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From Camp Fallujah to Columbia — a Veteran’s Story

January 7, 2011

In 2006, BMCC Honors student Jacob Serra joined the Marines, “because I thought I didn’t have a choice, in order to climb up the class barriers. No one was going to help me, and I was really scared on 9-11; I had no idea what to do.”

Serra grew up on 136th Street and Broadway, a neighborhood New Yorkers call “Spanish Harlem,” and just up the hill from Ivy-League bastion Columbia University, where he will find himself next fall as a transfer student.

“It made me stronger”

Like many high-achieving students at BMCC, Serra’s road to college was long and sometimes rocky.

After selling their apartment on 136th Street, his family moved to Connecticut and Rhode Island, eventually returning to New York City—and the moves took a toll on his academic performance.

Not only that, the family suffered another blow, during that time. “When I was ten years old,” Serra says, “my dad was incarcerated for conspiracy, so we used most of our time growing up, on weekends, to go visit him.”

That experience, Serra says, “made me stronger. I knew I didn’t want to be like my dad, and I knew that I wanted to get an education so I could have a higher income than my mom—she did have some college and a high regard for education, but she had decided to take a full-time job as a mom, and she did a really good job.”

When he was 17, Serra felt ready to return to school. He enrolled in Humanities High School on 18th Street, in Chelsea, and found a job working at The Gap. After graduating, he joined the Marines, and as he puts it, “I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

A new skill—and role

Serra entered the United States Marine Corps as a Private First Class in 2004, and was promoted to sergeant by the time he completed his second deployment in Iraq, in 2007.

During each tour, he served as a scout sniper, “a Marine who’s highly skilled in field craft and marksmanship,” he says, “who delivers long-range fire at selective targets from concealed positions in support of combat operations.”

Part of a small team, Serra’s role was Automatic Rifleman, following his team leader and releasing automatic fire into areas where enemy gunmen were thought to be hiding.

“We also did anything from counter-sniper missions to counter-IED to counter-intelligence,” Serra says—and while these might not sound like the transferable skills touted in workforce development programs nationwide, he readily found employment, after discharge, working for a private military company within the U.S. State Department.

“Being a scout sniper has opened many doors for me,” says Serra, “not only in being a Marine but also being a part of a separate elite force.”

The writing on the wall

While Serra’s roles as Marine and student have changed over the years, one identity, that of a writer, has remained constant.

“In Iraq, there definitely is a writing community,” he says. Some soldiers share their ideas in emails. Others keep journals, as he did in Camp Fallujah, writing down poems and thoughts, “my way of expressing myself, entertaining myself.” He was even inspired by “the graffiti I saw scribbled on the walls.”

Serra didn’t always have confidence in his creative talents. A teacher in junior high school wanted to publish one of his poems, but “I was too shy,” he says, “and didn’t believe I was a writer.”

At BMCC, his identity as a writer began to emerge. “I took a remedial writing course, and my professor Miriam Delgado thought I was a good writer but I thought, ‘How can this be? I’m in a remedial class’.”

A remedial class is a bridge to more advanced coursework, Serra found, as his skills sharpened.

“For English 101, I had Professor Lara Stapleton,” he says, “who’s a writer herself, and she thought I was a good writer. And this semester I have Professor Sheila Klass as a creative writing professor for English 300. She’s 82 years old and has published 19 books. At the beginning of the semester she said ‘You’re a writer’, and I thought to myself, ‘I guess I am a good writer if someone who’s 82 years old thinks I am’.”

Life experience as a tool

In Spanish 200, which includes discussions of works by modern authors as well as creative writing, Serra has taken another leap with his work. Advised by his Modern Language Professor Regina Galasso, he’s working on an Honors project, researching Cuban film and poetry.  

“Just last semester he was in Spanish 102 getting the foundations of Spanish,” says Galasso, “and now he’s writing eight pages in academic Spanish with a critical voice. He’s come a long way.”

Serra has also begun to write fiction in Galasso’s class, using experiences from his time in Iraq, and experimenting with the first-person narrative—writing in an “I” voice that is not his own. “I learned that Jorge Luis Borges said, ‘Everything that happens to a writer is an instrument for that writer to write with’,” he says, and he’s taken that advice to heart.

His short story, “Red Light Holocaust” tells the story of a young woman abducted into prostitution, through letters she writes to her brother. “I thought about my sister,” says Serra. “How would I feel if I received this letter? How would she write it?”

Speaking as a female character in that story was a new challenge, Serra says, “But I’ve never run from the female perspective. I’ve dated women and grew up around women, so they’ve influenced me in many ways.”

In his story, “Confessions,” Serra draws more directly on his time in the Marines. “When I came back from Iraq,” he says, “I always wanted to confess to a priest. You don’t look at a priest when you confess. You sit in a booth and you talk.” During his military service, he says, “My diary had served as that priest.”

It takes more than a diary or creative writing class, though, to process combat memories.

“When I got out of the Marines,” says Serra, “the doctor thought I had symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” including sleep disruptions. “Certain parts of my brain are still active with those experiences, but I feel like most of my secrets are out there,” he says. “I’ve shared, and I’m doing a better job about speaking about my old experiences in the military.”

Civilian life throws curve balls

“It was weird making the transition from military to civilian life,” says Serra. In military life, he explains, there is a predictability that makes the unsafe more bearable. “You know you’re getting sent to combat. You raise your right hand to defend you country from any enemy, foreign or domestic. So you know there’s risk there.”

Civilian life, though, “throws curve balls at you every day. And I would say in some ways being a civilian is more challenging, because in the Marine Corps, all I had to worry about was work, and what I needed to do, my job description as a sniper,” as well as staying fit, he says, and maintaining endurance, “whether it’s physical endurance or mental endurance.”

“Curve balls” in the civilian world can take many forms, he says, including financial. “My first semester here it took three months for my benefits to kick in. So I had to work and do other things in the meanwhile. In the Marine Corps, everything is taken care of.”

They can also be personal. “I had a friend die, I was in the City and I had to go to his funeral but I had classes the same day. And my grandfather died my first semester, and I couldn’t pay mind to that.”

In the Marine Corps, he says, “you don’t deal with these things, you don’t deal with family issues. You don’t deal with, ‘Oh, your brother’s doing bad in school’—that’s not your problem. You’re only focusing on your job, which for me, was to keep myself and other Marines alive.”

Even so, becoming a sniper in the Marine Corps had its own, often dangerous, learning curve.

“I didn’t understand how to land-navigate with a compass or shoot a scoped rifle,” he says. “You have to repeat things over so you can be really concise and precise”—and that’s a strategy he’s applied to his academic efforts.

“I look at it the same way,” he says. “I need to get these good grades, so how do I calculate in order to get these grades? Do I have to stay up late, or do I have to wake up earlier? Do I have to speak to a professor on how I can do better in her class or in his class?”

Moving forward

“My goal when I graduate from college will either be to become a professor or a politician,” says Serra. “I’m still undecided…but I know I want to look out for the same people who looked out for me, and change things for them.”

In particular, he would like to improve the health care and other services available to former U.S. military personnel.

“There are veterans at Walter Reed right now who have amputated limbs, who are not getting good treatment—I was there. So partially it would be looking out for my veteran community, for the soldiers. A lot of these presidents, commandeers in chief, have never served in the military, so they don’t know the price that you have to pay as a soldier or marine or sailor to go to these countries and fight this enemy. I think I would try to be a more responsible decision maker.”

He also wants to impact the lives of people who are not veterans, and that’s why being a professor is appealing. “It’s not really about what you do for a small community, it’s what you do for a generation. So I think through my writing I can impact and share my ideas with an entire generation.”

Giving credit

Enrolling at BMCC was a good first step, Serra says, in achieving those goals—and preparing himself for the transfer to Columbia.

“I love BMCC,” he says. “When I first came here, a buddy of mine who graduated from Yale, and also grew up in my neighborhood asked me, ‘Why BMCC?’ And something told me, deep down inside, ‘You need to go there, you need to touch up your basic skills’.”

Besides instruction that addressed a few lagging skill areas, Serra found at BMCC, an intellectual community—the Creative Writing Club, the Honors Society—and an abundance of academic support, provided by BMCC faculty and staff.

“Allana Hanky Thomas, an advisor at BMCC, spoke with me recently and said, ‘I knew you could do it, you had the attitude, you were ready for Columbia the day you came in here’,” Serra says, “but at BMCC I’ve been able to touch up my skills. I’ve had three good mentors, Professor Galasso, Professor Delgado and Professor Stapleton. They’ve contributed to my success in many ways. A lot of people say ‘You did it’—yeah, but I had guidance. You have to give credit where’s credit’s due.”

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  • BMCC Honors student Jacob Serra served two tours of active duty in Iraq, working as a scout sniper
  • At BMCC he found mentors, skill support—and self-confidence as a writer
  • In fall 2011, he’s transferring to Columbia University, to continue his education

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