically a veterans benefits expert to help access the whole range of VA benefits,” said Phil Hokenson, who oversaw the office in the years following the Fort Wainwright Stryker Brigade’s 2008–2009 tour. Hokenson himself was a member of the brigade, serving as a lieutenant in the 2‐8 Field Artillery Battalion during their time at FOB Warhorse.

“We have ups and downs
like anyone else,
but we push through them.”

Photo from U.S. Army.

“Being a military student is a little like being a nontraditional student,” Hokenson said, referencing another group of the student population that forms a large portion of the student body. “They’re older, more serious. They’ve got more of a sense of purpose and discipline.”

Still, despite that discipline, the switch from following orders to being entirely in control of their own schedule is a tough one for many of the veteran students Hokenson served, he said. “They’re making this huge transition from the military into the civilian world, and then on top of that they’re making a big step into the academic world. There’s no one holding your feet to the fire. It requires a lot of internal drive.”

With his military training and background, Greg opted to pursue a career in emergency management, with an eye on a law enforcement career. Currently a senior by credits, he still has at least a few classes left before he gets his degree.

Classwork isn’t always easy for him. In addition to moderate hearing damage from a lifetime of loud noises — and one big bang when the IED hit his convoy — Greg also has occasional memory problems, having trouble at times remembering dates and events in his life. “It hasn’t always been easy,” Julie said, “but we’re there for each other. Even though we were over there together, I don’t know much about what he did, and he doesn’t like to talk about it too much. A lot of soldiers are the same way.”

In fall 2014, Greg got the opportunity to combine his Army training and the skills he learned in UAF’s emergency management courses. When a civilian patrol officer job came open at the Fort Wainwright Police Department, he applied at Julie’s urging, and in late September, he became the department’s newest officer. As a police officer serving an Interior Army base, Greg’s experience in the military and his studies at UAF are both essential to dealing with the Army and its soldiers in a new role. Julie, who worked for three years as the supply officer for UAF’s and UA Anchorage’s ROTC programs, also moved to the Fort Wainwright Police Department shortly after Greg got his job there. Once again, the couple will be sharing their on–the–job experience with one another — but this time there won’t be rocket attacks.

Greg and Julie have no plans to leave Alaska. “I don’t understand the young guys who come up here in the Army and say, ‘I hate it here, there’s nothing to do,’” he said. “I got up here and I knew right away — I’m never leaving. There’s so much to do and see. I’ll be here until I die.”

It’s clear, too, that whatever Greg and Julie van Houten do, they’ll be doing it together. “We have ups and downs like anyone else, but we push through them,” Julie said. “In the Army, you need to know that the person you’re with has your back. That’s what makes it so important for people. And we’ve got each other’s backs.” black-a

Born and raised in Fairbanks, Tom Hewitt is a former UAF journalism student and now serves as the opinion editor at the Fairbanks Daily News–Miner. Along with two other UAF journalism students and a professor, he had the privilege of embedding with Fort Wainwright’s 1–25th Stryker Brigade during its 2008–2009 deployment in Iraq. As a reporter and editor, he tries to let people tell their own stories and to screw up as few things as possible.

Web extra: Greg van Houten participated in student photographer JR Ancheta’s Veterans Day portrait project in November. Take a look at the tribute and find out more about services for veterans.