Two military veterans, who received financial assistance through the Ahmanson Veteran Scholarship Initiative (AVSI), have completed their first semesters at Westmont. Juniors Patrick Burree, 26, and Bradley Mora, 32, had very different military experiences, but both have appreciated Westmont’s rigorous academics rooted in Christ.
Mora, an Army veteran who hopes to pursue a career as a physician’s assistant, transferred from Santa Barbara City College. “I talked to my adviser at Westmont about my prior classes and when I said, ‘I really want to make this happen,’ her reply was ‘Let’s do it,’ instead of, ‘Well, you know, that’s great, but you’re going to take about 1,000 prerequisites first, and you need to do this, and you need to do that,’” Mora says. “At Westmont, it’s been a great, seamless transition and, ‘Oh yeah, here’s some money. We’ve got a scholarship for veterans.’ It picks up what the GI Bill doesn’t quite cover.”
Burree, who spent four years in the Marines, had his heart set on Westmont before learning that the GI Bill had a cap.
“This wasn’t good news,” he says. “I came to Westmont with the intention of telling Silvio that, unfortunately, I didn’t have the money to pay for tuition.” After a week, Silvio Vazquez, Westmont dean of admission, got back to Burree, informing him about the AVSI. “They were helpful, patient and kind,” Burree says, “which is another reason why I wanted to come to Westmont. It’s a completely different feel here than any other college or university. I feel like a person rather than a number. They are actually interested in my life.”
Mora, from Fallon, Nevada, joined the military when he was 21 and discovered Santa Barbara while on leave five years ago. He worked in Washington, D.C., for five years as a member of the Old Guard, serving in the First Presidential Marching Platoon, Continental Color Guard and in the White House. He served during George W. Bush’s second inauguration and at Gerald Ford’s funeral as a Guard of Honor for his casket.
He re-enlisted, earned his jump wings at the Airborne School and was stationed in Italy for more than three years. In 2009, he was deployed to Wardak Province, Afghanistan, as part of the 173 Airborne Division and took part in about 40 firefights.
Six months later, he left Afghanistan, visiting Greece and Israel when his faith began to deepen. “I was mentally kind of unravelling, dealing with coming back, drinking more than I should. I was still into the whole airborne testosterone paratrooper mindset,” he says. “I started searching for Christ.” A friend recommended Westmont for its kinesiology department. “I didn’t even know it was a Christian college,” he says. “Before I applied, I read the student handbook and I knew it was the right fit for me. Coming out of the military, I had a lot of struggles at first. My faith was important to me, and Westmont was a fit with where I should be – trying to discover myself as a Christian and a student.”
Burree, a Santa Barbara native, suffered a series of unfortunate medical ailments that kept him from being deployed with his troop to Afghanistan. He trained as a machine gunner at Camp Pendleton, served on a Combined Anti-Armor Team at 29 Palms and trained with the Mule Packers transporting weapons and ammunition along narrow, twisting trails in the Eastern Sierra Nevada.
He survived a harrowing experience in the wilderness when he was knocked unconscious by a tree branch that had snagged his large mule. “I woke up, and my mule was jumping all over, and I touched my head, and there was blood all over. I blacked out again,” he says. A helicopter evacuated Burree after the other Marines were unable to regulate his heart or keep his temperature steady.
Burree, who suffered several concussions, during training exercises, survived being thrown 75 yards from the passenger seat of a heavily armored Humvee that had flipped three times at Camp Pendleton. “I got another concussion and our medical officer wouldn’t clear me to deploy so I wasn’t able to go to Afghanistan, which was unfortunate. But there was nothing I could do once they decided I was not medically fit to be in a combat zone,” he says.
Eventually he joined the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, serving in Hawaii, Kuwait, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore and Abu Dhabi. Burree was on a ship that took part in the well-publicized capture of several Somali pirates off the coast of Africa.
After serving for four years, Burree knew he wanted to return to college to major in chemistry. He transferred to Westmont from Saddleback College after sitting in on classes at UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine and UC San Diego.
“All the Westmont professors are at such a high level and have learned from the best in their field; they’re world-renowned,” Burree says. An active Catholic, he was also impressed with Westmont’s strong Christian focus. “In each class, the professors say a prayer for us and acknowledge students by name,” he says. “We’re able to pray and talk about God, which doesn’t happen at most other universities. Going to chapel is a special element that has grounded me mentally and emotionally. I am thankful.”