Illustration by staff illustrator Sakura Siegel.

To the veterans of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard, we thank you for your service. 

You chose a path that many individuals do not take. 

For four years or more, you have dedicated your time to serve this country and have shared your experiences with a newfound family who you call brothers and sisters. Together you fought through hardships as a platoon.  

You practically learned a second language when you first went to boot camp: learning about new machines, weaponry, enduring rigorous physical training, new skills and tactics. 

Traveling far distances and seeing new faces, surrounded by unfamiliar lands, you were able to push through. 

No matter what branch you served in, you all have your differences in experience but share the same bravery, comradery and sacrifices. 

Here are experiences from four different New Jersey veterans. They explain why they joined; how they felt leaving home; their branch, MOS (Military Occupational Specialty); their best and worst experiences; if they traveled internationally; and how it felt being back in civilization.

Kaylee Arias 

22 years old
West New York, New Jersey 

“Ever since I was a freshman in high school I knew I wanted to join the military. I wanted to have the experience because at the time I wanted to be a detective. 

Leaving West New York wasn’t so hard for me. 

I grew up being very independent so I didn’t want to depend on my mom. I wanted to be the one helping her. Being the first one in my family to go and join the military was a lot of pressure, but I knew I’d make it. 

I knew I was going to make them proud. 

My branch was the Navy and I was an EN, which is an engineman. I was stationed in Japan for two years and then moved to California for the last two. 

I have definitely lived some of my best experiences in Japan. 

I learned a lot about the Japanese culture and being there for the cherry blossom season was probably my favorite. 

When I was younger, I only dreamed of going to Tokyo, but to have the chance of actually going to the Shibuya crossing was so unreal. 

Some friends and I decided to take a 7-hour flight to Hawaii while we were stationed in Japan. We did every tourist thing like visit Pearl Harbor and stay mesmerized by such blue waters at the beach. 

We decided to top it off by coming out about my sexuality in Hawaii to all my family and friends with an Instagram post.  

When I moved to California, I was told I’d be in charge of the small boats on the ship. 

We call them Rhibs, a rigid inflatable boat. They are used to transport personnel between the ship and ashore and essential for recovering personnel for man over-boards. 

In order to do so, they told me I had to get OC sprayed. You had to go through a tactical course while being in the worst pain of your life. That was an experience I never wish upon anyone. I can laugh about it now, but I hope to never experience that again. 

Being a female engineer in the military was probably one of the hardest things. 

I had to try and prove to the rest that just because I was a female doesn’t mean I can’t do the same as a male. It’s a very physical job, sometimes you were lifting heavy equipment and I had to show them I could do it too. 

Other than physical work you had to know about engines and in my job particularly it was Diesel engines. 

Learning about it all was difficult for me because I didn’t have any type of experience with Diesel. A lot of my coworkers had a history of working with cars, which is very similar to what being an EN is so I had to catch up. 

Engineering is notorious for keeping people working late. While other people would be leaving for the day, engineers would still be working. Sometimes we didn’t see the sun for weeks, even months. 

We’d go in before the sun came out and leave after sunset. Then eventually I became a supervisor for my work center which was making sure all maintenance was done on time, teaching younger sailors and ordering and tracking essential parts needed to complete our job. 

It was stressful but it was all things every leader had to do. But eventually it was all very natural and the bond you grow with all these people is something that’ll be with you forever. 

Being out of the Navy now is liberating and sometimes weird. 

Having the same routine for four years and then all of a sudden I didn’t have to be anywhere. 

Now I wake up whenever I want to and travel wherever I want to and for as long as I want to. When I was rung off my ship on my last day, I felt this big weight on my shoulder just lift. 

I finally felt free, though it makes me sound like I was in prison for four years. 

But I’m excited to start school. I finally know what I want to pursue and I hope it all goes as planned. 

The Navy definitely helped me out and, not only taught me about myself, but about working with others. 

Even though there were many challenging days and I lost precious time with loved ones by missing birthdays and holidays, the experiences I gained will last me a lifetime. Therefore I do not regret my time served in the United States Navy.”

Marquis Sanders

24 years old
Jersey City, New Jersey 

“To be honest I joined sporadically so it was kind of a hit or miss. I didn’t know who I was so I wanted to expand my horizons a little bit. 

Leaving home was not all that difficult and I was excited! On the other hand not hearing from my family really did hurt me and my fellow soldiers a little. 

My branch of the military was the Army and my MOS was 91B (wheeled vehicle mechanic). After training, I was stationed in Fort Worth, Texas, but I spent the remainder of my term at Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, NY. 

Literally the best of times and the funniest was boot camp! The worst of times … Honestly it was the annual two week training I attended in 2017. 

I was training in Fort Pickett, VA and let’s just say after two weeks I ended up getting sick from having at least 25 mosquito bites on each arm (some about the size of a quarter); if you would like to see there is proof on my Instagram. 

I have yet to travel internationally in my entire life.

Not to sound cocky, but there wasn’t much that was too hard to accomplish. It’s just the weather conditions that makes everything uncomfortable at times. 

In boot camp — September 2015 — me and my company, Alpha 334, had to literally train for almost a week in the forest during hurricane-like weather conditions and, on top of that, march back to our battalion 21 miles with rucks on our back and blisters on our feet.

It feels great to be free in civilization and to continue onto my own path with great memories as well as experiences to fall back on just to progressively move forward.”

Jeff Valerio 

26 years old 
Monroe Township, New Jersey 

“I initially joined because I was a college graduate halfway through grad school in tons of debt. 

The military is always throwing out incentives on paying back student loans and other benefits. I have no regrets joining the military because it’s a big part of who I am today and I wouldn’t be where I am because of it. 

Another reason was the idea of being a part of something bigger than yourself and doing what only 1% of the population does. 

I wanted to do something more than just your average Joe I guess you can say.

At first I was anxious to finally get started on my military career, but I was super excited to start Basic Training. 

It wasn’t until I finally got to Basic where it hit me that I didn’t wanna be anywhere else, but home. 

After being away from family and friends for a year and a half, it got a little bit easier. But, I would much rather be back at home over anything. 

I guess over time you acknowledge what you signed up for, and that involves sacrifice on a lot of things including time apart from loved ones.

I initially enlisted in the New Jersey Army National Guard as an Officer Candidate. After Basic Training for two months, I went to Federal Officer Candidate School and was commissioned after three additional months. Later on I finally finished all my initial training and became MOS qualified as 11A, Infantry Officer. 

For all ten months I was in Fort Benning, GA.

The best experience about being in the military was meeting so many different people from around the country that all signed up to do the same thing as you. I’ve made a lot of friends from training and still keep in touch with them today. 

I’ve also met so many different people within my own unit and the state of New Jersey. It’s awesome that the military is another network to connect with people. It’s a great opportunity to connect with others similar to you and others from different backgrounds. 

As I said before, the hardest thing that comes with the military is time apart from loved ones. On top of the ten months I spent in GA, I had a six month tour in the Horn of Africa and it was difficult being across the world in a totally different time zone.

I can honestly say after coming back from Africa, it was a breath of fresh air. 

Ever since I came back from all my active duty time I’ve been trying to make up for so much lost time like birthdays, holidays and special events I missed with friends and family. 

However, I’m still on a reserve status, so I’m checking in at least once a month to report to my unit.” 

Carlos (He asked to be anonymous so we’ll call him Carlos). 

22 years old
Jersey City, New Jersey 

“I joined because I didn’t want to waste my life staying around with my local group. So I signed up to keep busy and grow as a person. 

Leaving home was rough because my sister was about to give birth to my niece. My mom is my best friend so I felt emotionally disconnected with the world when I left. 

I was an 11B infantryman active army stationed at Fort Drum, NY. The best experiences came from my 2017 deployment to Afghan — going to combat with my guys. 

One of my worst experiences was that I had to put down a 12-year-old and his mother for having Isis flags on their clothes. 

Being back in civilian life? I feel like I don’t belong to this society but I’m good though mentally.” 

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