Vanguard University student Michael Woode told an audience of fellow veterans, their family members, and campus staff on Friday about how he was injured along with three fellow Marines during an improvised explosive attack on their vehicle while they were deployed to Iraq.
In overcoming his own traumatic experiences and related mental health issues, Woode, a Marine veteran, discovered his passion for helping other veterans with their personal challenges. On May 4, Woode will graduate from Vanguard University with a bachelor of arts in psychology and a $5,000 scholarship as the recipient of the 2018 Chris Merkle Student Veteran Leadership Award. This fall, he'll start studying for Vanguard's master of science in clinical psychology.
Woode said advancing in his academic career is bittersweet, partly because his graduate classes will at a satellite office rather than the Costa Mesa campus he's come to love.
"I felt a sense of belonging that I haven't felt since leaving the Marine Corps," he said.
Woode was one of eight graduating veterans honored during the 2018 Challenge Coin Ceremony at Vanguard's Veterans Courtyard of Honor.
Each student was presented with a challenge coin, a military tradition dating to World War I when troops used them to identify with their specific unit.
One side of Vanguard University's challenge coin for the class of 2018 has a picture of the U.S. flag, a flag of the graduate's service branch and a challenge to "act justly, walk humbly and love mercy with commitment, honor and excellence." On the other side are the Vanguard University logo and the words "Truth, virtue and service."
Brian Burlingame, a retired master gunnery sergeant with the Marine Corps, spoke proudly of the students he's mentored at the Vanguard University Veteran Resource Center as associate director of environmental health, safety and veteran services.
"Our challenge coin ceremony provides an opportunity for us to honor each student's service while celebrating their academic success," Burlingame said. "It highlights a significant milestone in this season of their lives. They've served our nation with great distinction, and we owe them our very best each day."
Woode was selected for the leadership award by members of the Vanguard Student Veteran Organization. The runner-up was Alvaro Salgado, who received a $2,500 scholarship and will graduate next month with a bachelor of arts in religion.
As a 17-year-old, Woode enlisted in the Marine Corps in September 2004 and joined the infantry as a machine gunner, according to the Vanguard event's program. He went on deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. In 2013, Woode received an honorable discharge from the Marines and took general education classes at Orange Coast and Saddleback colleges while working as a personal trainer in San Clemente. He was accepted to Vanguard in fall 2016.
His hope is to one day bring a veteran's perspective on mental health to the Department of Veteran's Affairs as a licensed marriage and family therapist and professional clinician.
"To the general public, we're all some messed-up war veteran, and that couldn't be farther from the truth," Woode said. "We've come so far from what some of the Vietnam veterans that are here come back to. There's still a lot of work that needs to be done on the healthcare side."
As one of the many American universities and colleges that participate in the Department of Veterans Affairs' Yellow Ribbon program, Vanguard awards scholarships to qualified students for tuition and fees that exceed benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Under this agreement, the federal government matches the university's contribution for each veteran student.
The other graduating veterans honored Friday were Navy vets Ethan Cornell and Tyrell Tarboro, Marine veteran Jonathan Munday, Army veteran Jason Keyser and Army National Guard veterans Matthew Oostra and Gloria Hernandez.
Daniel Langhorne is a contributor to Times Community News.