On Veteran’s Day, a UM student reflects on sacrifice

File photo from Veteran's Day 2011.
File photo from Veteran's Day 2011.

Veteran’s Day is a national public holiday observed to commemorate military service members. For Juan Montoya, a UM student and war veteran, the day means a time to reflect and honor the many sacrifices those who serve make on a day to day basis.

Montoya, a sophomore majoring in athletic training, said he never truly appreciated what being a veteran meant until he saw first-hand the sacrifices made by military members over the course of his four total deployments.

“We lost a few guys in combat…we lost a few guys to suicide. We saw a lot of divorces,” Montoya said. “When I was growing up in high school, we knew about the military but I didn’t really comprehend or understand what it meant or the sacrifice that it was until I went there.”

Montoya spent the majority of his childhood growing up in New York City, until he moved to Miami and started high school here. He said he initially joined the military because he felt he needed some direction in his life after he had a difficult time in high school. He said college wasn’t an option because he couldn’t afford it, so, by default he joined the Army Infantry.

He said adjusting to the military environment was something that was difficult for him to get used to, making sacrifices of his own to serve.

“It was very difficult. The infantry is in the woods. You’re basically in the mountains and woods for weeks at a time, months at a time,” said Montoya who served from 2000 to 2015. “It was a huge culture shock especially for a kid.”

Montoya is one of about 100 UM students that are veterans who served in the military.

Montoya, who is president of the Veteran Students Organization, said the military’s environment is unlike many others and the experiences veterans have gone through can be different than what a typical college student has faced. In VSO, Montoya said he tries to focus on bridging the gap between veterans and the student body.

“There’s a bit of a gap. There is misunderstanding. It’s a different point-of-view in life and so I’m trying to make sure the VSO is as involved with the school and then they can feel included with the school,” he said.

He said because college students typically chose to forgo serving in the military before attending college, their perspectives differ from a veteran’s experience facing combat before a classroom. He said in many cases, this leads to veterans feeling isolation that can result in other issues.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 11 to 20 out of every 100 veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom, post-9/11 suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is a psychiatric disorder “that can occur in people who have experienced of witnessed a traumatic event” that results in intense and disturbing negative reactions and feelings to triggering situations.

Montoya said many veterans feel “crazy” or that “something is wrong” with them because they feel no one understands them or feel as though they’re the only ones going through it. He said by creating a safe space for veterans to come together with like-minded individuals deteriorates the feeling of isolation and misunderstanding.

“You should be proud of what you did… you’re different because you did different things that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you,” he said. “So, the goal is to have a group of individuals that think alike that can share their stories and feel like they have a place to call home.”

For Montoya, it’s a day like today that symbolizes and culminates what being a veteran, its challenges and honor brings.

The VSO, with 20 veteran students and over 150 years of combined military service, will take the field for Saturday night’s University of Miami football game against Norte Dame. The veterans will be carrying the United States colors for the pre-game ceremony.

“It’s an honor to hold a symbol that represents freedom, honor, selfless service and in my experience – sacrifice,” Montoya said.

Daniel Shaw contributed to this report.