A U.S. Navy veteran trained to work on F-14 tomcats, Agustin Ramirez was a grad student in experimental psychology at Cal State San Bernardino when the Veterans Success Center first opened. “I liked having a dedicated space for students who served in the military to have someplace to congregate and hang out. From the get-go, it was a place close to my heart.”
Ramirez notes that when he started college, affinity centers for students, particularly for veteran-students, did not exist. “So when there were events at the VSC, I would volunteer for them.”
He chuckles. “At the time, I could still fit into my uniform. I could throw on my dress blues and be there.” He even donated his sailor’s uniform to the VSC to ensure that this military branch was included in the display of uniforms.
He had five uncles who served in the U.S. Army during Vietnam. “They had to. I had a choice. And, even though my mom was absolutely against this, believing that our family had done enough, I joined anyway.”
He convinced his parents that serving in the Navy meant that he would be on a boat, miles off the coast of wherever a war was. And, even though Navy squadrons have been known to be deployed inland, as in Afghanistan, he remained at sea.
During his four years in the USN, he served on the USS John F. Kennedy and then on the USS Roosevelt for two deployments. Though the work could be grueling, “It was rewarding,” he remembers. “I really enjoyed my work.”
Ramirez reached a point in his 20s, however, when he got tired of being told what to do. He took advantage of the GI Bill to pursue his college degree, initially just as a route to making money. And then he found himself really liking college.
He was one of the first members in Andreas Kossak’s 2014 VSC screenwriting course, which has evolved into the ongoing writing workshop and publishing venue, Written by Veterans. “I found it very informative,” he recalls. “We all had different ideas. From a ‘Snakes on a Plane’-type script to participants’ military experiences.”
That was not what Ramirez wanted to write. “Cloak and dagger,” he says. “I wanted to take a piece of history that doesn’t often get discussed. And that is the composer Shostakovich and his life through the Russian Revolution and both World Wars. He died in 1975.”
And the additional hook for him? “Stalin didn’t like people being more famous than him. He tried to do things to create unfavorable conditions for the composer to bend him towards Stalin’s will.” But Shostakovich’s response to the Siege of Leningrad included a composition – the Leningrad Symphony – which has a story straight out of a spy novel. A copy was flown from Tehran and was smuggled on microfilm into the besieged city, performed by battered musicians and blasted on loudspeakers on the frontline as a form of psy-op against the besieging German army. It was one of the most important moments in music history, when music was used to turn the tide of battle.
“It became an anthem of Soviet resistance and an anti-fascist symbol of resistance. Conductors around the world wanted to promote it. Toscanini wanted to premiere it in the U.S.”
Ramirez was therefore able to see, up close and personally, the benefits that the VSC could provide to veterans. In addition, he directly experienced the positive impact of the Written by Veterans initiative himself.
When the VSC’s director, Marci Daniels, moved over to head the Services to Students with Disabilities office, the interim director position opened. Ramirez had been working as an academic advisor and was invited to step into the role. He said yes and, in 2017, became the permanent director. “We’ve weathered a few storms over those six years,” he observed.
He has noted a shift in the campus climate toward military personnel, which echoes a national shift. He sees it in the timespan between his uncles’ Vietnam generation, then the “salty old dogs” who were alive during 9/11 and now the current veterans who weren’t even alive when the Twin Towers fell.
The latest group, however, has spent their entire existence growing up with a nation at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “Our new generation of veterans,” he says, “has always known a nation that has said ‘thank you for your service.’” He adds, “I need to keep these different sets of consciousness present in my mind: that of my generation and of the generations that preceded us, who returned to a nation indifferent to them or worse.”
Ramirez notes that this is all a big challenge. “But it’s also a labor of love.”