Veterans Find a Home at Mizzou

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Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science
Political Science
Religious Studies
Women's and Gender Studies
Black Studies

On November 11, Americans are asked to reflect upon the heroism of those who have served our country in war or peace. Veterans Day, originally called Armistice Day to mark the signing of the truce that ended World War I, was renamed by Congress in 1954 to honor American veterans of all wars.

At the University of Missouri, you will find veterans teaching in classrooms, enrolled as undergraduates and graduate students, or serving in staff support roles throughout campus. All of the veterans we talked to credit their military service for instilling a sense of discipline and a drive to achieve whatever goals they choose to pursue. To the five individuals profiled below, and to all veterans who have sacrificed for our country, we thank you for your service.

April Langley, Chair of the Department of Black Studies, Associate Professor of English

April Langley

April Langley took a test when she was in high school that indicated her best career options would be as a priest or as a college English professor. She says she never really paid any attention to the test results, but the test was spot on: she became a chaplain’s assistant in the U.S. Army and later became an associate professor of English at MU. But Langley says her career path followed a long and winding road.

“I went to a working-class poor high school in California, and the military recruiters came to our school—not so much the college recruiters,” she says. “No one in my family had gone to college, and that was in the late ’70s. When you finished school, you got a job or you went into the service so you wouldn’t be a burden to your family, and you went out as an adult and made your way into the world.”

Langley says a guidance counselor encouraged her to apply to college, and even though she got accepted, she didn’t know anything about financial aid or fee waivers, so she didn’t attend. The military was recruiting women in engineering and had just integrated men and women in basic training.

“I was in one of those first classes, and I was thinking, ‘This is great—I’ve got a job, I’m going to learn a skill, and that was the working class kid’s dream,’” she says. Langley became a cartographer in the military, which she says is ironic given she has no sense of direction. She graduated from the defense mapping course at Ft. Belvoir Army Base in Fairfax County, Virginia. During that time, she often helped out the chaplains on base, who suggested she get a secondary military occupational specialty as a chaplain’s assistant, which she did. In addition to completing Chaplain’s Assistant school in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, Langley later attended Non-Commissioned Officer Academy, graduating first academically and second overall.

After the service, Langley took a number of courses at community colleges while working various jobs, and eventually earned her undergraduate degree at Mills College in Oakland, California, graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in English. She wanted to get a teaching certificate and go to work, but a mentor suggested she apply to graduate school instead. Langley was accepted by several, including Stanford, but was heavily recruited by Notre Dame and ultimately received her doctorate in English at South Bend, Indiana in 2001, specializing in 18th- and 19th-century African American and American Literature.

“My mom and the military taught me how to be on time, but graduate school taught me how to be late for things,” she jokes.

Langley began teaching at MU in 2001, when she joined the faculty as an assistant professor of English with a focus on Africana Literature. This fall, Langley became chair of the Department of Black Studies, an achievement that seemed unimaginable to a young, poor girl from poverty in New York to a working class neighborhood in Los Angeles in the ’70s. 

Stephen Quackenbush, Associate Professor of Political Science

Stephen Quackenbush

Stephen Quackenbush says he has had a lifelong interest in the military and military history. Growing up in south Florida, Quackenbush was fascinated by the U.S. Navy and foreign ships that docked at Port Everglades at Fort Lauderdale and even toured the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy. At some point, he decided he did not want to go to sea and began pursuing his dream of becoming a fighter pilot. He joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, earning an ROTC scholarship that paid for his undergraduate studies in aerospace engineering. Quackenbush pursued a master’s degree in aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech and then took a year off for his officer basic course in the U.S. Army. He picked the Army because the Air Force would not allow him to major in aerospace engineering. Quackenbush had expected to be called up for active duty after graduating in 1996 but was commissioned in the U.S. Army Reserves instead, so he decided to earn his doctorate at the University at Buffalo, switching fields from aerospace engineering to political science.

“In 2003, I graduated with my PhD and got a one-year position at Penn State,” he says. “I was at Penn State when I interviewed for and received the post at MU, but then I got mobilized to Iraq, so I spent 2004 in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and arrived in Missouri in 2005.” Quackenbush was an S-3 operations officer for the 300th Area Support Group, providing logistical support to all of southern Iraq.

“We had the strategic fuel reserve—over 12 million gallons of fuel—and we did a lot of different things,” he says. “I gave lots of briefings, though it’s hard to describe the job I did. I was like Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada—doing whatever it takes to get stuff done.”

Quackenbush says the Army taught him how to overcome the difficulties in life we all face at some time or another while giving him life experiences that have served him well as a political science professor.

“I’ve been to different places because of the military—Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, and around the U.S. to different bases,” he says. “I study international relations and international conflict, and there are a lot of people who study these things but they don’t understand the military even though it’s a big part of it.”

 Rebecca Brietzke, Graduate Student in Religious Studies

Mark Karnes and Rebecca Brietzke

Rebecca Brietzke entered the ROTC program at MU in her first year of college but decided she did not want to become an officer because her father and her grandfather had both enlisted in the military. So she enlisted in the National Guard and got deployed to Iraq during her sophomore year at Mizzou.

“I got deployed to Iraq for a year and had kind of a life-changing experience that made me think about things from a different perspective, so when I got home, I realized that nursing and the medical field is not what I wanted to do,” she says. Brietzke served in the National Guard from 2006 to 2012 and was deployed to Samarra, Iraq (north of Baghdad), from 2008 to 2009. She says her service in Iraq changed her career path.

“I went back to school for religious studies because so much of what I saw in Iraq had to do with interpersonal conflicts around religion,” she says. “Most of the soldiers over there were Christian, and they were coming up against another religion, Islam, which is obviously very different from Christianity. I watched people trying to negotiate that space and figure out how to work within it, and I realized that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to focus on religion and find ways to have more interfaith dialogues and communication across these differences to help build a better world.” As a member of the police transition team in Iraq, Brietzke helped train local police officers in first aide. She realized teaching and educating people was her true passion.

“What I do now as a diversity and inclusion specialist for the Missouri Department of Transportation is train people on the importance of diversity and inclusion, so we talk a lot about how to dismantle sexism and racism in the workplace in an effort to make the workplace and the world better and more inclusive of all people,” she says.

Brietzke says the military taught her discipline and time-management skills that have served her well as a graduate student trying to balance school, work, and a social life.

“My dad and my drill sergeant both used to say to me, ‘Drink water, change your socks, and drive on,’ meaning no matter how bad it gets, you have the persistence to get through it,” she says. “There are certainly days where I’m stressed because I have a lot going on, but I keep that motto in my head, and I know I can do it.”

Christopher Williams, Undergraduate Majoring in Political Science

Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams grew up in St. Louis and always planned on attending the University of Missouri, but he says he wasn’t ready for college after finishing high school, so he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He went to boot camp in San Diego and was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in 2012. The next year, he was mobilized to Afghanistan and then to Morocco, where he served as a field wireman/tactical switchboard operator, running fiber lines, programming telephones, and making sure computers and other equipment had power.

“We were on the base most of the time, so our biggest worries crawling under buildings to run cable were scorpions and spiders next to you,” Williams says. He says his plan was to put in his four years of active duty and then go to college, and he says the former prepared him for the latter.

“I’ve never been a morning person, so that forced me to get up at five a.m. whether I wanted to or not, and it helps me stay focused on things,” Williams says. “I know that if I have to get something done, I do that before hanging out with friends. I might think, ‘I don’t want to do this paper at midnight that’s due at 7 a.m.,’ but I know I have to do it, and when it’s done at 2 a.m. I feel good that I got it done.”

Williams, a 25-year old senior majoring in political science, says because he is several years older than most of the students in his classes, he often tries to help classmates who are struggling with something because he has been through similar circumstances.

“While we were training, we often complained about how much we hated it, and I think of this when I’m doing homework—I was told that everything has an endpoint,” Williams says. “That’s a motivational tool—get it done and it’s over. I like that, and I remind myself of this whenever I get frustrated.”

Tiffany Horton, Business Support Specialist II, Religious Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies

Tiffany Horton

Tiffany Horton is just 34 years old but has lived in 36 different places during her life. Her father was in the U.S. Army, which required the family to relocate often to various military bases. Now an undergraduate pursuing a bachelor of social work at MU, Horton bought a house in Columbia.

“This is the longest I’ve lived in one place, and it’s going on four years—it’s driving me insane,” she jokes. Horton enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves just as she was beginning her college career but says she was an on-again, off-again student and ultimately took a 13-year life break between her first college experience and her current studies. She was mobilized twice but never deployed as a reservist. Still, she says her military experience taught her personal accountability, gave her a strong work ethic, and helped her “decide what I wanted to be when I grew up.” In the Reserves, Horton did patient administration in a hospital setting. She now serves as a business support specialist for the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies and the Department of Religious Studies.

“It seems really fitting to transition into this administrative role here, where I’m the fiscal officer and everything, since they are both small departments,” she says. “Because of my service, rank structure is a big thing for me. I tell students there is a chain of command: if you have a problem with your teaching assistant, go to your instructor, and if that doesn’t resolve it, go to your director of undergraduate studies. It taught me that everything has a process, and you can’t jump to the front of the line screaming ‘I have a problem’ and expect people to fix it.”

Horton says she is impressed by the students she interacts with because they manage to get their work done despite their “amazing, crazy, busy lives,” and she credits the military for instilling a strong work ethic in herself.

“I’ve used the phrase, ‘Do what you have to do when you have to do it, so later you can do what you want to do,’” she says. “My faculty are very tired of hearing, ‘Poor planning on your part is not an emergency on my part,’ which is another phrase I got from the Army. It also taught me tact, which is something I’d never really been accused of having.”  

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