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Profiles in courage: USC students and military service

Kasey Vaughn and Robert George Vaughn

Kasey Vaughn with her grandfather, Robert George Vaughn ’48, MA ’50

Kasey Vaughn ’12 – Air Force ROTC

Though two grandfathers and a great uncle had served in the military, Kasey Vaughn ’12 never imagined she would follow in their footsteps. She was just “your average girl growing up in the San Fernando Valley,” competing in track and field and cross-country.

Then fate stepped in. On an athletic recruiting visit to Claremont McKenna College, her student host happened to be an Air Force  Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) cadet who invited Vaughn to visit the detachment at USC. From the moment Vaughn saw the cadets in their opening formation, she was captivated.

Vaughn enrolled at Occidental College on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, traveling across town every Friday to participate in drills at USC. After a while, she wanted to be there all the time.  She transferred in her junior year.

“There’s a reason why the cadets who attend USC are traditionally some of the most successful in the detachment,” she said. “USC prepares us better, both academically and practically. We learn how to work harder, study longer and analyze problems differently here. I know I got a good education during my first two years at Occidental, but every real learning experience I had in college was at USC.”

Looking toward a career with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, Vaughn majored in political science. “I had wanted to be an attorney since I was a kid — at least that was what I wanted to do until I went up in a small plane for the first time,” she said.

An ROTC alum had arranged ride-alongs in two F-16 mock-dogfights. After flying through several high-G maneuvers, Vaughn shelved any thought of law school. She starts pilot training early next year.

“I owe all of this to the Air Force ROTC and USC and a little hard work along the way. I am proud that I will always be a Trojan, and I’m looking forward to defending my Trojan Family from 30,000 feet real soon.”

Jeffrey Ting

Jeffrey Ting in Helmand Province, Afghanistan

Jeffrey Ting, Class of [December] 2012 – Marine Corps Veteran

Jeffrey Ting didn’t think he was college material when, in 2004, he enlisted in the Marine Corps straight out of high school. “I lacked direction, and I thought it would be a waste of time for me to go to college,” he said.

Eight years on, he has had a change of heart. As a USC student veteran, Ting is determined to make the most of his academic opportunities. He’s also determined to help fellow vets make the transition from military life to student life.

“Almost all veteran students are transfers,” Ting said. “It’s a tough transition because of the mindset. We’re not only older, but we also have a unique life experience.”

Ting enlisted in 2004, trained as a wrecker operator and was attached to a Light Armored Reconnaissance unit. In late 2005, he deployed to Djibouti, a small country north of Somalia. In 2009, his unit was sent to Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

The unit was there for seven months — much of that time spent in tents pitched on dirt, living on cold rations, with no power, no phones and no running water. “You find value in things normal people would take for granted,” he recalled. “A fresh pack of baby wipes, a fresh package of socks, is a luxury.”

The years of hardship also helped Ting appreciate the value of a college education. He decided to study accounting and after being discharged, enrolled at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif. Realizing he’d need to attend a first-rate university if he wanted to succeed in his chosen profession, he transferred to the USC Leventhal School of Accounting in his sophomore year. That first summer, he landed a prestigious internship with PricewaterhouseCoopers, which since has offered him a full-time position once he graduates from USC.

Eager to help his comrades, Ting joined the USC Veterans Association, serving as vice president of finance. With the new Transfer and Veteran Student Programs office and the growth of the USC Veterans Association, Ting said there’s more support for vets now than when he first arrived on campus. Which is a good thing, because in that short time, the university’s veteran population has nearly doubled.

Daniel Luciani

Luciani, front at right, at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in 2011 (Photo/Karissa Mattimoe)

Daniel Luciani, Class of 2015 – Naval ROTC

For some people, Memorial Day is about the start of summer. For U.S. Naval ROTC sophomore Daniel Luciani, it has always been about patriotism — expressed through the family tradition of visiting Golden Gate National Cemetery.

“Every year practically since I was born, I have been inspired by the decorated headstones of the fallen soldiers — my heroes — who gave their lives for our freedom,” said the San Francisco native.

Another Luciani family tradition centered on Fleet Week, an annual Armed Forces celebration along the San Francisco waterfront. After their mother’s death in a car accident in 2006, Luciani and his brothers began attending this event with their father each year. There were parades and ship tours, but it was the Blue Angels air shows that mesmerized young Luciani. “That was the beginning of my knowledge of the Navy,” he said.

An intergenerational tradition of service to country runs deep in Luciani’s veins. One grandfather worked for 37 years at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston; the other grandfather was a B-52 bomber pilot. One grandmother was an Army nurse during World War II. Luciani’s father volunteered for service with the Air Force in Vietnam. A cousin is currently a doctor with the Navy SEALs; another cousin just returned from an Army deployment in Afghanistan.

“I had a large pair of combat boots to fill,” Luciani said.

When choosing a college, he looked no further than USC.  “I wanted a school that cherishes academics, athletics and students, and USC goes above and beyond in all of those areas,” he said.

In his first year, Luciani joined Club Water Polo. He made new friends in his battalion, as well as in Fluor Tower. “It’s a great community,” he said.

He hasn’t yet declared a major but is leaning toward an international relations major and math minor. In the long term, Luciani plans to become a submarine officer or surface warfare officer. “I find the technology and engineering of submarines very appealing,” he said. “I’m trying to be the best I can academically so I can get selected for that. But regardless of what service community I’m selected for, I will be honored and privileged to lead sailors as a Naval officer.”

Debie Lam

Debie Lam and fellow Trojan Marching Band members flash the Trojan Victory sign during a football game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (Photo/Daniel Garcia)

Debie Lam, Class of 2015 – Air Force ROTC

Measuring just 4 feet 11 inches tall, Debie Lam doesn’t fit most people’s mental image of an ROTC cadet. But this first-generation Vietnamese-American — her parents came to the United States when they were in their teens and met at Pasadena City College — has always been one to challenge expectations.

When she announced in high school that she wanted to join the ROTC, her mother “freaked out.” Lam elaborated: “She thought I’d be in danger’s way all the time — although, in the end, my parents have been very supportive because they knew it was something I wanted to do.”

Lam raised a few more eyebrows when she enrolled at USC. “My younger uncles and aunts and cousins all went to UCLA,” she said. “It was funny when I went to a family party and told them, ‘I’m a Trojan!’ ”

Majoring in health promotion and disease prevention, Lam is on a premed track at USC. In addition, her ROTC curriculum keeps her busy with drills, leadership laboratories and classes in aerospace studies on Fridays. And then there is physical training (PT) three mornings a week.

“PT was definitely eye-opening the first day,” she recalled. “I was expecting easier PT. I’m not too athletic, and it kicked my butt. It’s given me a chance to improve.”

The diminutive cadet is also a proud member of the USC Trojan Marching Band — shouldering a 45-pound instrument as the Spirit of Troy’s tiniest tubaist. Clearly, the PT has served her well.

Lam said her unconventional choices have also paid off.

“The ROTC helps you open more doors for yourself,” she explained. “I feel more confident working toward my goals in life — like going to med school — because ROTC has given me structure and support.

“On top of that, USC is a very social school, so going through the ROTC here gives you the discipline of the military lifestyle while still having a normal college experience. You meet people who will become lifelong friends.”


Lerri Deguzman

Lerri Deguzman, USC Class of 2014

Lerri Deguzman, Class of 2014 – Marine Corps Veteran

Lerri Deguzman got his early education in the school of hard knocks. “When I was growing up, I was the only Filipino in a mostly Mexican-American neighborhood,” said the Marine veteran. “I got into trouble and went to Juvenile Hall for a year and a half. When I got out, I had a GED.”

It was a circuitous path that led Deguzman to the USC Marshall School of Business, where he is a business operations major on track to earn his bachelor’s degree in business administration.

Released from juvenile incarceration, he joined the Marine Corps. “I was trying to wipe the slate clean, to prove I was worth something,” he said.

Deguzman had been stationed at Camp Pendleton for a year and a half at the time of the 9/11 attacks. His unit quickly deployed to Kuwait, and he was among the first ground troops that moved into Iraq in March 2003.

“For the next 40 days, we were traveling day and night — we had no showers, only a little food, and water,” he said. “It was hard – like finals here at USC, only 40 days long, without a chance to sleep.”

After his Marine service ended, he got a job as a crane operator working in the Kern River Oil Field. Later, he attended community college and worked part-time. When it came time to transfer to a four-year university, Deguzman applied to USC, never expecting to be accepted.

And he wasn’t accepted at first. But he tried again a year later and made the cut.

At USC, Deguzman received support from the Schoen Family Scholarship Program for Veterans, endowed by university trustee and former Marine William J. Schoen ’60, MBA ’63 and his wife, Sharon. Deeply grateful, he stepped up to take a leadership role in making sure other student veterans also got assistance. This past year, he served as president of the student-run USC Veterans Association.

“I love every day I go to USC,” he said. “I see the students raising their hands, arguing with each other, and I feel proud because I protected them.”


Jade Hill and Harvey Barnum

Hill, left, with Col. Harvey C. “Barney” Barnum Jr., a retired Marine Corps colonel and one of a handful of living Medal of Honor Recipients, during a special event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in winter 2010

Jade Hill, Class of 2013 – Marine Corps Veteran/Marine ROTC

Staff Sgt. Jade Hill wanted to do something “tough and challenging” when he graduated from high school — so he became a Marine.

After an initial tour of duty on a presidential security detail at Camp David, the Maryland native reenlisted in 2004 and asked to serve overseas. He spent the next four years in Iraq, Japan, the Philippines and the Horn of Africa, emerging as an experienced sergeant. But he wanted more.

He applied and was accepted for the competitive Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program (MECEP), which offers enlisted men and women the opportunity to become officers by attending the ROTC.

During Hill’s nine-month MECEP preparatory program in Rhode Island, Col. Alvah E. Ingersoll III ’82, then commanding officer of USC’s Naval ROTC, visited and addressed trainees. Ingersoll talked about USC’s academic reputation and institutional values — including its commitment to providing learning experiences outside the classroom and giving back to the community.

“A lot of us thought it sounded prestigious, impressive, unattainable,” Hill recalled. “USC became this thing that was worth striving for, and I decided: ‘Why not?’ What’s the worst they could do? Say no?’ ”

He was surprised — and “indescribably appreciative” — when USC said yes.

“Many veteran students are oriented toward the business world, but I’m taking this experience to shape myself into the kind of officer I need to be,” said Hill, now a history major at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“I didn’t realize until I was at USC how many layers there are to studying history. We can’t properly engage with the present until we have an appreciation for the past, how present actions and the institutions we’re a part of affect future generations.”

Beyond academics, Hill is impressed with the culture of respect and willingness to help that he’s found at USC.

“I’ve experienced the embodiment of what the Trojan Family is all about. It actually exists. It parallels the way we view family in the military, training people to respect family, both in our personal lives and within the unit. I know this sounds like a commercial, but I didn’t know I would find that here.”

Read the related story, “Honoring Those Who Serve

Profiles in courage: USC students and military service

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