When Michael Skarda started the journey of becoming a commissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force, there were no indications that his military career was beginning amidst two decades of conflict. In 2002, Skarda joined the Air Force’s Reserve Officer…
Student Veterans Reflect on Military Service, Academic Pursuits
Veterans Day is a time for the Syracuse University community to come together and honor our veterans and active-duty military members for their service to their country.
Leading up to Veterans Day, three current student veterans who are active leaders on campus—Jack Pullano ’24, Benetta Dousuah G’25 and Raphael Grollmus ’24—reflect on their military careers, discuss the valuable lessons they learned through enlisting and share how the University is helping them achieve their academic goals and providing a blueprint for giving back to their communities.
Jack Pullano ’24
After earning his high school degree from Parishville-Hopkinton High School in Parishville, New York, Pullano couldn’t wait to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. He was so eager to serve his country that he took the first assignment he could: as a refueling journeyman for planes and helicopters.
“My dad told me I should wait it out and not do this contract because he didn’t think I would like the work, but I was a young, stubborn 18-year-old who didn’t want to listen to him,” says Pullano, a health and exercise science major in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics who is involved in the Syracuse University Student Veteran Organization. “Things played out in my favor. I didn’t enjoy refueling, but I was lucky to be on an Air Force Special Operations Command Base where there was a special fuel duty called the Special Operations Forward Area Refueling Point Team [FARP] that supports special operations command in combat locations. The tryout I had to go through for FARP was intense, and that experience started me down the path that led to Syracuse University,”
Branch of the military: U.S. Air Force, serving on the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, helping fuel different kinds of aircraft. In his third year, Pullano was deployed to Afghanistan as part of a three-man FARP team. He served four years in the Air Force.
Why serve? “Because of my parents, Jim and Kelly. My dad joined the Air Force when he was young like me, doing one enlistment and then pursuing his education. My parents were always involved in my community growing up, especially with the sports I played. Seeing that community involvement probably instilled in me the service aspect that drives me today.”
Why Syracuse? “It was my personal interest in the human body from the intense physical tryout to get on the FARP team. I became interested not only in working out, but in what was causing changes to my body. I was learning about the human body by watching YouTube videos on how different muscles work. When I was looking at colleges, I wanted to pursue something I was interested in, and exercise science stood out to me. Syracuse has a strong program.”
How do you want to make a difference when you graduate? “Part of why I joined the military was the service aspect. Service was a goal of mine since I was young. When I got out of the Air Force, I wanted to continue to serve in ways that could be impactful to the community. Physical therapy drew my attention because of my past experiences and my drive to work one-on-one with patients trying to overcome an obstacle in their life. I’m currently interning at the VA [Veterans Affairs] Medical Center and that really opened my mind that I could not only continue with service that impacts people, but I could do it in the VA system, helping veterans with physical therapy.”
Benetta Dousuah G’25
When Dousuah was in the U.S. Army, she says soldiers dealing with mental health issues didn’t discuss their struggles openly, instead choosing to bottle up their emotions and their issues. Seeing the stigmas associated with mental health inspired Dousuah to pursue a master of social work degree from the Falk College.
“I want to be that person who lets you know that it’s okay to seek help if you’re struggling. I want to be that voice that says there shouldn’t be a stigma among military members who want to seek behavioral health and mental health help,” Dousuah says. “While I was in the service, a lot of people told me they were scared to seek help because they wouldn’t be promoted or they would be judged. I started going to behavioral health to let the soldiers know that it’s okay to admit you need help while bringing awareness to mental health,”
Branch of the military: Served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army. Stationed at both Fort Hood (now Fort Cavazos in Texas) and Fort Drum (Watertown, New York), Dousuah was involved in supply logistics, ensuring her company had everything they needed, from arranging broken equipment repairs to ordering supplies.
Why serve? “When I was younger, my mother used to remind me that I wanted to be a police officer. I don’t know why; all I know is from an early age I wanted to serve. The military allows you to go to college for free after your service is over, and that really appealed to me. I’ve always known I wanted to earn a college degree and be part of something bigger than myself.”
Why Syracuse? “I wanted to be somewhere where I could not only feel at home, but still feel like I’m connected to the military family. I chose Syracuse because of its reputation as a military-friendly school, but also because of the pride people take in going to Syracuse. It’s like being in the Army. When you meet someone who was in the Army, we’re proud of our service and will usually say, ‘Go Army.’ The same is true for someone who attended Syracuse. They always say, ‘Go Orange,’ and I’m blessed to be part of that community. I’ve been introduced to so many resources available to veterans.”
How do you want to make a difference when you graduate? “Right now, I’m the first Wendy Goidel Scholar, and through my work at the Betty and Michael D. Wohl Veterans Law Clinic, I connect our veterans to the available resources within the community. I have a passion for working with veterans, and this scholarship has been a great fit. When I graduate, I want to work at the VA Medical Center here in Syracuse, but I also want to work with at-risk African American youths. I feel like my story could be every young Black girl’s dream—coming from nothing, serving my country in the military and then earning a master’s degree. I could be an inspiration to others who want to follow my path.”
Raphael Grollmus ’24
Grollmus didn’t need to look far in his family tree to understand why military service was important. Grollmus became the sixth member of his family to enroll when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2012. While he enjoyed his time, Grollmus always knew he wanted to utilize the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill to earn a college degree. Today, Grollmus is working toward a bachelor’s degree with a double major in forensic science and psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences.
“The time I served better prepared me for not only going to Syracuse, but life in general. I learned to think critically and to assess a situation before reacting,” Grollmus says. “For the student veterans at Syracuse, there are so many tools and resources available to us. Many veterans I talk with didn’t know all of the resources they had when they went back to school, but that’s where Syracuse has excelled. They take care of their veterans.”
Branch of the military: Served in the U.S. Marine Corps for nine years as a military policeman at the Marine Corps Air Station at Iwakuni, Japan, and at Camp Pendleton (Oceanside, California). Later, Grollmus assisted in combat operations as a forensic analyst stationed in the Middle East in Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain and Iraq. After reenlisting, Grollmus finished his Marine security guard training and was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Bamako, Mali, and the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Why serve? “My mother, brother and sister were all in the Army. My grandfather on my mom’s side, Hank, fought in World War II, while my grandfather on my dad’s side, Paul, fought in the Korean War, so I grew up knowing the importance of service. After I graduated from high school, I enlisted in the Marines’ delayed entry program and ended up serving nine years. It goes back to my time as a military policeman. I want to protect people from the bad things that could happen to them. I also want to give back to people who have been wronged or been taken advantage of. I can’t go back in time and right the wrongs, but moving forward I can help give back to them.”
Why Syracuse? “When we were in the Middle East, we did forensics work and I was lucky enough to go to a monthlong forensic bootcamp. When transitioning out of the Marines, I wanted to study something I actually enjoyed. What we did in the Middle East was probably the most influential work from my military career and I was proud of what I was able to contribute. I wanted to keep doing forensic science and Syracuse has a great forensic science program. All the classes I’ve taken have been fantastic.”
How do you want to make a difference when you graduate? “My dream job would be working for one of those three-letter agencies [i.e., the Federal Bureau of Investigation]. That’s shooting for the stars, but I’d love to enter government service. But right now I’m taking a forensic pathology course that is fascinating and I genuinely love it. Crime scene investigation is a really interesting career path to consider.”