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Mountaineers in Arms

Mountaineers in Arms

Mountaineers in Arms

WRITTEN BY JAKE STUMP
PHOTOGRAPHED BY RAYMOND THOMPSON JR.

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When you take a stroll through the West Virginia University campus, college students tend to blend in together as a whole. They’re lugging around backpacks, checking their smartphones and chatting with friends. But some of those students have undergone life experiences that even their most tenured professors have never endured.

Some of these students have served honorably in the nation’s armed forces. Some have traveled to countries that you can’t pronounce. Some have partaken in hundreds of combat missions. Some have seen things that a human being should never in their life see. 


They are veterans, and their journeys beyond the military have stretched to the campus of WVU.  

There are more than 1,000 veterans, active-duty personnel and dependents furthering their education here.  


None are alike. Some study the stars and galaxies. Others want to become aquatherapists.  


Regardless, they all share professional and personal aspirations that they hope WVU can help them attain.  


They are united, not only as veterans, but as Mountaineers.

Ed Olesh

The Fishing Ranger

Veteran: Ed Olesh

Branch: Army Rangers

Major: Wildlife and Fisheries Resources

After four deployments and more than 400 combat missions, Ed Olesh no longer wanted to gamble with his life. 


At 18, Olesh left the family farm in Ohiopyle, Pa., for basic training. He joined the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, one of the military’s most elite infantry units. 

Throughout the next six years, his roles varied – from grenade launcher to machine gunner to demolitions expert.

Then, while stationed in Seattle, Wash., with the 2nd Ranger Battalion, Olesh would take on a new role in his personal life – husband. 

“I wanted to start a family,” he said. “One of my buddies lost his life on his 14th deployment. He had four daughters. I didn’t want Erienne [his wife] to go through that. And she didn’t want to have kids until I got out.”


Olesh had no idea what he desired professionally. That is, until he went fishing one day. 

“A man came up to me and asked, ‘Can I take some blood from your fish?’” Olesh said. “I’m like, ‘What? Um. Sure, OK.’ He says he’s a fisheries biologist for the state of Washington. I said, ‘Wait a minute. You can get a job studying fish?’

“I went home and knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to college and be a fish biologist.”

That chance encounter led Olesh to WVU. In 2016, he earned his bachelor’s degree in wildlife and fisheries resources and minored in environmental economics and conservational biology while making the Dean’s List each semester. Meanwhile, his wife acquired her PhD in neuroscience at WVU and is now assistant director of technology commercialization at the Health Sciences Innovation Center. They have a son. 


Ed Olesh

You'll often find Ed Olesh in the outdoors hunting and fishing, like on this day outside of Morgantown when he went bow hunting. 

Today, Olesh is nearing the finish line for his master’s degree. His research examines the diets of smallmouth bass in West Virginia and how those diets differ in various water sources. Someday he hopes to teach at a liberal arts college. 


It’s been quite a transition. After dodging machine gun fire and roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, he struggled to adapt to a life not so engulfed in adrenaline and violence. 


As Olesh puts it, it’s going from a “warrior culture” to a “campus culture.”

“You go through separation anxiety and survivor’s guilt,” Olesh said. “Those feelings never get worked out by the time you’re in college. Then you’re in school after being in an organized, disciplined environment. You have kids whipping out their phones in school and talking on them. I couldn’t help myself. The E-5 [rank of sergeant] would come out.”


If you lined up 20 random college students and had to guess the veteran, you’d pick Olesh. 


He’s an unabashed patriot. Hulking and assertive, Olesh is bearded, covered in tattoos and can probably bench press your body weight. His choice of attire for this interview: A black American flag T-shirt and a pair of red, white and blue Converse All Stars. 


Olesh admits that he didn’t find his groove at WVU until his sophomore year. On his first day on campus, he took offense to a fellow freshman who answered his phone during an orientation presentation. Olesh was pulled aside by Dennis K. Smith, then an associate dean of academic affairs and professor of agribusiness management and rural development.


“Are you a vet?” Smith asked Olesh. 

“Yeah.”

“Come with me.”


Smith helped Olesh register for the classes he needed and told him, “While most students may need that [a lecturing on phone use and manners], I wouldn’t suggest you do that a whole lot.” 
That interaction with Smith was the beginning of what Olesh describes as riding up an escalator on a journey to maturity. 


“At WVU, I started listening to other people and other viewpoints,” he said. “By my senior year, I went from Republican to Libertarian to left-leaning to ‘Why do I need to fall into a category?’ I’m just going to think for myself. That’s what college helped me do.”


Ed Olesh

                   It appears that Olesh doesn't need your workout tips. Here he is posing in our studio for a magazine shoot. 


Olesh hopes to share his thoughts and experiences with future student-veterans so that they can embark on a smoother path. He is president of the Veterans of WVU student group.


For Welcome Week this year, Olesh helped organize a first-ever retreat for student-veterans to inform them of services available to them and to introduce them to campus. 


Olesh also wants to see more campus assistance regarding GI benefits and veterans’ issues.


“So many times vets sign up for classes and halfway through the semester, they stop getting benefits,” he said. “We really need more faculty members who are dedicated to that.”


Most of all, Olesh is determined to change the perceptions others may have of veterans. 


“People might think, ‘You’re a vet. You must love Trump,’” Olesh said. “Nope. That’s not the case. Or they think we hate Middle Eastern people. 


“We had interpreters from those countries that risked more than any vet that was over there. Their families were in danger because they helped us. There’s a huge amount of respect for them. 


“In reality, you’re constantly learning in the military and meeting new and different people. You don’t think about the race, religion or sexual orientation of the person next to you. I’m not saying that’s a good or bad thing, but diversity grows community.”

Laura Bowen

The 'Lady' Marine

Veteran: Laura Bowen

Branch: Marines

Major: Geology and Geography

“The Few, The Proud” is more than just a catchy recruiting slogan for the U.S. Marines. The Marine Corps, after all, is the smallest military branch within the Department of Defense, and for good reason. 


It prides itself on having grueling basic training that only the fittest can conquer, and its emphasis on physical readiness prepares Marines for the rigors of combat.

Laura Bowen, of McLean, Va., wanted in on that. 

A woman who stands 4 feet, 11 inches tall, Bowen knew she didn’t fit the image of the stoic Marine with a crewcut. 

That gave her all the more reason to enlist. 

“Nobody really thinks of women when they think about the Marines,” she said. “But I always knew I wanted to be in the service.”

She decided on which branch to join while she was enrolled at an all-female college in Virginia. During an ROTC course, Bowen was awestruck during a presentation by a Marine. 


“The way the officer presented himself was very professional,” she said. “He was more physically fit than the others and he was in his 50s. I thought, ‘There’s no way I could be anything else but the best.’ It’s got to be the Marines. They’re the most physically fit, the smallest branch and the hardest to get into. I don’t mind doing things the hard way.”


Bowen left college and enlisted. 

She recalled the grinding physical and mental exercises, the obstacle courses and the martial arts training, but said, “You can’t beat getting paid to stay in shape.”


Because of her short stature, Bowen did not meet height requirements for several positions throughout her four-year tenure. 

“As a 4’11” woman, maybe I couldn’t easily take down a 300-pound dude. So I couldn’t be an MP [military police],” she explained. “And the trucks aren’t made for a 4’11” woman so I couldn’t work in Motor T [motor transport].”

Laura Bowen

Laura Bowen says at her height, she may not be able to take down a large man. But you still don't want to mess with this Marine.  

The specialty she landed in did not have restrictive height or physical requirements, yet a high-functioning mind was essential. She ended up serving as an intelligence analyst. 


“We analyze and assess enemy threats,” Bowen said. 

She spent two years stationed at Okinawa, Japan, before completing her service at a California base.

“My job was the sweetest,” said Bowen, a lance corporal. “I had access to top-secret information and got to travel. It opened my world to see there’s more than just finding a house, finding a spouse and settling down for the rest of your life.”


Sounds like a dream job, and it was for Bowen. Yet the weight of being a woman in a male-dominated universe was heavy. She left the Marines and found her next home at West Virginia University. 


“It got complicated,” Bowen said on leaving the military. “Gender bias is a very real thing. I’ve been told to smile at work. ‘You’re making people uncomfortable. You have to smile more.’”
Marines are supposed to smile?


“No,” Bowen replied. “F*** no.”

Now 30, Bowen is a dual major in geology and geography. She jokes that those departments want to keep her around since she’s a senior now but not expected to graduate until 2020. 


She started as a criminology major before figuring out it wasn’t a good fit. She switched to geology and then added geography when she realized it could piggyback off her intelligence analyst experience with GIS mapping. 

Bowen hopes to find a career like the Marines, which she says was her dream job, that will enable her to travel. 


Laura Bowen

                                                                        Bowen with Woodburn Hall in the background. 

Outside of the classroom, Bowen has also played a pivotal role in highlighting veterans’ issues on campus. She’s a former president of the Veterans of WVU club and pushed for the creation of the new Veterans’ Center in the Mountainlair. That central gathering place was much needed, she said, for students like her who’ve served the country. 

“In the service, you’re told where to go, what to do, how to think and what to wear,” Bowen said. “You come to WVU and there’s not much of that system. It was very difficult at first. 


“I screwed up a lot of classes and was dealing with PTSD, but I’ve been able to pull through because there’s been people who’ve stepped up.” 


As a veteran, Bowen still experiences gender bias out in the community, but she credits WVU for being more progressive and proactive in dealing with all veterans, regardless of background. 


“My goal is to put being a veteran not behind me but not have it be something that could hurt me. Right now, it can easily be turned into a weapon. 


“Learning to be a female veteran is a real thing. I’ve gone to the VA and they’ll say, ‘Who’s your husband?’ or ‘Who are you here for?’ when I’m there for my appointments. Most female vets feel that way. It’s an invisibility cloak. 


“They’re changing that here,” she said of WVU. “Within the last year or two, they’ve really stepped it up and we have this community – there’s no other place that could have a community [of veterans] quite like this. And I need that, because I’m never going to stop being a veteran.”

Rodney Elliott

From Air Force to Science Force

Veteran: Rodney Elliott

Branch: Air Force

Major: Physics and Russian Studies

Every other week, the West Virginia University Astronomy Club gathers on the rooftop of White Hall to gaze at the night sky. 

Planetary nebulas, constellations, clusters – if it’s visible through the Observatory’s 14-inch Celestron telescope, the club members will geek out about it.

Among the students is a bearded fellow who chats up his classmates on courses they’re taking, favorite professors and eateries on High Street. For the past few years, they’ve elected him club president. 

He’s a lot like them. Only he’s got a few more gray hairs and 20 years in the U.S. Air Force.


“Want to look at Saturn?” he asks, just seconds after positioning the telescope. 


Rodney Elliott’s fascination with space began while growing up in Bogata, Texas. He got into “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” and other sci-fi programming. Now 41 and married with two college-aged daughters, his curiosity for the wonders of the universe has become the beginning of a new life. 


“I never seriously thought that I could pursue this as a career,” Elliott said. “I finished high school and joined the Air Force. College was an option, but I couldn’t afford it. Being a first-generation student, I wasn’t made aware of scholarships or student aid.”

One driving factor for Elliott joining the Air Force was just that – to receive funding for college. His original plan involved completing one enlistment and then leaving the military for school. 


But he kept reenlisting. 

He began his military career as a driver delivering aircraft parts in South Korea. He was later retrained to work as a database administrator for several years. Then the Air Force sent him to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in California to train as a linguist. 


“I fully expected to be trained in Arabic but they taught me Russian,” he said, which is why the physics senior is also majoring in Russian studies. 


His time in the Air Force also came with a few deployments. He was sent to Saudi Arabia twice for Operation Southern Watch, an air-centric military operation conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense from 1992 to 2003. That mission called for monitoring the airspace in southern and south-central Iraq. Elliott also served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the mobilization following 9/11. 


“I was in Baghdad but not during the hottest part of the war,” he said. “We saw mortar fire a few times on base where you had to take cover. … It’s weird to say, but I felt safer in Iraq than in some places in the U.S. because you’re on a well-protected base and you’ve got body armor.” 


He credits his military and global experiences for his success in college and life in general. 


“The biggest benefit I got from my time in the military was being exposed to people outside the bubble of my hometown,” he said. “You’re forced to work with people from all walks of life. It gives you a different perspective and the travel obviously was one of the highlights. I got to live in South Korea, Hawaii, Arizona and California, just to name a few.”


Rodney Elliott

Rodney Elliott peeks at the sky at the WVU Observatory. He's had a fascination with space since he was a boy growing up in Texas. 
 

It took 20 years, but he finally made it to college. His wife, Kami, whom he met in the Air Force, is a Fairmont, W.Va., native, which played a role in him choosing WVU. 


“I looked at WVU and saw they had a phenomenal astronomy staff,” Elliott said. “And the fact that the Green Bank Observatory is affiliated, that really attracted me to this University.”


Elliott retired from the Air Force in January 2016 and started at WVU that same month.


In April 2018, he won the Goldwater Scholarship, one of the most prestigious national scholarships in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering fields. The scholarship, worth up to $7,500, is awarded to sophomores and juniors who show exceptional promise of becoming America’s next generation of research leaders. 


Elliott’s primary research focus is supermassive binary black holes, which are formed as remnants of galaxy mergers and are a source of gravitational waves. 


“Most galaxies have a supermassive black hole in the center, including our own,” Elliott explained. “When two galaxies collide, the two supermassive black holes eventually merge. In the process, they would orbit each other and emit gravitational waves of a frequency that we should be able to detect – but we haven’t yet – by using pulsar timing arrays.” 


Elliott, who researches with Sarah Burke-Spolaor, assistant professor of astronomy, hopes to continue this endeavor after he graduates in May 2019. He’s eyeing graduate programs across the country in astronomy and astrophysics. Someday he hopes to land a job as a staff astronomer at an observatory. 


In the summer of 2017, he attended what he called a radio astronomy dream camp at Green Bank where he worked on a research project estimating the mass of the Milky Way galaxy.


“The whole experience confirmed my desire to study the cosmos and share that knowledge with others,” Elliott said. “I feel so fortunate to work on my degree at a top research school like WVU.


“A lot of people in the military do their 20 years, retire and get a civilian job doing the same thing they did in the military. I could have done that. 


“I probably could have gotten a really good-paying job in intel. But I wanted to do this. I wanted to do science.”

Marvina Jones

Marvina Jones doesn’t shake hands. 


It’s not a sign of disrespect. She’s a U.S. Air Force veteran and a public health student. She’ll take protecting herself and others first over social constraints. 

“Sorry, but it’s cold season,” said Jones, declining a handshake on a crisp fall afternoon. 

Jones, a first lieutenant with the Pittsburgh-based 911th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserves, dove into her first semester of graduate school this fall at West Virginia University. She’s enrolled in the master of public health program, with an emphasis on health policy, management and leadership. 

It’s not her first foray into the health field. The 30-year-old Beckley, W.Va., native spent much of her seven years of active Air Force duty as a healthcare administrator and medical logistics officer. She earned her first master’s degree in health administration while in the military. 


“After seven years in the Air Force, I didn’t want to throw that away,” Jones said about joining the Reserves. “I discovered I enjoyed being a health administrator, so the Reserves allows me the opportunity to still do that in a military setting but also explore my ‘what ifs’ on the civilian side.”


Those ‘what ifs’ sprout up along the way of earning her second master’s degree. 


“My focus is on health policy,” she said. “I’m very interested in that and hearing whose voices are heard when policies are being made.”


Marvina Jones

                                                            Marvina Jones at the iconic Health Sciences Center pylons. 

She’s flexible about what comes next after graduation, an attitude that has served her well. 


The idea of entering the military wasn’t a thought that floated through her head until her senior year as an undergrad at WVU. 

Jones, who earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology in 2010, signed up for the Air Force the very same month she graduated. 


“I always planned to go to dental school,” Jones said. “But for whatever reason, I was just burned out on school in my senior year. I thought about joining the National Guard but my mom said, ‘Why don’t you just go full-time and travel a bit?’ I wanted health benefits and something that would allow me to go back to school. The military was a good fit.


“I always heard that the smarter people go to the Air Force,” she added jokingly, “and that the Air Force wasn’t necessarily out on the front lines. I knew I didn’t want to be a Marine. I’m thankful for Marines and soldiers on the front lines, but that’s not what I was looking for.”


Jones joined the delayed entry program and eventually landed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. She started out as an administrative assistant working as support staff for the commander. Later, she would become a healthcare administrator and educate patients and veterans on medical services and benefits. 


Although she was never deployed for military action, she spent time at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea as a medical resource advisor. 


That global experience heightened her appreciation of other cultures and also taught her lessons in humility and camaraderie. 


“In South Korea, everybody lived in the dorm, whether you were the lowest-ranking airman or the highest colonel,” Jones said. “And most of us couldn’t drive over there, so after work everyone got together to stay socially fit. 


“I met a lot of great people in the military from different backgrounds and different points of view. One thing it taught me was to have empathy because you never know what someone else is going through, where they’re coming or where they’re going. 


“The second lesson from the military I learned was to work as a team. Whether you’re deployed in combat or at a peacetime location, you have to rely on each other. That was huge for us in South Korea.”


Marvina Jones

Jones began her first semester of grad school in fall 2018 after seven years in the Air Force. 

In between classes and Reserve duties – she has to spend one weekend a month training – she’s applying her health and administrative expertise at the Morgantown Vet Center as a work-study student. The center provides counseling for veterans. There she’s struck up relationships with a wide range of veterans from different eras, including Vietnam War veterans. 


“There are different generations of military veterans for sure,” she said. “But you know what? As much as things change, they stay the same. We share a lot of the same gripes and experiences even though we’re generations apart. 


“There’s always been red tape and the hurdle of navigating veterans’ benefits. Through my various roles, I want to make sure that all of us are getting what we’re entitled to as veterans.


“Both the military and WVU have taught me a lot. I’m thankful for those experiences. And who knows? I might go back to active duty someday. I’m not too old yet.”

John Killmeyer

Transitions

Veteran: John Killmeyer 

Branch: Army and Navy

Major: Forensics

John Killmeyer is a happily married man, a devout Mountaineer Maniac and an aspiring forensic pathologist. 


Now that he is no longer a woman, the 32-year-old U.S. Army veteran seems more at peace with himself. Killmeyer is a transgender man. 

“I knew since fourth grade,” said the Morgantown, W.Va., native. “It’s exhausting pushing that away. It was one more thing I didn’t want to deal with.”

Killmeyer began his transition in early 2018. At the time, he was juggling life as a forensic science student, a newlywed and a veteran grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet the decision has lessened the load on his shoulders, with family, friends and the WVU community supporting his endeavor. 

“No one has said anything [negative] about it. It seems more socially acceptable to be LGBT on campus than it is to be a veteran,” said Killmeyer, jokingly. 


But at the same time Killmeyer was not joking. 

In a country steeped in political division and sweeping generalizations, Killmeyer believes veterans are either blindly glorified or vilified. He has experienced the latter. 

“I was sitting in a history class, and a sophomore decided that I was a war criminal and had no problem telling me that to my face,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Well, OK.’ There’s always that stereotype. You’re a warmonger. Or a baby killer. 

“To the general public, you’re either a hero or a terrible person. There’s no in-between.”


Warmongering certainly wasn’t on the list of reasons why Killmeyer joined the military right out of high school. 

He thought college was not for him, even though his parents are both graduates of WVU. Instead, Killmeyer set his sights on the military. Specifically, he wanted to play trumpet in a military band. 

“The idea of someone paying me to play trumpet was awesome,” said Killmeyer, who played in the Morgantown High School band. 

Killmeyer auditioned for the Army and Navy bands. The Navy accepted him. He finished boot camp and was sent to a military music school to hone his skills as a trumpeter. He was then discharged due to “failure to adapt to a military lifestyle.” 


“I did better in boot camp than in the music school,” he said. “Boot camp makes more sense to me. There was more structure.”

John Killmeyer

                                                                John Killmeyer walking at Coopers Rock State Forest. 


Frustrated over his discharge, Killmeyer had nowhere to go but back to Morgantown. That frustration grew until one day, a few months later, he walked into an Army recruiting office and said, “I’ll take any job you have. But no music.”

He joined an engineering unit as a carpenter and eventually became a medic. In 2009, he was deployed to Iraq. 


“We drove all over that country to build structures,” he said. “We built a gym for the Special Forces near Tikrit and then we were off to Fallujah.”

Killmeyer and five others riding with him in a military vehicle did not make it into Fallujah. They ran over a roadside bomb or improvised explosive device. 


“I felt it before I heard it,” he said. “It was quite a shake. I couldn’t hear. Lots of ringing in the ears. It was chaos. 

“Everyone thinks IEDs would be easy to spot. The roads over there are lined with trash, everywhere. There are no highway cleanup crews. So they’re very hard to see. 

”Another problem with an IED is that there’s a second one nearby. It’s also a great time for the enemy to ambush. So we didn’t stick around.”

Everyone in the vehicle escaped with their lives. But there were lasting damages. 

Killmeyer was transported to a medical facility in Germany with head trauma. He was sent back to the U.S. to recover. Still, the Army didn’t think his injuries warranted a discharge and he was reassigned to a unit in Virginia where he served as a medic until 2014.

 
He was then diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and discharged. 

“It was sad, but I accepted it,” Killmeyer said. “No one wants a medic who can’t save anybody anymore.”

Afterward, Killmeyer went to stay with a friend, a U.S. Marine in Wisconsin. The friend noticed that Killmeyer wasn’t quite himself. He was distant and having nightmares. She encouraged him to check into an in-patient program for veterans with PTSD. 

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, up to 20 of every 100 veterans of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom suffer from PTSD. 


Seeking treatment helped Killmeyer reconnect with the civilian world and with himself. 

“Some of it is meditation,” he said of his coping method. “Some of it is counting. Some people keep an object – a familiar keepsake that keeps them grounded.”

Killmeyer’s object is a presidential coin that was awarded to him by President Barack Obama. 

After moving from Wisconsin to San Francisco, Calif., Killmeyer grew more and more homesick. He returned to Morgantown in 2016 and decided to give WVU a shot. 


“I felt more prepared, more grounded,” he said. “My poor mother had been trying to get me to go to college for over a decade.”

John Killmeyer

Killmeyer says he feels like a real Mountaineer at WVU sporting events.  

One of Killmeyer’s first actions as a student? Joining the Mountaineer Maniacs, the largest student organization on campus that supports the WVU athletic teams. He’s often in the thick of the student section of basketball and football games roaring along with other Maniacs. 


“I love it,” he said. “I’m out there with the signs and posters doing all that crazy fan stuff.”

Killmeyer also had no trouble trying to fit in, despite the age difference, on his first day of class. 

“I asked myself, ‘What do you wear to college?’ So I just put on a 2016 fan shirt, khaki shorts and a hat. I’m going to look like everyone else and no one will know I’m here. It’s still like wearing camouflage.”

He’s on track to graduate in May 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in forensic science. He isn’t certain what the future holds, but he could pursue an advanced degree if he wants to achieve his ultimate goal of becoming a medical examiner. 


“I’m still learning to get through,” Killmeyer said of college. “I’m more comfortable, though it’s sometimes hard to relate to 18-year-old students whose biggest life experience is that their high school boyfriend broke up with them. Many of my professors enjoy that I’m closer to their age. They’ll make references, and I’m the only student who gets them.

“I love WVU and am very happy that I finally got pushed into being a college student.”


Amanda Neff

Pursuing Water

Veteran: Amanda Neff

Branch: Navy 

Major: Exercise Physiology

Amanda Neff is finding more “water time” as a West Virginia University student than she has in her 13-plus years with the U.S. Navy and Navy Reserves. 


The senior from Clay, W.Va., is studying exercise physiology with an emphasis on aquatic therapy. Part of her coursework involves shadowing aquatic therapists.


“I can see myself going into aquatic rehab,” Neff said. “You hear people [recovering from injuries] in the water say, ‘I can’t do this on land.’ That’s rewarding as a student.”


You might think that with her Navy background, she’s already spent a chunk of her life in and on the water. But she never worked on a ship. 

“My Navy experience is different,” she said. “The aircraft I’ve worked on are too big for a ship.”

So much for civilian assumptions of the military. 

Neff, a petty officer first class, is an aviation electrician. While on active duty, she repaired aircraft used for anti-submarine warfare and battlespace surveillance. 

She joked that the “AE” abbreviation for “aviation electrician” really stands for “aviation everything.”

“If there’s a problem with the aircraft, they call us,” she said. 


Neff’s job has evolved over the years along with military technology. Now, as a member of the Navy Reserves, she focuses on unmanned aircraft systems – drones.

“Now I fly from a computer with three monitors, two keyboards and two mice,” Neff said. 

Neff wanted to join the military even though she had the West Virginia Promise Scholarship. 

“I was against going to college after high school,” Neff said. “Growing up, my dad always said, ‘You need to join the military. There’s nothing here for you. Get out of here.’ I said, ‘OK, dad.’ So that’s what happened.”

Amanda Neff

Amanda Neff with her dog Dobby at the Core Arboretum. She found Dobby, a stray, at a church parking lot in Clay County, W.Va. 

 

Her Navy career took her on four deployments: Qatar and Djibouti, Qatar, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. 


In Afghanistan, she worked with the Navy’s Female Engagement Team, a program composed of female sailors who would develop trust-based relationships with Afghan women encountered on patrols. Due to cultural norms in some Muslim countries, male troops are prohibited from interacting with women. So women in the military took on those roles.


“We were there to bridge the cultural gap,” Neff said. “I was proud to be part of that, to build trust with the Afghan women and to help the mission of the Navy.”


Neff left active duty in 2012 and enlisted in the Reserves. She had deferred her Promise Scholarship for seven years and the deadline was approaching. 


It was time to go to school. She enrolled at WVU Tech as a biology student and even ran cross country for the Golden Bears. 

Then she was called up by the Reserves for a year. 


Then she went back to school for a semester. 

Then the Reserves called her up for another year. 

Then it was back to school for semester. 

Then she went on military orders for three years. 

Now she’s finally wrapping up her final year of college (hopefully without interruption) at WVU in Morgantown. 


“I’ve been recalled three times since joining the Reserves,” she said. “I haven’t gone to school consistently, and it’s been tough to transition.”


When Neff came to WVU in the fall of 2017, she had forgotten so much after a three-year detour from academics that she failed an organic chemistry class. 

“I wasn’t ready to come back,” she said. “It was a disaster. I knew I couldn’t be successful in biology anymore.”


So she found a field she could excel at – exercise physiology. 

Amanda Neff

                      Neff smiles (possibly at the thought of graduating without any additional call ups) at the Core Arboretum. 


The major switch came during an early morning workout at the Student Rec Center. Neff struck up a conversation with another woman in the locker room. Neff talked about her on-again, off-again status as a student and revealed to the woman what she really wanted to accomplish with a college degree. 

That woman was Lori Sherlock, associate professor and aquatic therapy coordinator for the exercise physiology program.

“She asked, ‘Have you thought about ex phys?’” Neff said. “She said I should look into it. She was right, and I transferred.”


As for the Navy Reserves, Neff is staying put. 

“I’ve got six-and-a-half years left in the Reserves and I’m going to stick with it,” she said. “I’ll be 37 when I can retire.”

Then she can have all the water time she wants. 


To learn more about veterans and veterans' resources at WVU, visit their website.