Army veteran describes transition to student life at CSUN

Caroline Marriott

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Tae Yoo was sitting on a hill re-transmitting radio signals when he came under fire. The bullet shattered the computer screen behind him and he immediately took cover.

“A bullet missed my face by two inches,” Yoo said.

The incident happened back in September 2011, while Yoo was serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Yoo is a 27-year-old CSUN senior majoring in CTVA. He was left mentally and emotionally scarred after serving in the U.S. Army for four years, and is now finding it difficult to assimilate back into society.

In addition to almost being shot in the head, Yoo also saw horrific things happen to his fellow soldiers.

“I had a sergeant who got blown up eight times,” Yoo said. “One time he was driving an Army vehicle with three other people and was the only one who survived.”

Being faced with the possibility of death on a daily basis, soldiers become desensitized by the destructive nature of the war zone, said Rosa Moncada, a current U.S. Army soldier and assistant at the Veteran’s Resource Center on campus. Moncada estimates there are 750 student veterans from every branch of the military on campus.

On the return home, Yoo developed a clearer view of what he had actually experienced and turned to alcohol as a coping method.

“When I got back from Afghanistan, I had a very high desire to drink,” Yoo said. “It was taking a toll on my life. I became an alcoholic.”

It is very common for distressed veterans to return home with addictions, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Many engage in substance abuse or illegal behavior following their time in the military.

Individuals who have served in the armed forces and have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to develop a drinking or drug problem than those who have not, according to the VA.

Before his enlistment, Yoo wasn’t a heavy drinker, he said. However, he felt that after being deployed in Afghanistan for so long, he had earned his right to drink.

“One drink led to two, two led to three and so on,” Yoo said. “That’s how my problem started. And battling my feelings of stress and loneliness only heightened my need to drink.”

Realizing that his drinking problem was having an impact on his friendships, relationships, work and finances, he removed all alcohol from his household and stopped going out drinking with friends. Without any professional counseling, he has overcome alcoholism and has stayed sober for seven months, he said.

Phillip Thomas, a close friend of Yoo’s for 17 years, said that Yoo’s experience overcoming alcoholism has had a direct effect on his own life.

“I think he was able to gain a realistic perspective on the damaging effects that alcohol can have on the body and mind,” Thomas said. “He has been a positive inspiration for my own path to not drinking.”

Thomas said he feels Yoo grew physically and mentally stronger from his experience in the Army.

“He has more of a sense of team building and leadership,” Thomas said. “He understands what it means to play a positive role in the community and now has the ability to stay calm even under the more intense pressure.”

Yoo stressed the importance for veterans to keep busy and find hobbies, as being unoccupied makes it easier for the mind to revisit the traumatic memories. In addition to being a CSUN student, Yoo works as a youth adviser, regularly plays sports and music, and enjoys watching and producing films. Also, he often attends the Veterans Resource Center on campus.

“After experiencing solitude on a daily basis, I now appreciate general conversation a lot more,” Yoo said.

While in Afghanistan, Yoo had to find ways to channel his emotions.

“I kept a diary, as it was my only outlet and the only way I felt that someone was listening to my feelings,” Yoo said. “I got dumped while I was in Afghanistan, so that was hard to deal with.”

Moncada said attending the VRC helps veterans readjust after what they have experienced. The VRC directs those that have seen combat to off-campus resources including the Chatsworth and Sepulveda veterans centers, while providing mentorship and on-campus tutoring, Moncada said.

“Coming back to school for veterans is extremely stressful,” Moncada said. “After serving in the military for approximately four years, they are no longer a typical 18-year-old. They have wears and tears that make it difficult for them to interact and cope with the age difference.”

Some soldiers can find it extremely difficult to cope with the conditions of being in the Army. An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day, according to data from the VA.

“I knew many people who killed themselves (in Afghanistan),” Yoo said while seeming to reflect back to that time. “Someone I knew set themselves on fire in a parking lot.”

Although Yoo was left psychologically damaged from the war, he is able to focus positively on what he learned from his experiences.

“I am now more thankful for what I have in life,” Yoo said. “I respect my loved ones and value my good health. I feel that I have learned and experienced more in those four years than people three times my age have in their lifetime.”