Three days after arriving in Afghanistan for her third deployment with the Air Force, Patrice Wilson found herself and her comrades under attack.
The airbase that housed them, Bagram, was under attack, and the fighting lasted three endless days, from Sept. 10-12, 2012. On the morning of the fourth day, she woke up and looked outside. In a tree next to her dorm, about 15 feet away from where she was standing, was an unexploded bomb. The bomb squad neutralized it.
“It wasn’t my time,” Patrice Wilson says.
Her time is now. On Thursday (Nov. 15), she will be one of four featured speakers as UC Berkeley celebrates Veterans Day with ceremonies at Memorial Stadium. Chancellor Carol Christ will speak as will two faculty members who are veterans, Scott Shackleton, assistant dean in the College of Engineering, and Richard Rhodes, associate dean of undergraduate studies and associate professor of linguistics.
Berkeley has a long history of celebrating Veterans Day, going back to a time before the holiday was established. It was a century ago, Nov. 11, 1918 at 11 a.m. that the armistice ending World War I was signed. Thousands of Berkeley students, faculty, staff and alumni took part in what was called The War to End All Wars, and at least 100 Berkeley students died in the conflict. Memorial Stadium was built as a remembrance of their sacrifice and a tribute to their sense of duty.
It was about 2 a.m. when the news that fighting was over reached Berkeley. Spontaneously the campus became a meeting place for an impromptu celebration. In the words of the Berkeley Daily Gazette, “The chimes in the Campanile at the university heralded the victory with the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “The Marseillaise,” “God Save the King,” the national anthem of Italy and several selections of religious music. The factory whistles and sirens of West Berkeley joined in … sleep was impossible.” (A carillon concert Sunday will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the moment.)
On Sunday, Nov. 11, the City of Berkeley will unveil a refurbished plaque honoring the 100 Berkeley men known to have died in that war. World War I did not prove, however, to be the instrument to end all wars. So, Thursday’s celebration at Memorial Stadium’s Gate 1 (the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Plaza) is to salute all UC Berkeley veterans for their patriotism, love of country and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.
For the chancellor, the event is a chance to express the gratitude of the Berkeley community one more time. It’s a tale that does not get old.
“Berkeley’s veterans served to protect our values and our way of life, as well as to advance peace and justice in the world,” Christ says. “They bear a mark of distinction, and it is my great hope that we can repay them by ensuring our community remains supportive and accommodating, committed to understanding the complexity of military service, and eager to help them in the transition to civilian life.”
For Shackleton, in his 31st year at Berkeley, the transition has never been more transitional than now. This figures to be a particularly poignant moment because it will be his first Veterans Day as a civilian after a 30-year career in the Navy. He retired as a captain in May.
“I have spent my entire military career working for Cal,” Shackleton says. “I’ve been mobilized a number of times, and the fact is I couldn’t do what I do without the help of my coworkers. It’s one thing to leave for a weekend. It’s another to leave for 14 months. So, part of what I want to say, in addition to thanking veterans, I want to give a shout out to Cal and the staff here and my coworkers.
“They don’t hire someone to replace you when you are deployed, so your coworkers divvy up the work and they cover for you. And through it all, they are more worried about you than they are concerned about extra work. And these are people who are already 100 percent maxed out. They check on your wife and your children, too when you are gone. It means the world to have that network.”
For Patrice Wilson, there are no plans to leave the Air Force reserves anytime soon. She’s due to graduate with a degree in social welfare and has applied to Berkeley to start on her master’s next year. Her unit is scheduled to deploy again next year as well, but she’s hoping that doesn’t interfere with her educational plans. She’d like to get a Ph.D. before she’s done and open a small private school for people of color in Oakland or Berkeley.
Wilson says one of the great things about military life is its emphasis on time, on promptness and time management. And she needs it. In addition to going to school and spending time in the reserves, she’s working on two part-time internships and she and her twin sister, Denise, have started a non-profit dedicated to feeding the hungry in Berkeley and Oakland. She also does some part time work at the Oakland Coliseum as a security guard. She’s not someone who stands still for long.
She left the Air Force in June of 2004, but signed up for the reserves just over a year later and has been working in transportation services ever since. Next year Patrice, the first in her family to attend college, will graduate.
“I wouldn’t be here without the military,” she says. “Being here at UC Berkeley, the GI Bill is paying for my education. I do get some financial aid, but not fully covered financial aid. Another thing is, joining the military I got to see different parts of the world that I would never have visited. Not just overseas, but stateside as well. Having different tours being in the reserves going to Africa or Alaska.
“Even going to somewhere I’d never been before, which was Cleveland, Ohio. It seems small to some people, but it was a big deal to me, because I had never been out of Oakland or California shall I say. Joining the military not just gave me a little bit of discipline, because I already had some discipline, but it gave me a sense of belonging and it gave me a family that I never would have had had I not joined the military.”
And now it’s time for her Berkeley family to show its appreciation to her, to Shackleton and Rhodes, and to the countless others who have served.