Ready to Serve

October 11, 2011 | CUNY Matters

A number of University staffers are also U.S. military reservists, who must leave their jobs and families on short notice if called to active duty.

Marlene E. Ranjitsingh is the director of administration at Kingsborough Community College. She also mentors students, serves on the board of her condominium and is the single mother of a 15-year-old daughter.

It’s a full life.

But there is more.

As a Navy Reservist, Ranjitsingh has a letter saying that within a year or two she could be deployed to the war on terror, still raging a decade after Sept. 11.

Kingsborough administrator/Navy reservist Marlene E. Ranjitsingh relaxes with her daughter,Tylah Arthur

She tries not to make too much of this. In the morning she reads The New York Times and watches CNN footage showing American military personnel overseas. She calmly reminds herself “that could be me” — and then goes to work.

One weekend a month and two weeks a year she drills at Fort Dix in New Jersey. And once a year, as is also required, she asks her mother to sign a paper saying she will care for Ranjitsingh’s teenage daughter if the CUNY administrator is deployed.

A retired naval personnel specialist, she emphasizes that even though she joined the reserves, the country’s backup forces, in 1996 — in peacetime — it is now her duty to go to war if called. “Reservists are not just here to collect a paycheck. They are here to serve like everyone else.”

Ranjitsingh has seen things change from afar before. On active duty in the 1990s, she spent time in Guantanamo Bay when it was a camp for Cubans fleeing their country.

Throughout CUNY, in the University’s colleges and offices, at least 70 employees are either in the military reserves or are recent reservist retirees. Including Ranjitsingh, eight were interviewed earlier this year. Others preferred not to speak, and their reticence is powerfully comprehensible.

Some, perhaps, have experienced what Ranjitsingh may await: They have been deployed.

As of February 2011, more than 800,000 reservists have been mobilized since 9/11/01; 250,000 have served more than once and over half of reservists returning from deployment “experience some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), whether they realize it or not,” says Queens College assistant professor of history Bobby A. Wintermute, a military historian who has also connected with many current veterans. The more than a million reservists serving in U.S. armed forces include more than 800,000 men and almost 200,000 women, according to a December 2009 Defense Department presentation.

CUNY — and U.S. Veterans Affairs offices throughout New York City — offer counseling and other benefits for reservists (see box).

Perry A. Mahabeer, a peace officer at Borough of Manhattan Community College, has been deployed twice. In 2007 he was assigned to an Iraqi detainee camp for thousands of suspected Taliban. Rockets, launched by Taliban supporters outside the camp, hit daily.  Mornings at 6, Mahabeer scrambled to get his gear together and head for a bomb shelter.

Mahabeer — married with a 6-year-old son, and recently retired from the reserves — says he can still hear those rockets, particularly when the 4:12 p.m. Long Island Rail Road train he takes home to Nassau County screeches to a stop at Penn Station.

“I say to myself: ‘I am going home. It’s a train … it would shake me up and people would look at me. But then I started to come out of it … when I first came home it was pretty tough.”

BMCC — the only CUNY campus damaged on 9/11 — has, in addition to Mahabeer, three other reservists on its public safety staff. They include Leonardo “Lenny” Zavala-Salas, also retired from the reserves. Zavala-Salas was on several stateside drills with Mahabeer. In fact, it was Mahabeer — then at LaGuardia Community College — who told Zavala-Salas he should apply for a position at CUNY. Zavala-Salas was then a Bushwick High School teacher specializing in desktop publishing. But he needed a change.

Like Mahabeer and Zavala-Salas, Epifanio Rebollo, who works at Brooklyn College, and Jose A. Ruiz, employed at Lehman College as a sergeant-level peace officer, were deployed while working at CUNY.

Tanesha Orridge of City College was deployed before she worked for the University. She says she would go again.

“It’s not a matter of wanting to go. I have to go,” she says. “I am single. I’d rather go than have someone who is married and has children go.”

Her comment reflects a sense of duty voiced by the other CUNY reservists interviewed — and six of them are either married or have children or both. Rebollo has a son with autism. But even the most typical of families have a difficult time when one parent is gone for a year.

Like Ranjitsingh, the Kingsborough administrator, they drill generally one weekend a month and two weeks a year, in the United States – but away from home nevertheless. And, except for those who have retired, they live with the prospect that they could be patrolling perilous waters, or on land in Afghanistan or elsewhere. The majority of reservists are not deployed. But the minority is a substantial one, nevertheless.

Ruiz, a peace officer at Lehman since 1993, is among 25 per cent of Navy  reservists who are deployed nationally.

In the 1980s and ’90s he served in the Navy, on active duty, stationed on a guided missile cruiser as a boatswain’s mate. He was, he says “all over the Pacific,” during the Gulf War. “We also shot a lot of missiles towards Iraq and Kuwait.”

The peace officer joined the reserves in February 2000 — like most of us, never expecting that in less than two years the world would change.

Two months later, in November 2001, Ruiz, then the father of an adolescent daughter, was preparing to go to work at 5 a.m. when he got a call from his reserve commander at the Throgs Neck–Fort Pennyfield Naval Operations Supply Center.

Deployment.

Navy reservist Jose Ruiz on the job as a Lehman peace officer.

Ruiz says that after life on a ship in far-off waters, he was not ready for the proximity to danger — and the conditions — that was part of deployment on a boat patrolling very close to land in Kuwait.

“One hundred and two — to one hundred and twenty-five degrees,” he says. “Sand-storms, camel spiders . . . We were a stone’s throw away from Kuwait, closer and closer up the river with the Army. Our main job was to keep our eyes and ears open for soldiers who got trapped.”

He also inspected small fishing vessels, looking for weapons and terrorists. Ruiz says that usually he ran into Kuwaiti and Iraqi civilians, fishermen trying to make a living. They were polite to him and he followed his orders, which instructed him to treat civilians with respect. But he also knew he had to be on guard.

Wounded in a freak accident in rough weather weeks before his yearlong tour ended, Ruiz was treated for six months at American naval hospitals. From home he now sees how long the war on terrorism has lasted and agonizes that “it’s never going to get won.”

Mahabeer of BMCC says that he reacts far better to the screeching of the Long Island Rail Road now that years have passed since that first difficult deployment. His second stint in Iraq in 2009 was calmer. The war was winding down and he had a customs-related job, informing other servicemen what war “memorabilia,” items they could — and could not — take home. He remembers a serviceman who had exchanged uniforms with an Iraqi soldier as a way to remember they had fought the same battle.

In speaking more about PTSD, Wintermute notes that although we often “hear about the worst cases,” subtler symptoms can also be painful. He describes these symptoms — including headaches, fatigue, anxiety, loss of appetite, ennui, depression — as the normal response of “sane individuals trying to reprocess the insane.”

CUNY also offers benefits and services for reservists. Wintermute also urges reservists in need to visit Veteran’s Affairs offices, located throughout the city and staffed by veterans and mental health professionals. (See box at left).

“It does sound like CUNY goes above and beyond its obligations to create a positive experience for reservists who deploy,” Wintermute says.

Despite the personal repercussions, Mahabeer emphasizes that he does not regret one minute he spent on active duty earlier in his military career in the Navy, or later in the reserves. About staying in touch with family and friends while he was gone, Mahabeer says, “Skype is a friend of ours and then Facebook came on too.”

However, Wintermute cautions that not all servicemen and women benefit from the proximity. “How weird is it to come off patrol and be on Skype with their kids doing their homework.” He has mixed feelings about instant communication. “I can’t help but think it was easier in the days of letters.”

Wintermute also has suggestions for civilian supervisors, when an employee returns from a deployment. “Welcome them back to their former job,” he says.  “Don’t play any games with them. Let them pick up their obligations without interruption. And don’t make a big fuss over their absence or the deployment.” Wintermute says that supervisors should demonstrate the same sensitivity for those who could be deployed. They should be reassured — again, without fuss —  that they can come back to their same positions.

BMCC’s Zavala-Salas says he left for his deployment in 2006 secure about returning to his CUNY position as a safety specialist working with television surveillance cameras and the community college’s identification card system, among other tasks.

In fact, he jokes that there were times when he felt as if he was still at the University even when working on a fire rescue team at the Rota, Spain, air terminal. He recalls directing traffic on the landing deck, with a troubled plane about to land — and receiving a call from his CUNY supervisor with an emergency of a different nature.

“He told me he needed me right away, the I.D. system went down,” says Zavala-Salas, who like his coworker Mahabeer is an energetic raconteur. “I said, ‘Give me 15 minutes and I’ll call you back. I have a bird about to splatter on the deck.’  ”

“What’s a bird?” the supervisor asked.

“We call a plane ‘a bird,’” Zavala-Salas explained, and then directed a safe landing.

LaGuardia administrator/ Marine reservist Trevaughn Luncheon is a leader in both realms.

Perhaps it is a sign of their willingness to take risks in all aspects of their lives that Jack Giamanco, like Marine Reserves Sgt. Trevaughn Luncheon, has career ambitions beyond his current position. Luncheon, who is with the Marine Aviation Logistic Squadron 49 in Newark, is also administrative coordinator in the LaGuardia Community College Department of Legal Affairs, Labor, Compliance and Diversity. He earned a master of business administration degree from Baruch College in 2010.

Giamanco, a Queens College teaching assistant, has two undergraduate degrees in psychology and biology, a master’s in psychology from Queens College and another one in biology from Long Island University. He is hoping to apply to doctoral programs in biopsychology, perhaps at CUNY.

When interviewed last semester he was working as a teaching assistant at Queens College and doing laboratory work with professor Joan Borod on facial expression and emotions in human subjects. He has also tried medical school in Poland and worked with children with autism. “I am a teacher,” he says. “That is what I do.”

Queens College teaching assistant/Army National Guard reservist Jack Giamanco hopes to pursue doctoral studies.

He enlisted in the Army National Guard in 2008, and recently completed a course that distinguishes him as a member of its search, rescue and evacuation team — first responders to national emergencies such as explosions and hurricanes.

What compelled him to enlist? He says that he comes from a military family — and is exploring the military as a career path. “I try to be a patriotic person,” he adds. “I almost joined after 9/11.”

But patriotism, he emphasizes, should come with enlightenment. He is interested in peace, in protecting civilians, in not seeing so many very young men serve. “I don’t want to have to do it by brute force,” he says.

Luncheon sees himself as a leader whether as a civilian or in the military. And like Giamanco, he thinks the mission of the American military, now focused on Afghanistan rather than Iraq, should result in a better life for civilians — as difficult as that may be to accomplish.

“I know the plan is to give the people there a better life, to have them switch from the drugs they are planting to sustainable crops. That is going to take some time and when it is going to end we don’t actually know.”

Wintermute says about 30 percent of reservists do not show up when called for deployment. Others who had been deployed speak about many reservists who go AWOL.

But at CUNY the topic of conversation among the reservists interviewed revolved around duty — and yes, around the need to use force when necessary. But the University’s reservists also spoke about learning from people we view as vastly different, and who look at us with the same misunderstandings about differences. Luis Ruiz says he tried to do that when he set foot on those fishing boats.

Perry Mahabeer of BMCC did much more than protect himself from rockets in that detainee camp in Iraq. He also learned about the people who were being detained. At first it seemed they were simply brutal people. “On my first day they killed one of their own,” he said. “Prison justice.”

But as he got deeper into his deployment he learned more about the detainees and began to see them as individuals. He had frequent contact with an imam and a translator, who had been selected as emissaries by the others. Mahabeer discovered that the translator was a physician and university professor. And that the imam had been a janitor at a hospital.

Sitting in a small conference room in the BMCC department of public safety, peace officer Mahabeer said that serving in the Navy reserves was akin to “being part of the history of the military.”

And he would do it all over again.

How CUNY Helps Reservists

The University’s deployment benefits include the following:

  • CUNY will make up any shortfall between a reservist’s CUNY and military salary during deployment.
  • University medical benefits for covered family members continue while an employee is deployed.
  • CUNY employees and their family members can call a free confidential counseling hotline for help, information and referrals. Call 800-833-8707 or see www.cuny.edu/worklife
  • The University also refers reservists to Veterans’ Affairs Offices throughout New York City’s five boroughs, which are staffed by veterans and mental health professionals.

For more information, go to www.nyc.gov and search “veterans.”