In their own words: Yale College veterans
When Jack Beecher first arrived at Yale in the 1980s, some people were surprised to hear he was a military veteran. The implication, he figured, was that military experience was viewed as unusual and perhaps somehow incompatible with certain notions of Ivy League culture.
But Beecher, an Air Force veteran who would later become Yale’s first veteran liaison, knew better: The histories of Yale and the U.S. military have been intertwined for centuries. Across campus there are many students affiliated with the military, including 90 ROTC cadets and midshipmen and, although it can be difficult to track, roughly 110 students who are either military veterans or active duty soldiers.
Today, as the university’s veteran and military liaison, Beecher helps faculty, students, staff, and alumni veterans access services and resources.
“The quality of the students I have seen on campus is inspirational to me,” said Beecher, who served in Vietnam. “These are thoughtful, intelligent, focused individuals, and they make the Yale community better. I’ve always said this is a ‘win-win’ situation: The more military veterans we can get on campus, the better it is for Yale, and the better the military will be.”
This week, as we celebrate Veterans Day, we caught up with two student veterans and an active duty soldier currently enrolled at Yale College, and asked them about their pathways from the military to Yale, how their military service shaped them, and how that experience strengthens the entire Yale community.
Here are their stories, in their own words.
Evan Gordon, 26
Yale College junior majoring in Neuroscience
U.S. Army, Sergeant, 2011-2018
“When I was in high school, my biggest concern was finding purpose. I wanted to feel like I mattered, and after graduation I left feeling very unsure of who I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to do. I became attracted to the idealized soldier ethos, which used words like duty, honor, and country. Soon after, I was shipping off to infantry basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
“Among the tight knit band of brothers belonging to the specialized reconnaissance operators of the U.S. Army LRS (long-range reconnaissance and surveillance), I accepted new challenges and leadership positions eagerly. I served as the RTO (radio transmission operator), and our missions were primarily of a clandestine nature. Ideally, we would parachute deep into an enemy territory and observe and interdict known targets of interest. I later also served as instructor at the famed U.S. Army Air Assault school, where I taught U.S., foreign, and allied forces how to employ helicopters for tactical and technical mission sets.
“Throughout my career, I served in Germany, Korea, and the Middle East, as well as all over the continental U.S. While in Germany, I witnessed the effect of large scale migration of Syrian refugees into the country, and the failure of the government to address these people’s needs. In the Middle East, I observed violence that bites at the heart when a chemical weapons attack was launched on a town of mostly women and children just a short distance from my operational location. Watching as parents held their dying children that day changed me forever. These experiences showed me that evil really does exist in the world, and that most people are far removed from it; this is a blessing and a curse. I began to concern myself more with global humanitarian issues.
“Inspired by these experiences I decided to come to Yale to pursue a career in medicine. I decided to challenge myself in the hopes that I would discover the limits of my ability so that I could push past them and, in doing so, learn new approaches to problem solving.
“At Yale, student veterans bring with them a broad and personal understanding of the unfair state of the world. I did nothing to deserve being born an American citizen with access to doctors, primary education, a democratic system of government, and institutions like Yale, just like the people who don't have access to those things did nothing to be born deprived of them. I hope that through sharing our experiences with fellow students we will be able to inspire others to commit to the challenge of developing new and novel ideas to address the great inequities of our time. For the only suffering that must exist in the world is that which we choose to allow.”
Allegra Pankratz, 27
Yale College senior majoring in Global Affairs
U.S. Marine Corps, Staff Sergeant, 2011-present
“When I started looking at colleges during my senior year of high school, my main goal was to go somewhere interesting and exciting. Then I found myself on a different path. There was a Marine Corps recruiting station across the street from my house, and the recruiters sold me on the chance to do something I had never done before. The promise of college benefits got me in the door, but after learning more about the Marine Corps, I was excited for the challenge.
“My first duty station was Cherry Point, North Carolina, where I worked as a plane captain on unmanned aircraft systems. One of the great things about the military is how well they train you. I had never worked on aircraft before I enlisted, but a year later, I was on a flight line launching UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]. Three years later, I joined the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, where I served as an embassy security guard in Morocco, China, and various South American countries. When I moved overseas, I realized how big the world was, and how little I had experienced. Working at embassies also gave me a much higher-level perspective on the U.S. military.
“When I started to think about going back to school I discovered Yale’s Eli Whitney Students Program, which is unmatched in giving non-traditional students the same opportunities as traditional undergraduates. That was a big selling point for me. Coming to Yale wasn’t really something I had thought about before. I just had never considered it. But after seeing that other veterans and service members had done it before, I figured I would give it a shot.
“Having veterans and service members on campus gives students, or anyone who doesn’t come from a military background, a realistic view of what military service looks like. We’re all different, and we’ve all had different experiences. When I tell other students about the jobs I’ve had in the Marine Corps, most respond by saying, ‘I didn’t know you could do that in the military.’ On the other hand, I’ve been surprised by a lot of traditional undergraduate student experiences I’ve learned about. Everybody has a story.”
Avrohom Yormark, 25
Brooklyn, New York
Yale College second year student
U.S. Army, Sergeant, 2013-2017
“For a variety of reasons, high school was not a place where I flourished. I grew up in an insular religious community in Brooklyn that was very inward-facing and by the time I graduated I was ready to do something else, to expand my horizons. The military provided me an opportunity to do just that.
“After enlisting in the U.S. Army, I spent a year in Fort Gordon, Georgia, where I trained to become a satellite controller. Afterwards, I was assigned to Fort Meade in Maryland, where I worked as an operator in a satellite control center for the Department of Defense’s satellite communications constellation. As it turned out, life in the military was more than a way to get away. It was also a way for me to build myself up. My fellow soldiers challenged me to become physically and mentally stronger, to embrace challenges, and to strive to be all I could be and more. I learned the value of leadership and the importance of working as part of a team.
“It was also a meritocratic system; when you work hard in the Army you get recognized for it. I was very driven to succeed, and in the Army, one measure of success is getting promoted. Since one of the ways they evaluate you is based on your education, I started taking community college courses to improve my chances. That’s when I started to realize, ‘Okay, I want to go to college.’ Toward the end of my time in the army I applied to the Warrior-Scholar Project [a program that prepares military personnel for life in academia]. The training happened to be at Yale, and the experience really motived me to apply to highly competitive schools. After working my way up through community college — and working full time as an engineer in an aerospace startup — I applied to Yale two years ago.
“The schools I attended growing up offered little to the academically curious. Yale’s mix of the arts and sciences gives me the opportunity to explore so much of what I never had the chance to study. I came here with a very open mind. On my application I wrote that I was really interested in just sitting down and for the first time in my life learning things that I wanted to learn. And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve taken a philosophy class — I’d never been a philosophy person, but it was super fun and interesting. I’ve taken a computer science course, writing classes, math classes, and a variety of seminars.
“I don’t walk around broadcasting that I’m a veteran, but I also don’t hide it. If it comes up I’m happy to talk about it. I find that people are always fascinated and curious. Serving in the military is a distinctive experience that few Yalies are familiar with. Veterans at Yale offer a unique voice in a seminar, a different perspective in a discussion, and a rather interesting story at a table in the dining hall (or over a Zoom hang-out). Veterans are yet another part of Yale’s microcosm, and our inclusion leads to a more diverse Yale.”