Honoring PSU’s veterans

Before it was Portland State, PSU was the Vanport Extension Center – a place where veterans returning from World War II could get an education. Today, PSU has at least 1,500 students who served in the military, and they will be honored in an upcoming Veterans Day celebration (see below). Meet a few of them:

Win Smith, 75, had a front row seat to two of the most important episodes of the Cold War: the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.


In both, he served as a quartermaster aboard the aircraft carrier USS Essex CVS 9. During Bay of Pigs, the Essex provided medical support to the contras wounded in their failed effort to take Cuba back from the Castro regime. The following year, the Essex patrolled the Caribbean for Soviet submarines and enforced a naval quarantine of Cuba to keep Soviet ships from delivering nuclear missiles to the island. The Essex intercepted a Soviet freighter, possibly carrying nuclear weapons, and Smith volunteered to be part of the boarding party that would have taken over the ship had it not turned around and sailed away from Cuba.

He didn’t realize until later how close the crisis came to triggering a nuclear war.

“We knew the Cubans were putting missiles on the ground, but we didn’t know how far they would reach,” he recalls. “Our role was like that of a police officer being called to a house where someone might be armed.”

Smith is a part-time student at PSU, primarily studying history. He likes to socialize at the Veterans Resource Center when he’s on campus.

“It’s a good place to hang out,” he says, adding that many veterans feel a need for the center, where they can enjoy the camaraderie they can only get from other veterans.

Julie Fahnestock, 31, is a self-described Navy brat whose family fought in every American conflict since the Revolutionary War. Her two older brothers joined too. One went to Bosnia and the other to Germany.


“It was so ingrained in my family that it was just natural that I would join too,” she says.


Fahnestock enlisted in the Army in 2004, trained to be a combat medic, and was fully expecting to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, but was sidelined because of a badly broken leg. When she got out, she came to Portland and enrolled at a local college where, she said, veterans weren’t respected. She transferred to PSU, and while she still experienced a cultural divide between veterans and regular civilians, it was an improvement.


“At PSU, I have a place to be around veterans, and I get a lot of support from all of them,” she says.


Fahnestock, a health sciences major who wants to become a physician’s assistant, gives as much support as she gets. She volunteers as a student guide, helping new student veterans find the resources they need to complete paperwork for GI Bill benefits, scholarships, and anything else they may need to get established in school.


Juan Velez, 30, was born in Colombia and was adopted as an infant by a Portland couple in 1989. He joined the Navy in 2012, he says, as a way of giving back.


“I’ve had so many opportunities as an American citizen, and I wanted to protect those opportunities for others coming to the United States,” he says. “I was following John F. Kennedy’s words: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”


Serving aboard the USS Rushmore, Velez and fellow crewmen spent five months cruising the Persian Gulf and performing goodwill missions such as helping special needs school children in Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Oman.


“It really helped with morale, and showed these children that the Americans weren’t just militaristic,” he says.


Velez enrolled at PSU as soon as he got out of the Navy. His father graduated from PSU, and Velez has fond memories coming to campus as a child. Velez works in PSU’s Veterans Resource Center, helping other vets make the transition from the military to college. He’s a junior, majoring in Criminology and Criminal Justice, with ambitions to be an enforcement officer for the Environmental Protection Agency.


Sabrina Stitt, 27, wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she graduated from high school, so she stopped by a military recruiting center. Before she knew it, she was a U.S. Marine.


“I had never really worked out before, but I wanted to live up to that challenge. Being in the Marine Corps helped me realize I could do a lot more than I thought I could do,” she says.


Though she expected to be sent to a war zone, Stitt spent her time in the Marines at a training base in Quantico, Virginia, where she processed travel and benefits paperwork.


“I grew to love it. The work I did was very important to my fellow Marines,” she says.


She went through some tough times when she got out in 2012, but made her way to Portland and enrolled at PSU. Like most veterans, she found campus life to be much different than life in uniform.


“You’re navigating in a different world,” she says. “In the Marines, you can express yourself as brashly as you like. At PSU you have to think more about what you say, how it makes others feel, and for good reason.”


Stitt, a senior in Community Development, is a member of the ASPSU student senate.


PSU’s Veterans Resource Center is sponsoring a Veterans Day Celebration Monday, Nov. 6 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. A Marine Corps honor guard will perform a flag celebration at Shattuck Hall, and then participants will move to a reception in Smith Memorial Student Union, room 294. Light refreshments will be served.

-John Kirkland