From Service to Scholarship

When Miami magazine reached out to the University of Miami student veteran population earlier this year with the help of the Office of the Registrar, there was a tremendous response from across the University. We are grateful for the generous response from these brave and dedicated individuals and happy to be able to share many of their stories with the UM community.

Capt. David Roller


David Roller
Captain, Florida National Guard
First-Year Student, School of Law

If the attacks on 9/11 ushered in a new era of warfare, David Roller is as good an example of the new warrior as you could find. “I started classes at West Point two weeks before 9/11, and my last day of active duty was one month after we killed Osama bin Laden,” he says. “On 9/11, we could see the smoke from the burning World Trade Center towers from West Point, just 45 miles north of New York City. The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, during spring break of my sophomore year, so I knew I’d be going to war as soon as I graduated. I fought for 15 months just a couple hundred miles from where we eventually killed bin Laden earlier this year. I feel satisfaction that I got to be part of our military during this historic time.”

Roller was a standout wide receiver at Coral Gables High School, where his father teaches (both of his parents are double ’Canes). Despite offers from several colleges to play football, there really was no question about where he’d go. “I had wanted to go to West Point since I was a child,” he says. “I always wanted to be in the military.” He played one year for Army, but ultimately had to shift his focus. “Being a college football player is nearly a full-time commitment. I wanted to be an Army officer more than I wanted to play football.”

Roller’s West Point education came with a five-year active-duty commitment after his 2005 graduation. Following a year of training, he was stationed in Germany from 2006 to 2009 with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. With Germany as his base, he served as a scout platoon leader for nearly two years, including deployment to Afghanistan from 2007 to 2008. Roller says his defining moment came on July 27, 2007, when his company commander and another soldier were killed, and many others wounded, in a particularly intense ambush. He led his scout platoon in the fight and says he learned the truth of the old saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

After being brought back stateside, Roller received advanced training at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, and was then transferred to the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. From there, he deployed to Iraq as a battalion operations officer for most of 2010. While there he took the LSAT exam. He then returned to Ft. Bragg for the remainder of his service, leaving the Army this past June to begin law school at the University of Miami. Recently, however, he joined the Florida National Guard to keep his options for service open, “in case something like a hurricane or other emergency happens,” Roller explains.

“Combat gives you a perspective about everything,” says the first-year law student. “It’s hard to get stressed over the simple things in life or in school. I know it can get worse, and I take nothing for granted. This is the first time in a long time that I haven’t been responsible for anyone.”

He hopes his legal education will be a springboard to a career path that involves national security, diplomacy, and policy. “I feel like I can work to keep America safe, just with a law degree instead of a rifle,” he says. “I want to do something worthwhile with the opportunities I’ve been given. Every day is a gift. I feel like I owe it to those who will never have this opportunity and to those friends who are still fighting.”


Paul Agbeyegbe, A.B. ’11
Sergeant, Florida Army National Guard
First-Year Student, School of Law

Paul Agbeyegbe didn’t grow up in a military family—his parents settled in Miami after emigrating from Nigeria—but he’s part of one now. A UM alumnus who is now in his first year at the UM School of Law, he has served in the Florida Army National Guard since 2004 and spent a year in Iraq 2007-08. Also in the Guard, his twin brother, Peter, did a tour in Kuwait and is finishing up his undergraduate degree at FIU. He hopes to follow his brother to Miami Law. A cousin, Jonathan, is on active duty in the Air Force. All three are sergeants.

“I was very inspired by the TV program JAG and always wanted to enter the JAG Corps,” says Agbeyegbe. “I was in JROTC during high school, and at 17, while I was still a senior, I enlisted as a paralegal in an eight-year program. I’m now in what is called the Individual Ready Reserve.”

In Iraq, Agbeyegbe was the only paralegal in a battalion that varied from 900 to 1,200 soldiers, depending on rotations. “I was in charge of making sure investigations and disciplinary actions were taken,” he explains. “I also handled citizenship questions, power of attorney, and many other procedures. The work involved a lot of moving around from base to base. My superiors didn’t want me to be in a convoy, where I might get caught in an attack, so I generally flew to my assignments in a plane or helicopter. But there’s always action, and one time a mortar round landed very close to our living quarters, so you can never really escape the fact that you’re in a war zone.”

Reentry into student life in Miami “was tough for me,” says Agbeyegbe. “You have to relearn how to be a civilian. I had worn a uniform for so long that I had to think about what to wear. And for about three to six months there was a constant sense of guilt. I was driving around Miami in my nice sports car, but I was thinking of all the guys working so hard back in Iraq. I had to remind myself that’s why we have rotations.”,

Before his deployment, Agbeyegbe had been attending FIU. With scholarship assistance from the Fund for Veterans Education, he transferred to UM to complete his undergraduate degree in political science and African studies. “I haven’t regretted that decision for a second,” he says. “This is my hometown, I love the city, and I want to stay in Miami to practice law. At UM Law, I’m already making professional contacts that will help me after I graduate.”


Theodore H. Massey, III  
First Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps
Third-Year Student, School of Law

Once he passes the bar exam next year, Ted Massey will be handed a special reward—a rifle. He may be asked to do a few pushups, too. That, he explains, is because “every Marine is also an infantry rifleman. I’ll be sent to what is called the Basic School. It involves additional officer training plus all the things every Marine has to know. That will be followed by three months of Naval Justice School to learn military law. After that, I’ll finally get courtroom experience, either prosecution or defense.”

Massey originally embarked on a business career, first with Pitney Bowes (where he ranked 12th out of 400 sales reps) and later with ADP as a district manager. Despite his success, he says, “it wasn’t something I completely enjoyed. I wanted something with more analytical thinking.” During the Vietnam War, his father had served in the Marines, so the Syracuse, New York, native explored that option, commissioning in 2009. “I went in under what is called a law contract with the goal of becoming a judge advocate,” he explains. “First, though, I had to get through Officer Candidates School, which has a 34 percent failure rate.”
Three days after graduating OCS and being commissioned as a second lieutenant, Massey was sitting in a law classroom in Miami. “I fell in love with Florida when my family vacationed here when I was a boy,” he says, “and I chose UM’s law school because I was more impressed by it than by other schools.”
Massey has been active in military activities through the law school. During his first semester, he created and became president of the Military Law Society. During summer 2010, he participated as a HOPE (Helping Others through Pro-bono Effort) fellow at the Legal Services of Greater Miami’s Military Legal Advocacy Program program, helping veterans with their appeals for disability claims. He and other students also launched the journal National Security and Armed Conflict Law Review, which recently published its first issue.
This past summer, Massey did administrative separation work for the Marines at Parris Island, South Carolina. “This is like a trial without the rules of evidence,” he explains. “It involves Marines who have gotten in trouble and are up for review on a less-than-honorable discharge. I acted as prosecutor to represent the government, upholding the honor of the honorable discharge."
There will be plenty of time for more advanced legal work once Massey graduates next May and passes the bar. “I still owe the Marines active-duty service and will be in at least five years,” he says. “Later, the contacts I am making at law school at UM will give me excellent networking for a civilian legal career.”

Capt. Donald Wagner and his family on his return home


Donald Wagner
Captain, U.S. Army
Third-Year Student, School of Law

Don Wagner, a Pennsylvania native, was a newspaper sports reporter and magazine editor for several years after college, but a mix of 9/11 and a lifelong interest in the military and federal police work inspired him to enlist in the Army in 2005, at the age of 31. He went through basic training and Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. In Afghanistan from 2008-09 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, he served as both an infantry platoon leader and battalion adjutant, which made him responsible for the personnel issues of approximately 400 soldiers. 

Upon his return to the United States, Wagner was accepted into the Army’s Funded Legal Education Program and enrolled at UM. After his first year, he spent the summer working in the administrative law section at Ft. Stewart, Georgia, where he participated in several administrative separation review boards. This past summer he was back in Afghanistan for two months, working on detainee review boards on behalf of the government. Once he graduates from the School of Law next May and passes the bar, he’ll become part of the JAG Corps and owe the Army six years as a lawyer.

After he returned from his first tour in Afghanistan, Wagner says he realized that “most people aren’t aware of what you have gone through. You have to learn to let your guard down.”

He also found himself readjusting to family life. “My twin boys were born two weeks before I deployed, so my wife raised them alone the first year,” says Wagner of his spouse, who recently gave birth to their third child. “My wife is from Puerto Rico, so one of the reasons I chose UM for law school is that we are close to her family. She has sacrificed so much. I wanted her to be able to see them before we begin moving all over the country.”


Patrick Manrique, D.P.T. ’11
Captain, U.S. Army (ret.)
Physical Therapist

Patrick Manrique thinks of physical therapy as the kind of teamwork required in sports. He’s the coach, the patients are the players, and by working together they can achieve a winning result. “You set goals and work with patients to achieve them,” he says. “You see patients on a regular basis and watch them improve over time. It’s not just making clinical decisions.”

Manrique developed this thinking while an undergraduate working in the athletic training office at Virginia Tech, where he majored in human nutrition and exercise science. He also enrolled in Army ROTC and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Medical Service Branch upon graduating in 2001. He had applied to the Ph.D. program in the Department of Physical Therapy at UM’s Miller School of Medicine the year before, but 9/11 canceled those plans. “The Army didn’t let you go to grad school then because they needed to fill officer positions at the platoon level,” he explains.

So instead of entering UM the following year, Manrique found himself deployed to South Korea from 2002-03. When he returned, he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, where his schooling included jumping out of airplanes. Subsequent deployments were to Iraq, from fall 2003 to spring 2004, and to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in fall 2005. He completed his service obligation in 2006 and was on inactive reserve until 2010.

All of this time, however, Manrique kept in touch with Sherrill H. Hayes, chair of UM’s physical therapy program. Her father was a member of the 82nd Airborne during World War II, and she is known as a strong supporter of students with military service commitments. Manrique reactivated his acceptance and entered the doctoral program while on inactive reserve, graduating this past spring. He resigned his commission while in school.

Today, he works as a physical therapist in Chicago, seeing all types of patients, including local and federal government employees. In addition, he plans to reenter military service through the Minnesota National Guard, based in his home state. “This gives me a way to put my knowledge of treating soldiers to good use in the community,” he says.

Col. Alice Kerr


Alice Kerr. M.A.L.S. ’97
Colonel, U.S. Army Reserves
Executive Director, Project Management, UM Information Technology

After 14 years in the reserves, Alice Kerr was called back to active duty in 2008. She was put in charge of Camp Striker, a base that was processing troops moving in and out of Iraq. “My military specialty is logistics,” she explains. “That involves people and equipment, moving them around and keeping them in good working order.” The base had 4,000 residents (tenant units assigned to combat missions in the vicinity of Baghdad) plus 6,000 to 7,000 transient personnel, who generally stayed a week or two. Basically, Kerr was running a military town with a population around the size of UM’s student body.

“My official U.S. Army title was ‘Mayor’ because they wanted to use civilian titles,” she says. “But I didn’t have a city council. We tried to make it a comfortable landing place, but we had all the problems and challenges found in any community that size.” Now that she’s back home, she says, she has “very little tolerance for people behaving as if something [such as a deadline or meeting] is ‘life and death’ when it really isn’t.”

Kerr, who grew up in an army family that moved every three years, was born in New York City and ended up back there when her father retired. An ROTC scholarship got her through Hofstra University with an undergraduate degree in industrial engineering and a commission after she graduated in 1987. She went on active duty in 1989 and was shipped overseas from October 1990 to April 1991 during he first Gulf War as part of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. She stayed active at Ft. Bliss, Texas, until 1994, when she entered the reserves, moved to Miami, took a job at UM, and earned her master’s degree in liberal studies.

At UM, Kerr is executive director of project management for information technology on the Coral Gables campus. She says that while she was in Iraq, in addition to the usual candy and other treats, her UM co-workers regularly sent over protein powder, vitamins, weight-lifting gloves, T-shirts, and classic movies for the office TV because they knew her staff there to be health-conscious. “UM fosters a sense of community in many ways,” says Kerr. “Those packages were a great morale boost and meant a lot to the troops.”


Chad Brick  
Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Coast Guard
First-Year MBA Student, School of Business Administration

Whether chasing drug smugglers through the Florida Straits or rescuing a pilot from the water after a helicopter crash, M.B.A. candidate Chad Brick has seen a lot of action in his ten years with the U.S. Coast Guard—some of it not that far from Coral Gables. Coast Guard work includes law enforcement actions, and because criminals often operate under cover of darkness, a lot of it takes place at night.

Brick was a natural for the Coast Guard, even when he was a kid. “I always really liked the water,” the Medford, New Jersey, native recalls. “I was a competitive swimmer growing up, my mom was my swim coach, and I was a state finalist. The swim coach for the Coast Guard Academy recruited me, and I was a four-year varsity letterman.

“I graduated and was commissioned as an officer in 2001,” he continues. “When you enter active duty, you have a wish list for your first assignment. On a whim, I requested Hawaii, and I got it. I started out on the Rush, a 378-foot cutter. During your training, you learn how to drive the boat, how to manage the crew, how to get all the departments working together to keep a boat at sea for months and make a mission successful. I was two years on the Rush. Then I served two years on the Jarvis. Our schedule was three months at sea, three months in port. I did a lot of budgeting work and gradually worked my way up.”

Brick was married in 2005 at the end of his Jarvis tour and reassigned to Miami after his former executive officer on the Jarvis asked Brick if he wanted to come work for him. His position involved acting as scheduler for the boats. That got Brick involved in even larger budgets. Eventually it meant going back to school.

“Ten years ago,” says Brick, “a bachelor’s degree was enough; now you need a master’s. The Coast Guard is going through a lot of changes, and I want to make a major impact. The knowledge I already have is good, but I will gain a lot more at UM learning to apply civilian tools to the military. I looked at programs all over the country, but a few classmates ahead of me had been through the UM program and were very high on it. I wanted more than the classroom; I wanted the whole experience.”

Sgt. Juan Carlos Castillo


Juan Carlos Castillo
Sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps
Senior, Finance Major

“I dropped the wrench and picked up the books.” That’s how Juan Carlos Castillo describes the transition he made from aviation mechanic to college student when he realized that further education was going to be necessary for him to move on to the next chapter of his life.

It’s not that Castillo isn’t proud of his skills with a wrench—it’s just the opposite, in fact. “The Marine Corps changed my life in a huge, positive way,” he says of his five years of military service before being honorably discharged. He achieved the highest helicopter mechanic rating the corps gives, and he probably knows as much about keeping Hueys and Cobras—the Marines’ workhorse battle choppers—in the air as anyone you could meet. In fact, he taught other mechanics, and a few pilots, both in the U.S. and in Iraq, where he served from August 2006 to April 2007. But Castillo’s dream is to be self-employed as a financial consultant, helping others achieve their own dreams. To do that he needs a business education and the training you get in a different line of work. As a finance major at the School of Business Administration, he’s on his way.

Castillo has also created an official Student Veterans Organization on campus. It can be hard for veterans “to relate to the general student population,” he explains. “Their life experiences and their priorities are so different. You have a lot more in common with other veterans.”

A native of the Dominican Republic, Castillo moved to the United States at age 13. In 2002, after graduating from high school in Reading, Pennsylvania, at age 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines. He was honorably discharged in August 2007. After moving to Brooklyn, New York, and working for a while in commercial aviation, Castillo enrolled at Manhattan Community College, transferring to UM as a junior. “I know I made the right choice,” he says.

Officer Matthew Henry


Matthew Henry
Petty Officer Third Class, U.S. Navy
Senior, Economics Major

Matthew Henry joined the U.S. Navy to get ahead in life. Now he’s enrolled at the University of Miami for the same reason. “I came from a family with limited means,” says the Philadelphia-area native. “I wanted to have the opportunity to go to college, but during my senior year of high school I realized that it was not going to be economically feasible. I began looking into military service and realized it was my best alternative. Two weeks after I graduated, I enlisted in the Navy.”

Henry was sent to basic training at Great Lakes, Illinois, and then “A” School (advanced training) in Pensacola, Florida, to learn aviation electronics. He spent the rest of his four-year hitch as a technician working on the E2-C Hawkeye and C-2A Greyhound aircraft at two squadrons based in Norfolk, Virginia. He also deployed several times on aircraft carriers.

“The hardest thing about being in the service is losing someone close to you,” says Henry. “Unfortunately, this happened several times during my enlistment. I believe the first time it happened was the defining moment of my service. My perspective on life and what it means to serve was irrevocably changed.”

Three and a half years out of the Navy, Henry is a senior economics major in the College of Arts and Sciences, minoring in business administration. “At this point in my life,” he says, “I am most passionate about bettering myself with each day that passes. I wanted to attend a university that I thought would be both challenging and intellectually stimulating. I hope that my time at the U will help me to be prosperous in life.”

Lt. Col. Thomas Hartley


Thomas F. Hartley Jr.
Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army Reserves
D.N.P. ’11, UM School of Nursing and Health Studies

Currently completing a doctorate in nursing practice at UM’s School of Nursing and Health Studies, Tom Hartley set his sights on a nursing career early on. Late next year he plans to begin a Ph.D. program back at University of North Carolina, where he earned his B.S.N. and M.S.N. That’s a lot of academic firepower, but Hartley says he’s passionate about “the contributions that nurses and the profession of nursing have to offer in U.S. health care redesign” and their ability “to improve the health of the American people.”

Hartley has already played a serious role in health care as director of nursing at a women’s hospital, director of a children’s hospital, vice president of a health system, and hospital CEO. He also enjoyed a parallel nursing career as a U.S. Army officer. Hartley enlisted and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1983, after completing his undergraduate education. “Patriotism was an important factor,” he says, “but also the professional nursing practice model was attractive, and the focus on and support for further education were also drivers.”

Attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, Hartley served at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu; Moncrief Army Community Hospital in Jackson, South Carolina; and a combat support hospital overseas while deployed during the global war on terrorism. After the birth of his daughter in 1989, he left active duty but continued his service through the Army Reserves.

Reflecting on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and Veterans Day, Hartley, who will retire from the U.S. Army Reserves in December, says, “It is a celebration of all those I have served alongside over the years. I take some time to reflect and pray for each of them and what they have done for our country. Many of these great men and women have made a multitude of sacrifices that go unrecognized and that most of the American people could never understand. There are many faces and names that come to mind, and I find it humbling when I think about them.”


Juan “Tommy” O’Naghten
Sergeant, U.S. Army
Senior, College of Arts & Sciences

“I didn’t want to be just another kid who went through life with nothing earned to show for it,” says Juan Tomas O’Naghten—half Spanish, half Irish and nicknamed “Tommy” by his fellow soldiers. He’s talking about his decision in the summer of 2005 to leave St. Thomas University after two years to enlist in the Army. “I was doing what everyone else did. I wanted something hard and challenging.”

He got it. “I wear glasses, so being a pilot was out of the question,” he says. Instead, after basic training he was sent to airborne school at Ft. Benning, Georgia, where he learned to jump out of airplanes instead of fly them. His first post was at Ft. Richardson in Anchorage, in December. “Alaska was shocking—the cold, the snow, and the lack of sunlight,” says O’Naghten.

His next assignment—Iraq in October 2006—got him away from all that. “Lots of patrols, lots of ambushes,” he recalls. But it was back to Alaska after several months, and he remained at Ft. Richardson until he was deployed to Afghanistan in early 2009. This time he was stationed at a central headquarters base, where he served for a year as bodyguard to the brigade commander and brigade command sergeant major.

O’Naghten left Afghanistan in March 2010, and left the Army a few months later. He enrolled in UM as a psychology major that August with financial assistance from the Yellow Ribbon Scholarship Program. His new mission in the current challenging economy is to find a job next spring. Ideally he hopes to work for a large company that would pay for him to return to school part-time to pursue an M.B.A. in marketing.

O’Naghten, who turned 27 in October, knows his age and combat experience give him a different perspective on life than that held by the average undergraduate. “Most are just kids,” he says. “They need to figure out that life is hard, life is brutal. It’s not a joyride.” He worries about what he sees as a “sense of entitlement” overall. “After 9/11, America said to the world, ‘We stand united.’ Now we’ve kind of fallen back into an attitude of ‘what can you do for me?’ You need to add something to this country,” he says. “You have to bring something to the table and provide for your family.”

Lt. Col. Pachavit Kasemsap during a medical mission in Honduras


Pachavit Kasemsap, surgeon
Lieutenant Colonel, Medical Corps, U.S. Air Force
M.B.A. ’11, School of Business Administration

Pachavit Kasemsap always wanted to be a doctor, but he needed financial help with his education, and ROTC seemed a good means to that end. Born in Bangkok, Thailand, Kasemsap moved to the U.S. with his family when he was a boy and was raised in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Outside of town were three large military installations, one being Holloman Air Force Base, which helped inspire Kasemsap’s choice of Air Force ROTC when he entered New Mexico State University.

Emerging in 1988 with a B.S. in biology, Kasemsap headed for medical school at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his M.D. degree in 1992. At that point, he owed the Air Force active duty, and his year-long internship in general surgery was at Wilford Hall U.S. Air Force Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Kasemsap then served as flight surgeon in the 561st Fighter Squadron, stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada until June 1996. Following that, he began a five-year surgical residency at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Kasemsap returned to active duty in July 2001 as chief of general surgery at the 121st General Hospital in Seoul, South Korea. A year later, he became chief of bariatric surgery at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He remained there for four years, during which time he also served as clinical instructor in the Keesler Medical Center general residency program. Kasemsap left the Air Force in August 2006 and has since held a series of positions in private-practice surgical groups throughout South Florida. He is currently part of Surgical Specialists of South Florida, a 19-surgeon group located in Margate, and an adjunct clinical instructor in general surgery at Nova Southeastern University.

In addition to his service in South Korea, Kasemsap was deployed twice overseas, for six-month temporary-duty tours prior to each of the two Gulf wars. The first deployment was to Saudi Arabia, the second to Oman. Outside of combat situations, he says, military medicine resembles its civilian counterpart. “The medical care in the military is just as good as at any academic medical centers in the civilian world,” Kasemsap says. “The biggest difference is the younger population; the types of operations you perform are statistically a little different than in the general population. And, as a military officer, there are other types of duties you have to perform.”

It was his realization that “medicine is definitely a business now” and a “love of learning in general” that led Kasemsap to the specialized health sector management M.B.A. the UM School of Business Administration offers. Kasemsap expects to graduate in December. “I’m very happy with the program, and they have top teachers,” he says. “I think I’m going to be using what I learned more than I expected to.”

Sgt. Amber Cotton


Amber Cotton, B.S.N. ’07
Sergeant, U.S. Army
M.S.N. Student, School of Nursing

Veterans Day is a special day for Amber Cotton. “I have lost so many fellow soldiers,” she says. “I try to honor them every day, but especially on this day.”

Cotton is one of those people on a mission to help others. As a nurse, her work has taken her everywhere from war zones to Third World disasters. It began when, as a licensed practical nurse with the Army, she was deployed to Iraq in January 2003 as the manager of a trauma intensive care unit. In Iraq, she saw it all. “It was a hard transition going from military to civilian life,” she says.

Once she was back home and out of the Army, Cotton earned a B.S.N. degree from the University of Miami. Today, with the goal of becoming a family nurse practitioner, she’s on campus again to pursue her master’s. “I love learning, and the School of Nursing has an exceptional facility and a faculty that make you really want to go that extra mile to make a difference in the world,” she says.

For Cotton, making a difference includes medical mission trips. She spent time in Haiti in 2010 assisting the earthquake relief efforts. “It really opens your eyes to see how lucky we are in America,” she says.

Capt. Eric Kom


Eric Kom
Captain, U.S. Air Force
Graduate Student, School of Architecture

Eric Kom was in Japan on 9/11/2001. “It was 11:30 Monday night there, and I happened to turn on the radio to the Air Force Network,” he recalls. At first he thought it was some Orwellian prank—“like aliens invading,” he recalls. “I soon realized it wasn’t a joke, but the reality was that I wasn’t someplace where I could help. And I wanted to. Thankfully, later on in my career, I was able to.”

By 9/11, Kom had been in the U.S. Air Force almost three years. He’d joined the ROTC at the University of Nebraska and was commissioned as an officer the day before he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture in December 1998. During his more than ten years of service, Kom saw many parts of the world, including Hawaii, Japan, Germany, and, following the attack on 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kom was not directly involved with flying or flight operations. As an Air Force officer he acted as an architect and a jack-of-all-trades engineer. He began by designing and remodeling a kitchen on the base and drafting programming documents. He then graduated to major efforts like designing housing projects that would support thousands of military personnel. He also took part in base maintenance and development as well as FEMA-style preparedness training.

“In Iraq, where I spent four months at Ali Air Base, about 200 miles south of Baghdad, I never went off the base,” he says. “Afghanistan was a lot different. I was at a smaller base about two hours northeast of Kandahar. I was part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team, going outside the wire to repair roads and do other engineering-related projects, not just buildings. Some of the other work my team did was humanitarian such as providing access to clean water and doing basic medical checks and vaccinations for the local populace.”

Kom recently left the Air Force and is pursuing a master’s degree in architecture at the University of Miami in preparation for his goal of landing a civilian job at a medium-size firm. “It’s a great architecture school focused on traditional architecture practices, and there are good networking connections. “But,” laughs the South Dakota native, “it’s going to take a while to acclimate to this humidity.”


Austin O’Donoghue
Petty Officer 2nd Class, U.S. Navy
Freshman, College of Arts & Sciences

It may sound like a bad joke to say that Austin O’Donoghue joined the Navy because he was “floating” through life, but that’s the word he uses. “I started classes at FAU [Florida Atlantic University] after I graduated from high school in 2004, but my mom died in my first semester,” says the Fort Lauderdale native. “It hit me hard.” At the time, he admits, he was also “understimulated by academics. I thought the military would offer a unique perspective and potential fodder for future writing endeavors.” He signed on with the Navy in April 2007.

O’Donoghue was right. He came out four years older, more disciplined and surer of the direction he wanted for his life. Today he’s majoring in economics at the College of Arts and Sciences with the goal of becoming a quantitative trader. He hasn’t lost the hope of writing some day, either.

Following boot camp, O’Donoghue was sent to Pensacola, Florida, for aviation electronics training. “I became a calibration and repair technician,” he says as he explains the chain of repairs and adjustments on technology-driven modern aircraft. “I fixed the electronics that fixed the electronics on the plane. The equipment I worked on never went on a plane.”

From Pensacola, O’Donoghue was sent to Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi for additional training and then on to San Diego, where he was ultimately assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. He spent nearly the entire summer of 2010 at sea assisting, from a technology perspective, with the training or recertification of pilots in takeoffs and landings.

A defining moment of his service came while he was at sea, says O’Donoghue. “I remember walking through the hangar bay in the middle of the night by myself. Looking at all the war planes, it finally became real to me that all my efforts over the past few years were to enable these machines to destroy human beings. My previous work calibrating electronics was only intangibly related to war.”

Although O’Donoghue admits he was initially nervous about reentering college life, this time at UM—“I thought it would be painfully obvious that I was older”—he has settled into his studies nicely on a campus filled with students of all ages. His focus is set on Wall Street, but he’s still harboring the thoughts from those quiet late-night walks on the Nimitz. Maybe there’s a best-seller in his future, too.