Erik Morinaga (C’16) stands out in the Penn Bookstore Starbucks. A sticker with the Marines motto—Semper Fi , Latin for “always faithful”—envelops the back of his laptop. The back of his shirt lists names of fallen Marines. He sits ramrod–straight in a wooden chair that seems a little too small for him—another leftover habit from the Marines, he says, like the compulsive need to exercise or his meticulous study schedule. His voice stays quiet throughout our conversation, while he discusses beheadings and weapons swaddled in burqas, the right way to oil an AK–47, the man his team killed who died with a light smile frozen on his face.
“I kind of believe that when you die, you have a moment,” Erik says. “You leave your last thoughts on your face. With this guy...he believed in what he was fighting for, and he had the balls to go fight for it. So I respect him.” He pauses.
For Erik and other veterans on campus, higher education is more than a launch- pad for future success or a LinkedIn tagline: it’s a step in adapt- ing from soldier to civilian. At Penn, the transition isn’t seamless. The story of veterans at Penn is one of awkward questions, rushed interactions, the sense that you don’t belong and the incredible fact that the bombs and bunkers and bullets are all behind you. Penn doesn’t know how to handle the military, because unless you were there—unless you sacrificed and served—you just can’t understand.
He sighs, “In the army, we used to say, America isn’t at war. America’s at the mall.”
Evan Saltzman (C’16), who served in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) from 2011 to 2013, knew he wanted to join the military in high school. The process for an American to apply to the IDF features different steps than the process for Israeli natives; Evan spent a month meeting with government agencies, proving that he was Jewish and that he was fit to serve. But throughout the process—and his service as a paratrooper—he remained confident in his decision to volunteer for the military. Both his grandparents were World War II veterans, Zionism is important to him and, he says, “I figured I just needed to go and do it.”
“If I started my life, I would find reasons why I shouldn’t [join the IDF]. And there’s no better time than the present.”
Evan is open about his service. He speaks for groups like Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and Hillel’s Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee; he talks about his experiences in synagogues. When he talks about his time in the IDF with Penn students, they’re “pretty respectful,” he says. “But I’ve gotten my fair share of—I wouldn’t say stupid questions, but you get disrespectful questions.”
Students ask how many people he’s killed. How much blood he’s seen.
He shakes his head. “It’s just like, that’s none of your business.”
There is no proper template for these interactions. Students, not through any fault of their own, simply don’t know what Evan can and cannot discuss.
What he will talk about are the hundred–mile marches with fifty pounds thrust on his back. The closet–sized underground barracks, the smell of 130 degree Israeli summers. He talks about the friends from the military he messages every week, if not every day.
He talks about how he misses it.
“It was great, going from what I did to freedom. Just getting your life back...But as more time passes, you start to miss the army, because you start to forget the things you hated so much, you, like, remember everything that was good about it.”
He smiles. “We loved what we were doing, I loved what we were doing. We’re the IDF, we’re protecting the Jewish people, we’re protecting Israel...We were suffering a lot—I mean, really, a lot—but we were happy doing it.”
Wake up at 5:00 a.m. The snooze button is not an option.
Start morning exercises by 5:30 a.m.—launch into your run, workouts.
Breakfast at 7:00 a.m. Always. Classes or training start by 9:00 a.m. and continue until a brief lunch. Then more classes, technical training with weapons or physical training, thrusting your body past what you thought were limits.
Brandon Chong (C, W ‘16) still knows the schedule for teenagers in the Singaporean army. Every able–bodied man in Singapore must serve in the army for two years after high school; since Singapore is currently at peace, that service typically takes the form of meticulously–scheduled, monotonous training.
Brandon’s schedule was more flexible than the average Singaporean soldier’s. He played water polo for the Singapore national team and could duck out for evening practices. Even so, after two years in the army, Brandon wasn’t sure he could adjust to college life.
“It took me a while to get used to,” he says. “Not only because I was older, but because I hadn’t been in a proper classroom in years...My brain was in a completely different zone.” There was also the obstacle of telling people about his service, which usually came up in conversations about why he was slightly older than his peers. Penn students didn’t understand how to talk about the military—and when service itself is so tough to talk about for veterans, the divide between the two widens.
“I get questions like, have you killed anyone? How was the shooting?...In Singapore, it’s peaceful, we are not in an active war. I haven’t had to go to actual combat because of that,” He smiles. “I would say there aren’t that many interesting stories for me to tell that people are looking for.”
“I always dreamed of being in college in the US.” Yigal Meitar, a twenty–four–year–old sophomore says. Originally born in New York, Yigal grew up in Israel and knew that he would have to serve in the IDF after high school. He wanted his next step to be an American school.
“You hear about fraternities, the drinking games—in Israel, college is not fun.” So Yigal opted for a school with a work–hard, play–hard reputation. But when he came to Penn and started to enter the social scene he’d always pictured, friends introduced him to new people as “the guy who served in the IDF.”
Some people commented “wow” and moved on. A few asked if he’d killed anyone with his bare hands. Many students wanted to know about combat and life on
the battlefront. For Yigal, who worked in the IDF’s intelligence base (“The most protected place in Israel,” he says), the questions betrayed a shared misconception about life in the military.
“They’re sure that everyone [from the military] is a killing machine,” he says. “People assume that a) you’re in the military, so you hate the other side, and b) that you’ve killed people, and that’s not the case at all. They just attribute these things to you.”
“We’re just normal college–aged teenagers trying to make sense of life, too,” he says. “It’s literally an eighteen–year–old given a gun, told to protect his country.”
Erik makes his bed everyday. He folds the corners carefully, blue sheets smoothed beneath a coal– black blanket in his Sansom West apartment. Erik won’t leave his room unless his bed has zero wrinkles. Otherwise he feels “like a lazy piece of shit.” He pictures his commanders from the Marines narrowing their eyes, tucking down their chins.
“Just that look,” he says. “They give you that look, and you know.”
Erik, a senior in the Liberal and Professional Studies program, joined the Marine Corps in 2005, six months after he graduated high school. He signed up to be part of the infantry division; within a year, he was in Haditha, Iraq, patrolling the city streets for twelve hours at a time. He was caught in a firefight in his first two weeks in Iraq. Five years later, a bullet pierced his jaw during combat. But he knew what he was signing up for.
“I’ve wanted to be a soldier since seventh, eighth grade,” Erik says. “At some point in my life, I had to think about what I wanted to do, and I thought, okay, who are the best people in history? And I thought, you’ve got the Gandhis and the Jesuses, who do good and expect nothing back and are selfless, but I know I can’t do that, I’m not that nice and compassionate. But I do want to be good. And I thought, who’s number two? Warriors.”
To Erik, Penn is a pipeline back to service. He wanted the prestige of a top school to bolster his application to another military position. A Political Science major with a concentration in International Relations, he’s taken courses on military strategy and foreign policy, alongside students who know nothing about his background. When his service comes up in conversation—often to answer why, at twenty–nine, he’s a decade older than the students crammed next to him in Stiteler— Penn students “don’t tend to ask much questions.” Some thank him for his service. Most just ignore the topic, move on. “People here don’t know how to handle it,” he says.
“I realized I have more in common with the guys I’m fighting against than the people in America,” he says.
Dani Blum is a sophomore in the College studying English and Political Science. She is a Features Editor for Street.