MODESTO -- In Afghanistan, soldiers start every day with an assignment and a schedule laid out as clearly as the day's clothing. Civility, respect, honor are part of the drill, not applauded with certificates. A mattress and freeze-dried chow seem luxuries compared with what the Afghans have.
Life as a college student, however, comes without a dress code. Manners: optional. Mission focus: sporadic. Regimentation: avoided. Amid the slouchy disorder of campus life, Modesto Junior College's new Veterans Resource Center offers camaraderie and calm to those who have served.
For former Navy cook Mario Ochoa, the center gives a place to study without the distraction of chatty teens. "I would be stuck in the library, stuck trying to get away from everybody being loud or obnoxious," he said.
He said he gravitates to vets, in classes and friendships. They're more serious, more responsible and feel the same need to spend time with like minds, people with similar stories.
"It is easier to talk to these guys. There's not that barrier of what I can say, what I can't," Ochoa said.
What he can't talk about with civilians is partly intense experience, partly the workaday banter and letter-littered lingo of military life.
"We speak the same language, literally," said Harry Davis, who grew up in west Texas and never lost the drawl. Davis spent 21 years as an Army military police officer.
Vets need a place to decompress, get away from classmates who seem so very young and professors who pepper lectures with politics. "They're soldiers. They know to smile and nod, and then to find another place to be," Davis said.
At 50, he's studying to be a history teacher and, under a Veterans Affairs work-study program, helping to staff the center.
Hearty welcome, crucial help
He also helped decorate it, tacking up a service flag and "Who's your Baghdaddy?" T-shirt, mementoes he had "in my rucksack." Other vets brought in photos, flags and thank you signs from schoolkids to fill the walls.
A collection of paperbacks, a budding shelf of reference texts, stress relief squeezers made to look like grenades and a weekly doughnut run add to the welcome. The coffee's always on, a bit of the USO at MJC.
Beyond the hearty welcome, however, sits a bank of computers where vets coping with brain injuries or trauma can take their time, get the help of a tutor. A stretched oval table lends itself to books laid out for studying or small group meetings.
"I can't really study at home," said Army vet Josh Bailey, who lives with relatives while working toward a corporal justice degree.
Anita Moreno has two children and a part-time job. She has little time to spare, and is thankful for a quiet place to study with fellow vets for a microbiology final next week.
Out of the 35 to 50 vets who drop by in a week, roughly one in five is a woman, said Melissa Wandy, an Army vet. She works at the center between accounting classes and makes a point of finding fellow vets around campus to spread the word about the center.
"I can always spot them. The way they sit, the way they put things just so on the desk," she said. In a crowded room of blue jeans and backpacks, the veterans are the ones sitting up straight and still, hands on the desk, eyes on the teacher.
Some keep their backs to the wall, with a view of the door training from urban combat they can't shake.
"Strange as it seems, a lot of vets feel just very unsafe on campus," said Ron Tingley, who runs the center.
Tingley saw the need for a center as an MJC counselor for 41 years and, after retiring, helped to develop it. He is not a vet, having narrowly missed the Vietnam draft pick. "This, in a way, is a very gratifying way to give back," he said.
About half of the state's 112 community colleges have a veterans center, serving 45,000 vets, active service members and dependents statewide, said David Lawrence of the California Community College system chancellor's office in Sacramento.
"There is great recognition amongst those in our system who work with student veterans on a daily basis, of the transitional challenges veterans may face when returning to civilian life. Many centers in our system provide services, counseling and mentoring directly through fellow veterans, building upon the military traditions of shared values and experiences," Lawrence said via e-mail.
Summit focus on services
Expanding those services will be one of the topics at a daylong CCC Veterans Summit on Thursday in Redwood City that his office is organizing.
In Modesto, the "VRC," as acronym-fluent vets have dubbed it, is a first. It opened in late August with the new student services building on the east campus. "It's very much a work in progress," Tingley said.
There was a club, years ago, but for most veterans who went to MJC over the past 30 years, Carol McKenzie was their first and best support system.
McKenzie links veterans with their benefits and guides them through the tangle of red tape from California colleges and the military. MJC has about 750 veterans among its 17,000 students, she said.
"I find they're good students, more driven," said McKenzie, who worked with Tingley to create the center.
The small gathering place makes a big difference, said Davis.
"Every new vet comes home, their first thing is they want to return to normal society. And they're never going to return. They are different people," Davis said. "We give them a place where they can get back on that post, get back on that ship, and have fellowship with kindred spirits. That's the impact this place has."
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2339, and on Twitter, @NanAustin.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: The Veterans Resource Center is in the student services building, Room 116, Modesto Junior College East Campus, at Coldwell and College avenues.
WHEN: The center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and until 7 p.m. Tuesdays.
WHAT: Veteran students are welcome to walk in. There will be an open house for faculty and students Thursday from 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
ON THE NET: See a video by MJC student and vet Tim Waldron at http://youtu.be/nGGY652iEcA.