The transition to college typically occurs in two ways: the lead up to high school graduation following acceptance and decision, then mid-August when students frantically attempt to navigate all aspects of a new campus.
For Kyle Bush, a senior communications major with a public affairs concentration, the path to the University of La Verne took almost 10 years, spanned four continents and ten countries, and six years of service in the United States Air Force.
Bush’s La Verne experience began in the fall semester of 2016, when a representative from the University’s Campus Accelerated Program for Adults spoke to students at the Mt. SAC Veterans Center.
Bush knew other veterans who had transferred to La Verne and spoken highly of the campus, and because of the issues he deals with after his time in the military he knew he needed to be at a small school to feel most comfortable.
Through CAPA’s accelerated admissions process Bush applied and was accepted shortly after meeting for a one on one with the representative.
“It was definitely the best thing that ever happened to me,” Bush said. “I didn’t have to go through the painstake of trying to apply to a million different schools.”
Since Bush was admitted just before the spring semester and enrolled late, he initially was not able to enroll in the classes he needed to satisfy G.I. Bill requirements, putting his enrollment that semester in jeopardy.
“The classes I needed were full. (CAPA) moved mountains, they made calls and got me in, they talked to the deans or the heads of the departments and they made sure I was in,” said Bush.
As a student, Bush’s presence in class is hard not to notice. Wavy hair hangs well below his shoulders and has not been cut since he left the military, and his arms are covered in black and white tattoos.
The words “Wars come and go but my soldiers stay eternal” sit between a cross and a rosary tattooed on his bicep, that one he considers his favorite. He keeps active boxing and has the physique to match.
Bush says his solitary, quiet demeanor in class is simply an effect of his time in the military.
“I’m an introverted personality beforehand, and I also struggle with issues like PTSD and anxiety from things that I’ve experienced, so I have to handle those things accordingly. Sometimes it’s good days, sometimes it is bad days, so you know, I shell up instead of act out,” said Bush. “I feel like shelling up is a lot better than flipping desks and like throwing things at a professor, or fighting a kid at school because I’m having a bad day.”
Bush voiced appreciation for all that the University has done for him as a veteran.
“Last fall I took two weeks off because I was experiencing a lot of emotional distress and I wasn’t going to any of my classes,” Bush said. “I was having a real tough time and I emailed my professors, and I got a hold of (disability student services), they were all very accommodating and forgiving and actually caring.”
Several of his professors, including adjunct faculty members Danielle Eubank and Randy Miller, called him to check in on how he was doing and catch him up on work that he had missed.
Bush’s work ethic is undeniable. He submits major assignments weeks before they are due “because [he] had time.”
He keeps his comments in class deliberate and never strays from the subject of class discussions.
While he does not hide his status as a veteran, he prefers not to bring it up. Once, when a classroom discussion ventured into the topic of the United Arab Emirates, Bush nonchalantly mentioned he had lived there for a brief time, but offered no context.
“A lot of people at this school, including my professors don’t know that I am in the military,” Bush said. “I kind of divulge that information sparingly.”
Bush has not always been so studious and at one time viewed school as unimportant. While growing up in Corona and attending Centennial High School, he often found himself in trouble for getting into fights or ditching class.
“I was a crappy student in high school, that’s why college wasn’t an option for me coming out of the gate,” Bush said.
After graduating high school he worked a minimum wage job at the now-defunct Hollywood Video for almost two years.
“I just did cashier jobs that really weren’t going anywhere, and I was getting stuck in the city,” said Bush. “I knew that if I didn’t get out and try to do something that I’d be living in my mom’s basement for the rest of my life not amounting to anything.”
With college seemingly out of the question and a number of family members in the military – including an aunt who served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy, and a grandfather who was a revolutionist in the Bay of Pigs against Fidel Castro – Bush began considering a future in the military.
His interest in joining the military was solidified during interactions with one of his lifelong friends, Javier Pena, who had enlisted in the United States Marine Corps just two years prior.
“I remember clearly telling him, ‘Hey, you know you’ve got to figure something out, this is definitely a good route for people like you and me,’” Pena said.
They both grew up in a rough neighborhood, so the choice was clear. Bush knew he could stay out and continue getting himself into trouble, or do something more.
Bush began window shopping, talking to recruiters across the armed forces. When an Air Force recruiter sold him “hopes and dreams” and that he could be a weapons specialist and work with heavy artillery, he signed on the dotted line for a six year enlistment.
Bush traded his oversized Dickies pants and Chuck Taylors for camouflage fatigues and combat boots and went to Lackland Air Force base in Texas for basic military training.
It was the first time he had ever ventured out on his own, away from his mother who had singularly raised him.
“Here I go, off on my own, spreading my wings,” Bush said. “I’m getting yelled at every single day with my heart racing, and all that sort of nonsense so you can handle high-stress environments,” Bush said.
The lessons he learned in basic military training stuck with him as he went through his career.
Bush said the training taught him to become “more of a man,” and accountable for his own actions to understand real consequences.
After basic training, he was sent to Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas for tech school where he would learn how to become a weapons specialist, formerly called an aircraft armament systems craftsmen.
While at Sheppard, Bush earned a leadership position. In less than a year, he went from checking in DVD rentals at Hollywood Video to leading a group of 300 or more airmen through marches. From there, he was off to his first duty station – Korea.
“I was like, oh my gosh, you guys couldn’t send me to like Idaho or something?” Bush said. “They sent me straight to Korea for a year, and I was mortified. That’s when I started thinking I got sold a lemon.”
Bush was stationed in South Korea during a time when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il began testing long range ballistic missiles. Korea was the hardest duty station he had in his career.
“It was just always hyper tension, we were running drills at least once every two to three months,” Bush said. “By drills I mean we’d have week to two week long exercises of simulated chemical warfare.”
These drills consisted of 12-hours-on and 12-hours-off shifts in full chemical protection gear, which included chemical hazard suits, gas masks and kevlar helmets and vests.
The gear and the South Korean weather paired to make the experience more difficult.
Eventually he was assigned to a gun specialist crew, working on the machine guns that went inside the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
“You’re just in go-mode. This aircraft is on, so you have to be aware, and you have to be alert, and you’re on a timer, and you can kill yourself or kill somebody else if you do something improper,” Bush said.
Shortly after turning 21, Bush was able to return to the United States when he was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
With more money in his pocket than he had ever made before, and the party atmosphere of Florida, Bush began believing in the hopes and dreams the recruiter had sold him.
“First thing I did when I got to Florida, I bought the same car I’m driving, a brand new Dodge Charger and put big old 22-inch rims on it. Just cause I had money. I was a kid. I was stupid,” Bush said.
It was in the dormitories at Eglin where Bush formed his strongest military friendships. One of those people was Rickey Tillis, an E-4 senior airman.
“It was pretty much like our college, but not really college because we were all in the military. Living in the dorms.”
The two men followed each other to their next station, Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Bush became close to Tillis’s children and his then-wife.
The friendship transcended the Florida party atmosphere as the two kept in contact while they were deployed. Tillis recounted writing to Bush while he was in Afghanistan, and how he received things from Bush while he was in Africa.
“When you build that bond of growing up and maturing in the military together, and living in such close proximity, it’s kind of hard to replace that camaraderie,” Bush said.
In his six years with the Air Force, he spent a significant amount of his time at forward operating Air Force bases in other countries, including assisting with relief in Haiti, anti-pirate missions from the horn of Africa, and serving in the Middle East.
While Bush chooses to not openly recount the war stories and the people he lost, instead he reframes his trauma to recall the experiences he gained from the Air Force.
He swam with whale sharks off the coast of Africa, was the goose to a pilot’s Maverick in a real F-15, rode camels and watched oil fields burn in the Middle East, rode moped scooters through the streets of Thailand, and saw bullfights in Spain.
“When you’re in the military you see and do things that, I mean unless you are extremely wealthy, you probably won’t experience or see,” said Bush.
Even with a world of experience behind him, when Bush finished his Air Force career in 2013, he was unprepared to face the harsh realities of transitioning back to civilian life.
“I didn’t have any other skills other than weapons so I was kind of screwed. I struggled for a year, year and a half,” Bush said.
He returned to his home state of California, but not satisfied with working in a warehouse for minimum wage, he began assessing his options.
“What can a weapon specialist do in a civilian sector? Other than go private, and I was done with the government stuff. I wasn’t trying to be a cop, I wasn’t trying to go and do the whole Blackwater, private sector, soldier of fortune type thing,” Bush said.
Eventually, Bush decided he should take advantage of the financial benefits available to veterans to pursue higher education. He enrolled in computer science courses at Mt. San Antonio Community College; when he realized the advanced math courses were not for him he re-evaluated.
“I was like, alright, let me figure out what my strong suits are, communicating, talking, I’m not bashful, taking charge and managing people, so I was like communications and public relations,” he said.
Bush does not want his status as a veteran glorified. He does not want to be looked at differently by other students. He hopes to be treated like the civilian that he is. Out of respect, all he asks is that people refrain from asking the two questions veterans never want to hear.
“Don’t ask me if I killed anybody, don’t ask me if I’ve lost anybody,” Bush said.
Bush’s journey back to college has come full circle, inspiring Javier Pena, the man who originally encouraged him to join the military, to return to school.
“I’m currently working on my bachelor’s degree because of Kyle and his advice that he’s gained in working with the V.A. and whatnot. So it’s not only I helped him, he helped me,” Pena said.
Despite the heat of South Korean summers, more punches to the face than he can count from his amateur boxing days, and the stress of a military career at the peak of wartime in Afghanistan, Bush’s face doesn’t show the wear and tear.
Bush still keeps a foot in the military world through his work at Corona Veterans’ Center doing clerical work and talking to other veterans who are transitioning back to civilian life.
“You have the life experience that he gained through the military and now he’s going back to school and getting his academic experience. I think the combination is going to be powerful” said Wendy Gutierrez, Bush’s aunt and a retired lieutenant commander in the United States Navy, .
After graduating from ULV, Bush hopes to segue the public relations, web design and social media expertise he has gained from his coursework in the communications department to work public relations in the nightlife industry of Scottsdale or Las Vegas.
Although Bush avoids speaking out in class, there is one subject on which he will be heard.
“When they want to send boots on ground, that’s the only thing I’m kind of against. War sucks,” he adds, “Going to war is never easy, I don’t care what anybody says.”
Michael Sprague can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.