By Patrick Fergus
A dark bus. His head stuck between his legs as the lights flew past the windows. Luis Rodriguez wasn’t worried about the 4 a.m. alarms or the unceasing days of training; he wanted to be a Marine.
The heavy footsteps of the drill instructor then filled his ears as the bus came to a stop.
“It was one of those ‘here we go’ moments,” Rodriguez said.
He had just arrived at the East Coast boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina.
Rodriguez, who now attends Springfield College as a Psychology major, will be highlighted on an upcoming episode of the television show Military Makeover. The segment of the episode, which will air in January 2024, focuses on how veterans and active service members adjust to a college environment.
The armed forces weren’t an obvious choice for Rodriguez. He didn’t have a long line of family members in the service and only first became interested in enlisting after seeing The Pacific, a 10-part mini-series based on the accounts of Marines during World War II.
For Rodriguez, the right track after high school was unclear. Rodriguez, who was born and raised in Springfield, wanted to do something artistic, like graphic design or architecture, but didn’t see it as realistic for a successful and sustainable career. Engineering was another thought, but it didn’t feel right. The military was a new prospect, and one Rodriguez hoped would shape him.
“The brotherhood and the uniform was big for me. I wanted to learn about the world and essentially become a man,” Rodriguez said.
The bus brakes hissed, and a fear of the unknown unified the fast heartbeats and sweaty palms of the hopeful recruits. Rodriguez and the rest of the recruits stepped down onto a trail of yellow footprints, a symbol of how to stand at attention properly and essentially their first steps as a member of the United State Marine Corps. Then they saw the silver doors.
“They were an iconic symbol,” Rodriguez said. “A gateway into a different life … your next chapter.”
Rodriguez, just 19, was allowed one last phone call back home before starting his training. He shouted into the phone to be heard over the drill instructor’s screams. It was the beginning of a grueling three months.
The difficulty for Rodriguez came with something other than the everyday training of skills in hand-to-hand combat or marksmanship. Still, by his own admission, he was unprepared for the physical exertion he had to endure. He weighed about 128 pounds and needed more definition, a shortcoming his superiors zeroed in on.
“They utterly destroyed me because they saw that weakness in me,” Rodriguez said. “It opened my eyes to that aspect of myself.”
The “kill hat,” Marine slang for the drill instructor in his platoon assigned to dole out punishment, lived up to the name.
Rodriguez was subjected to what was dubbed “incentive training,” which involved extreme calisthenic exercises at a moment’s notice. The kill hat paid exceptional attention to Rodriguez, instructing him to perform these exhausting movements in sand pits or any nearby open space.
“They made sure I was well prepared for the road ahead by absolutely destroying me every chance they got,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez was also tested outside of regular training. He was tasked with going ahead of the platoon and getting ice in the morning. The bags of ice felt like bags of lead during the endless walk between the barracks and the cafeteria.
“Making that walk in the dark, It was an excruciating experience,” Rodriguez said.
After he dropped the ice and picked it back up so many times, the other platoon members eventually came to his rescue, slowly inching along in the darkness.
The “brotherhood” that Rodriguez had fondly mentioned was a massive part of the experience. Even during moments of immense struggle, he discovered that he was never alone.
That is a core value that Jacqueline Wolf, the Veterans Coordinator at Springfield College, wants every student veteran to feel. Wolf herself served in the Air Force Reserves for 10 years and was a respiratory therapist on active duty for the Army for another seven.
Wolf oversees roughly 23 student veterans or active service members, as well as seven students in the ROTC program. She works in tandem with the admissions and financial aid offices to provide benefits to students through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
These benefits help pay for tuition, books and housing. Wolf resides at the Veterans and Military Services Center, which opened two years ago near the Springfield College archway, where she works to create a welcoming environment.
“This is a safe space,” Wolf said. “When you have these experiences, sometimes you need to be around other people who understand that different world that you lived in.”
The house is not just a place to hang out with other veterans but also where they can voice difficulties adjusting to civilian life and be easily understood. They have all experienced forms of basic training and have lived far away from home for long periods.
“The transition from the military to [being] a veteran is unusual, and when you get out, you feel different,” Wolf said. “Here, everyone around them is coming from that same environment.”
Rodriguez’s military service continued long after boot camp. After two months of training, he officially became an HVAC technician. He worked with electrical systems to maintain AC units that would refrigerate tanks and cool down tank engines.
While stationed in Okinawa, Japan, in 2014, Rodriguez visited the demilitarized zone in South Korea.
It wasn’t until 2019 that he officially separated from the Marine Corps, following a six-year journey that tested his boundaries and taught him to accomplish great things on his own as well as with the help of others.
“It helped me find myself,” Rodriguez said. “It was essential for me to gather that kind of knowledge and experience.”
The school is proud of the support that Rodriguez and his fellow students who have served their country receive on campus. Military Makeover choosing Springfield to highlight the student veteran experience shows how strong the community has become.
“This is such a good opportunity to show the services we have on campus for our veterans and how we support them,” said Dr. Slandie Dieujuste, Springfield College’s Vice President of Student Affairs.
Rodriguez is one of two Springfield students who will be featured on the show.
Shaterricka Abdul-Razzaq is finishing up his first year pursuing a degree in the master of social work. Razzaq, originally from Alexandria, Louisiana served at bases in Kansas, Egypt, Massachusetts, and as an Aviation Operations Specialist at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.
Rodriguez, Razzaq and the rest of the Springfield student military members will participate in a Veterans Day celebration on Friday, Nov. 10, in front of the Marsh Memorial Chapel. All students can pay tribute to a veteran in their family with carnations, as the Springfield College community honors all those who served.
Photo courtesy of Springfield College/Flickr