For three veterans of color who were at a public panel this week, joining the military was a way to escape from their very different realities.
. veterans Justice Castañeda, who is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, Monica Ly, who is an Operation Enduring Freedom veteran, and Robert D. Lewis, who is a Vietnam veteran, all had family and personal reasons to join the military.
Castañeda grew up in a dysfunctional family, where his father was rarely around, and his mother was homeless. He saw many of his high school friends dying in gang violence, so he saw military service as a safe haven.
“I came to the recruiter, begging him to help me get out of all these problems,” Castañeda said. “The military was the first place where I actually found freedom. It was the first place where I was healthy, where I had my secured three meals a day, where I had a safe place to sleep for eight hours.”
Castañeda added that the military “gave me a reason to live. The military saved my life.”
Something similar happened to Ly, who is the daughter of Cambodian refugees. Ly grew up in Los Angeles County, where many in her family were gang members. She said she even considered joining a gang to fit in. During high school, after her older brother had joined the Marines, she decided it was a route she wanted to pursue.
Her parents opposed her decision, and after reaching a deal with them, she joined the Marines reserves.
“Joining the Marines was a way to escape all the gang violence surrounding me,” Ly said. “I also thought it was the honorable thing to do to serve my country.”
For Lewis, military service was also a way to escape from his family life, but his experience was completely different. He came from “a loving, church-going family.” His parents were stable, he was the youngest of his siblings, so he was living in an, apparently, perfect world. Even though his family was African-American, living in a period of segregation, his family faced no major discrimination, he said.
“I needed a change,” he said. “But I never imagined what a change I was about to experience when I joined the Marines. “White Marines called me everything imaginable except for my God-given name. I was humiliated all the time.”
The three veterans shared their experiences with the public in Changing Faces: Diversity and the Veteran Experience, a public conversation presented by Cal Humanities on Wednesday, June 11th, at the San Diego Public Library Central Auditorium.
The panel discussion was moderated by UCSD Spanish and Chicano Literature Professor and Vietnam veteran Jorge Mariscal.
The event was part of War Comes Home, a statewide initiative of Cal Humanities about veterans returning to California. The public conversation in San Diego is one of five events across California this summer designed to explore different facets of the veteran experience, according to organizers.
These conversations will kick-off a statewide reading this fall of Vietnam veteran and best-selling novelist Karl Marlantes’ book about the experience of war and coming home, What It Is Like to Go to Wa r, as well as programs at hundreds of libraries and schools throughout the state.
Just like the three veterans in the panel saw military service as a way to escape their family life, after their service they found higher education to be the right path towards a better future.
Castañeda completed his undergraduate work at UC San Diego in Urban Studies and Planning, a master’s degree in Education from Stanford University, and a Master of City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He’s currently completing his doctorate in Medical Sociology at the University of California, San Francisco.
Ly completed a bachelor’s degree in sociology from California State University, Fuller-ton, and is now working towards a master’s degree in Urban Planning and Public Administration at the University of Southern California.
Lewis received a bachelor’s degree with majors in chemistry and nursing. After retiring in 2012 from the V.A. San Diego Healthcare System where he worked as a registered nurse, he began work on a Ph.D. in music.
To learn more about War Comes Home, please visit.