People, Profiles

New J-School grad aims to bridge the gap between military vets, civilians

A 14-year veteran of the Marine Corps and Army, Capt. Joe Bush now uses storytelling to be an advocate

Capt. Joe Bush with the "mourning bears" near the Campanile. The bears are part of a World War I memorial bench. UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small

Capt. Joe Bush with the “mourning bears” near the Campanile. The bears are part of a bench commemorating the heroism of the men of the university who died in combat in World War I. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Capt. Joe Bush wasn’t a hard guy to pick out on campus. Bush is 36, older than many his classmates in Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. His speech is unhurried and carries traces of time spent south of the Mason-Dixon line. He wears blue jeans, a camo hat with a creased bill and a black-and-white shirt with “Free F*cking Speech” emblazoned across the chest.

Bush doesn’t exactly fit the stereotypical Berkeley mold.

Bush is a 14-year veteran who served in both the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps and saw action in Fallujah during the Iraq war, and has first-hand knowledge of many of the issues that military veterans face when they return home and re-integrate into civilian life. Like many returning soldiers, he faced a learning curve at Berkeley. Now, master’s degree in hand, he intends to help the veteran community through storytelling.

Communication and community

“One percent of the entire U.S. population serves in the military,” says Bush, who grew up among relatives and neighbors who served. “Veterans are a subculture within the country. My goal for years has been about bridging the gap.”

Bush, like many other vets, has lived through occasional hiccups in communication between the veteran community and the civilian one. Errors in lexicon – a lack of fluency with regard to rank or military terminology – are to be expected, but there are greater cultural tensions at work as well. Bush and other veterans are leaving highly regimented teams where individualism is discouraged, and coming home to a country of millennials – especially on college campuses.

“We have these two separate communities that coexist,” says Gabriel Tolliver, who, like Bush, served in the armed forces before enrolling in the Graduate School of Journalism. “Joe represents those people who want to bring better understanding between the communities. There used to be a time when everybody knew somebody who served in the military, and now that’s very rare.”

UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small

Despite a rocky re-entry, Bush eventually settled in on campus, thanks in large part to the Cal Veteran Services Center, which assists veterans on campus through different types of programs and outreach.

“The challenge for many of these folks who are so used to having a very specific job, doing that job, and then going home — there’s a feeling of you’re either ‘on’ or you’re ‘off,’” says Ron Williams, director of re-entry student and veteran services. “Fully leveraging all the resources available to them on college campuses can be difficult. Oftentimes, there end up being missed opportunities for people who are used to the military approach.”

In addition to the more technical or bureaucratic problems that vets encounter, another concern is a feeling of displacement or lack of community, something that affected Bush when he first arrived on campus.

“He had been pushing so hard his first semester here,” says Williams, who invited him to join fellow vets in celebrating the Marine Corps birthday. “Getting him around others from the military community was a respite for that.”

“It changed things for him,” Williams says of the event. “Being able to belt out the Marine Corps hymn was a way to release stress, but the event was also a different way for him to connect with some of the really good people that are here that understood him.”

A different kind of service

“We are not alone because at least we have each other. At least until we come home,” Bush says in a voiceover in a video made for his graduate thesis, a TV pilot titled FUBAR. The half-hour show stars Bush and aims to dispel the idea that the men and women who are returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are incapable of adjusting to civilian life, as well foster community among the veterans who have successfully made the transition.

Bush’s pilot episode takes viewers to the headquarters of Grunt Style, an apparel company founded and largely operated by veterans, and features interviews with employees about how they were able to take skills and tactics learned in the military and apply them as civilians. He tours the facilities and speaks with employees about how the corporate culture of Grunt Style tries to approximate the feeling of fraternity that many veterans miss once they leave the military.

Not every story Bush tells is as positive as his show, though. Last fall, after learning of a small community of veterans who had been deported and were living together in a shared house in Tijuana, he grabbed his camera and followed the story across the border.

“These are guys who came to the United Sates, served in the military and wound up getting a felony or major misdemeanor at some point in their life and served their sentence and then got kicked out,” says Bush, recalling one veteran who accidentally discharged a weapon in his car, pleaded guilty and served 18 months before eventually being deported.

For some deported vets, military service was viewed as a way to expedite a path to citizenship, though it was never a guarantee. In Tijuana, Bush heard stories about servicemen who mistook the Army’s Oath of Enlistment for the Oath of Allegiance that accompanies the naturalization process.

Bush posted videos of his experience on YouTube, and in May, a local Bay Area news station interviewed him about his story. Whether or not the deported veterans will be able to restart the naturalization process and eventually return is unclear. There is, however, one certain path back to the U.S. for those who’ve been deported.

“They’ll be able to come home the day they die,” says Bush. “Once they’re dead, then they’ll qualify to be buried in a national cemetery. Not before then.”

Strong, resilient, adaptable

With graduate school behind him, Bush is preparing for his next endeavor. He’s headed to Ft. Meade, Maryland, and Defense Information School to become an official Army public affairs officer. Bush knows how important communication is to improving the way civilian and military communities interact with each other, and he’s aware of his unique position as a veteran and a storyteller, and how those two things can make him an advocate.

“He’s able to engage these stories in a slightly different way than others might be able to because of how guarded some of these military men and women sometimes are,” says Williams. “The depth of the stories that they’re willing to share with Joe – because they know he’s a former Marine – it carries a different kind of credibility.”

“Nearly 22 million veterans live in the U.S. We’re strong, resilient and adaptable people,” says Bush. “This is my community and I’m going to continue to serve them.”