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USF military leaders reflect on 9/11 anniversary

When Jess Beltran, a sophomore majoring in psychology, was a fourth grader in New York’s Belmore school district 10 years ago, two planes struck the World Trade Center one hour’s drive away from her.

She just read in the corner.

“We were in class and, all of a sudden, all of the kids started being pulled out of class,” she said. “Their parents came to get them and, by the end of the day, there were three people left in class. Two of the teachers were in the room watching and I remember I could see them crying. They wouldn’t let us watch, they made us sit in the corner in a circle and read.”

The mystery of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 was unresolved until Beltran went home to her mother and grandmother.

“It was close but it was far away,” she said. “(It was) something so devastating, even though I wasn’t really there.”

Being there was no requirement, said Director of Veterans Services Larry Braue, who called Sept. 11 the “most traumatic” experience he has ever encountered.

“I wasn’t in New York, I wasn’t right there, but mentally and emotionally I was,” he said. “I mean, everybody I think was there – watching the television, literally my heart ached.”

Braue was a faculty member with USF’s ROTC program at the time and said about 40 USF students joined the ROTC program in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and hit the Pentagon.

He said it changed the way military personal thought and their mindset toward training, because they “knew the likelihood was that we were going to go to war.” The event kept Lt. Roger Phelps, who teaches naval science courses for the Navy ROTC program, in the armed forces.

“I’m actually still in the service because it happened,” Phelps said. “I was due to get out that next year, but decided to stay in. I was kind of on that side of the fence, but this impacted me enough to want to keep serving.”

While Phelps had been working on submarines prior to Sept. 11, he entered the pilot program after choosing to remain active and has been teaching at USF for nearly 33 months. USF has ROTC programs for each branch of the military and is ranked No. 8 among veteran friendly campuses, according to Military Times EDGE magazine. It was also the first university in the country to offer specialized services for veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides housing and scholarships to veterans with at least 90 days of service on or after Sept. 11, 2001.

John Sarao, the associate director of USF’s Joint Military Center, said those who enter the USF ROTC program with military experience face different challanges than the majority of ROTC students, who enter the program fresh out of high school.

“Our veterans who come back now, since most of them who do come back have seen some combat either in Iraq or Afghanistan or elsewhere, (face) different issues … coming back into a civilian environment,” he said. “The people they’re interacting with do not have the same experiences they did, so that raises some challenges for veterans in that regard, particularly with Post Traumatic Stress (Disorder) and adapting to different environments.”

Sarao said the greatest difference between a pre-Sept. 11 U.S. and now is the realization that freedom is not absolute.

“Looking back, looking at our country, how fragile our freedom really is,” he said. “I think everybody thought we were pretty secure in our own country, but we learned we are really vulnerable in our own country and we have to be careful. We can’t take our freedom and security for granted.”

USF continues to introduce new resources into its ROTC programs. New this semester is a living-learning community, which allows ROTC students to live together in the Maple Apartments. This community was created with the Office for Residential Life for ROTC students. Sarao said the community currently occupies one floor, but he hopes it can expand for the 2012-13 academic year.