Submarine warefare symbol

Kathy: Let’s start with the basics. Where are you from originally?

Ryan: Upstate New York: New Paltz. Beautiful town. I didn’t know what I was going to do, coming out of high school. I had two parents who didn’t go to college. My parents knew it was important for me to go to college, but really didn’t know the process. So I went to Ulster Community College for two years. I had to pay my own way, so I was working two jobs. It wasn’t working out, and I knew that my brother, who’s not much younger than me, was about to do the same thing. So I needed a means to pay for not only my college, but his as well, knowing my parents wouldn’t be able to afford to send him to college.

Kathy: That’s a lot of responsibility.

Ryan: Yeah, I mean, he was far smarter than I was, and much better in high school.

Kathy: Would he agree with that? I’m not sure.

Ryan: Yeah, no. I think he’d be on par with that.

Kathy: What jobs were you doing when you were at community college?

Ryan: I worked at a lumber yard and I worked as a martial arts instructor. I also detailed cars. It got me through, but I knew I couldn’t do as well in school as I wanted to. I didn’t have the time. I didn’t want to feel like I was wasting my money. I had no clear path to my dream, which was to go to a state school in New York. I didn’t see a way to actually make that happen, doing what I was doing.

Kathy: What did your parents do for a living?

Ryan: My mom was a manager at an international lighting factory in the next town over. And my dad was a contractor. He owned his own business for 15 years before he sold it. He loves carpentry.

Kathy: Sounds like martial arts was something that you gravitated towards.

Ryan: I did that for 16, 17 years. That taught me how to learn. It was actually a lot more academic than I thought it would be. I had to take up Korean. And I got to teach. Teaching since the age of 14.

Kathy: And you kept up with that over the years?

Ryan: Unfortunately not. I was too busy traveling.

Kathy: I know there’s going to be a bend in the road that gets you to the military, so tell me how that came to be.

Ryan: It wasn’t until I stopped working at the lumber yard, and I moved to work at the Mohonk Mountain resort. I was up there for maybe two years, and I was like, “Oh, I’ll just save money and wait to do community college right.” But then I was also... I don’t know. I was really, really tired of being in the same place. I wanted to get out, and I didn’t feel like I had skills.

Kathy: So by now, you’re what? In your early 20s?

Ryan: Yeah, 21, 22. I was worried, because I was like, I know this is something I have to do, but I know I don’t have an appreciation for learning, where it needs to be, and I also don’t have the academic skills to feel like I’m thriving.

Kathy: Let me back up. Was there a particular subject you gravitated towards in high school?

Ryan: I really liked history. Well, history and English.

Kathy: When you were at Mohonk or at the lumber yard, were you thinking, “I really want to be such and such someday.” Did you have a dream?

Ryan: I think I dreamt about being a high school teacher or middle school teacher. I can remember just sitting in the lumberyard on a break, trying to get through Plato, or something I thought would help me. Trying to read Greek classics, or trying to read ethnographies, or just something I felt would tie me to something college kids were reading. Just to try and get a feel for it. But of course, it’s not the same thing. Reading it by yourself.

Kathy: How did you get to thinking about the military?

Ryan: That was the only thing I could think of. I had several friends out of high school who joined the Army reserves with the sole intention of being able to pay for school. They joined in maybe 2003, 2004, so they got deployed quite a bit, and they thought that would never happen.

But I mean, they came back, and they were going to school. They were actually making things happen. I was like, “I need that for me.” But I knew I had to have a very difficult conversation with my parents, because they had their heart set on me going to college, Even though I really had no means to make that happen. So I broke down and had a long conversation with my mom, because she was really not into the whole idea of me joining the military.

Kathy: Yeah, I’m a mother. I understand. She was scared, I’m sure.

Ryan: She finally realized what I was trying to do, and realized this would be a means for me to get to where I want to be. But she [said,] “One, if you’re going to do something, I want you to have a technical job.”

Kathy: Something that doesn’t get you in combat.

Ryan: Right. I was like, “Okay. I can do that.” But I can’t do something where I feel like I’m not being challenged. So I talked with a recruiter and they only offered me two jobs. One, I could be a nuclear technician, which would’ve been six years, and I wasn’t really all about spending six years.

Kathy: That’s an intense commitment.

Ryan: Or two, I could be an electronics technician onboard a submarine. But that also involves a bit of a time commitment, because you have to do a lot of schooling, and you’re not guaranteed that job until after you pass this qualification process.

Kathy: You’re given these choices and neither is perfect. So what happens?

Ryan: The submarine is a better option. I thought, “Well, it’s less than a year, but I’m still getting to do something that’s pretty selective.” You know, they try and sell it: it’s less than 10 percent of the Navy that actually does this.

Kathy: Did you have an associate’s degree at that point?

Ryan: Nope.

Kathy: But you had a couple years under your belt. So you’re not just fresh out of high school. I’m sure that elevated you in their eyes.

Ryan: Yeah, it helped quite a bit. But I will say, I still knew nothing about learning. Looking back, I was kind of completely clueless. I tried to do a little bit of research. There isn’t a whole lot of research on submarine life. It’s a closed community. And for good reason: if you knew what it was all about, they’d probably get a lot less people willing to do it. I ended up enlisting in the Navy, and then I signed an additional contract to join submarine service. So I got sent to boot camp and went to Groton, Conn., which is where they do submarine training.

Kathy: And did you do boot camp out in the Great Lakes?

Ryan: I did, yeah. That was eye-opening. But it wasn’t actually as bad as I thought it was going to be. I refer to it more of a fashion show: You learn to wear uniforms and make the bed.

Kathy: See, there I am picturing obstacle courses and all kinds of physical strenuousness.

Ryan: That was the one thing I got to bypass, because I was in charge of our whole squad’s paperwork, 120 kids. So I was stuck in an office all day, doing paperwork for everyone. I missed out on a lot of the physical stuff. In 2007, I get to Groton for submarine training. So I get there and it’s cold. It’s funny, it’s not like other branches of the military, where you’re treated like a kid, and you have to work up to get privileges. You’re treated like an adult from the get-go.

I didn’t see that coming, but I understand it now: With the amount of stress and the amount of expectation, there isn’t time for rigid rules. There’s still discipline, but it’s not rigid discipline where you’re yelling at people.

Kathy: So you’re 23. I have a friend whose father served in a submarine. He was telling us about the tests you would take, where they’d have water come up to your chin, and the people who freak out don’t make it. Did you have to go through some of those exercises?

Ryan: Yeah, you go through damage control training. You’re in this room. It’s mocked up to look like an engineering space. They teach you how to repair major flooding. So you’re put in cold water. It’s dark. And the water is rising. So you’re working with maybe four or five other guys, in the dark. It’s a litmus test to get a feel for what you have to do on a submarine. But that’s really not where a lot of the pressure comes from.

Kathy: Where does the pressure come from?

Ryan: Again, it’s learning. So trying to drink from a fire hose, basically. From day one, they’ll throw like three volumes—these giant stack of books. They’re like, “Here you go. This is what you have to know, but it’s on you to get it done.”

Kathy: There’s no sort of class?

Ryan: No, it is not like a college atmosphere at all. The onus is on you to get it done, and if you don’t understand, it is on you. If you don’t get it done, you don’t belong here. I knew right away I’m not an engineering major or a math major, but I had to be to a certain extent.

Kathy: What are some of the things you would’ve been learning?

Ryan: One of the books was about sound propagation, and basically learning fundamentals like Pascal’s Law and how pressure, temperature, salinity all affect sound and how that works. Then how to network computers. Electronic troubleshooting. How to rewire circuit boards. How to make them work. There were instructors who’d help if you have a question, but again, it’s self-paced.

Kathy: What would your rank have been at that point?

Ryan: I was an E-3, which is nothing, really.

Kathy: Did you have moments of saying, “Oh, man. This is too much.”

Ryan: Oh, yeah. Day one, coming out of sub school. I got lucky. I graduated first in my class, and I was able to choose where I went. I got assigned to the U.S.S. Hampton in San Diego [a 120-person nuclear submarine].

You have a little over a year to finish the whole qualification process, so you’re basically learning about every system on board, and you have to check out with someone. So you have to see someone, and they test your knowledge, and then they’ll sign their initials.

You know, they’re vouching that you’ve learned this, but that all culminates to a final board, where you step into this room with an officer and two other senior guys who have been doing this at least 20 years. There’s a white board, and they are hammering you with questions, and you have to know procedurally, what not only you’re doing, but what everyone else is doing, in the event of any situation.

Kathy: How did you do?

Ryan: It was three hours. It was intense. But I did pass my first time.  

Kathy: Do a lot of people flunk their first time and then have to retake it?

Ryan: Yeah. It’s not uncommon. But it’s a morale killer. Because during that time, you’re not allowed to have any sort of personal device, any sort of book that isn’t related to what you’re doing.

Kathy: You’re just reading that all the time.

Ryan: Yeah.

Kathy: So you’re there learning. But did you have an assignment and a job while you were on the submarine at the same time?

Ryan: Yeah. I got assigned to be a sonar tech. So I’m trying to learn how to do that job, to man one of the stations so I’m at least semi-useful. But that takes a little bit of time—

Kathy: Which cuts into your study time.

Ryan: You’re not really sleeping at all, anyway. And it’s frowned upon if you do. You can’t get caught sleeping.

Kathy: But I mean, you obviously have to sleep at some point.

Ryan: You have to.

Kathy: Is there a lights out?

Ryan: No, lights are always on. I didn’t even have a bed. There were so many people onboard, I had to sleep on a torpedo rack.

Kathy: That sounds incredibly uncomfortable.

Ryan: Yeah, it is. You’re sleeping next to a warhead basically. It’s designed to blow up in an aircraft carrier.

Kathy: How cozy. It’s not exactly a teddy bear.

Ryan: No, and the big sticker that says “Live Ammunition” doesn’t help. Like, I’m laying there, and I’m like, “What did I do? What am I doing here? What is wrong with you? Are you an idiot?”

Kathy: “I could be at Mohonk.”

Ryan: It gradually subsides, because people do give you credit. If you invest in the process and are working hard, people appreciate that and they’ll help you.

But it’s very much a litmus test. Can you stick with it? How much crap can we throw at you? You can’t watch TV. You can’t listen to music. You need to be studying. Even when you’re standing in line to wait to eat, you need to have a book open.

Kathy: What part of the world is the sub in?

Ryan: It’s in the Pacific. Pacific and Middle East.

Kathy: But you come to shore sometimes?

Ryan: Yeah, every couple of months.

Kathy: So basically a year plus, you were doing this. Then you passed your exam. What happens after that?

Ryan: You finally get your submarine warfare device, which is a symbol of trust. If you’re wearing that, it doesn’t matter what other boat you go to.

Kathy: And is that a medal, a ribbon? What is that?

Ryan: It’s a warfare device.

Kathy: I don’t know what that is, exactly.

Ryan: Basically it symbolizes that the community has trust in you. You know what you’re doing. That’s kind of like a signifier.

Kathy: Forgive me, but is it something visual, like if you had your uniform on, would I see it?

Ryan: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

Kathy: What’s it look like?

Ryan: It’s actually a pair of Japanese koi fish. Kind of like sidled up next to an old World War II- era diesel boat. You wear it on your lapel.

Kathy: I’m going to skip around for a minute. Here we are, sitting in the library at Amherst. Top-tier college, really high level of work, and I’m thinking none of these students were in a submarine with only one book to read for a year, you know?

Ryan: No, but I will say this. They probably grew up with a much greater appreciation for learning than I did. That was something that I needed.

Kathy: I suppose, but you rose to the occasion. Plenty of people wash out.

Ryan: I mean, it’s a brute force way of learning. It’s not for everybody, but it’s what I needed to appreciate coming to a space like this and being like, “Oh, my God. I have a semblance of control over what I learn.” And it’s a much more inclusive atmosphere to learning. It’s not something that has to be blunt and forced and pounded in.

Kathy: So you’re qualified, you have your warfare device, you’ve been in the Navy three years. Now what?

Ryan: I still have in my mind, I’m going to college. You have to do the five years minimum service. So I pushed through, and we do another two deployments, both in the Pacific and Middle East. But it’s here that I really learn. We’re gone close to 300 days a year. You’re not talking to anybody. You don’t have email.

Kathy: So did you just have this feeling like, I’m just putting my head down for five years?

Ryan: Pretty much. I figured out that while that did work, it caused me a lot of issues. What I was doing was the common thing that most guys will do. Unfortunately, that leads to a lot of mental health issues, and the suicide rate unfortunately is pretty high in our community. Because there’s kind of like an honor code thing, where once you get in, and you’re qualified, you don’t leave. It’s kind of dishonorable to do that. So if you’re not fully committed, and you say, “Hey, I can’t do this anymore. It’s too stressful,” it’s really looked down upon. Even when your contract’s up and you say, “I’ve fulfilled my commitment. I’ve done what I was supposed to do.” Everyone’s like, “Why are you leaving?” It’s not just like people talking to you. They throw money at you. Money and opportunities. So you can make a lot of money in the civilian sector, but they don’t want that, so you’ll have 18-year-old kids getting $90,000 bonuses to stay.

Kathy: Wow. That keeps them in.

Ryan: Yeah. Then they also throw them perks, like you’ll do what they call shore duty, where you’re not attached to a boat. You’re doing something on land for a year or two, and you get to choose what you do. Which is really good, especially if you’re career-oriented, and that’s what you want to do. They didn’t offer me $90,000, by the way. They offered me $60,000 tax free.

Kathy: That’s not chump change.

Ryan: Not chump change. But I would have to sign up to do another five years, so it’s not really monetarily worth it. But they did offer me special projects.

Kathy: Tell me what your rank was when you left.

Ryan: It’s a little hard to quantify that. I mean, it means more for like your career and money, which is probably the bigger draw. I was promoted to E-6. So I’d gone from E-1 to E-6 in a matter of five years, which is pretty fast.

Kathy: I’m sure there are things you can’t reveal, so what happens? You get orders that say you need you to ply the seas in this particular area?

Ryan: Yeah, you get tasked. That was actually one of the only things that I really thought was awesome, was seeing real world events play out in front of you.

Kathy: Such as?

Ryan: That’s something I can’t say. No, I can’t talk about—like the pirate issue.

Kathy: Oh, in Somalia?

Ryan: Yeah, and along the African coast. We did have to intervene a couple of times there.

Kathy: As in, sidle up to a pirate ship?  

Ryan: We’re just monitoring, because if anything, if they get close enough or something does happen, we can surface. That was actually another job I had. You have to haul this giant Vietnam-era machine gun all the way to the top of the boat, set it up, and then if something happens, you’d have to... Yeah.

Kathy: So what came after?

Ryan: I knew a couple schools I was interested in, Berkeley and Stanford. I had quite a bit of savings, but I didn’t realize how difficult it was to find housing there. I ended up living out of my car for the first two months or so.

Kathy: Oh, man. Well, you were used to small spaces, I guess.

Ryan: Yeah, I mean, it wasn’t as bad. So I was living out of my car. I signed up, and I started going to City College of San Francisco. San Francisco is so beautiful. I was on track. I remember I was doing the same thing I was doing on the boat. I wouldn’t let anybody in. I wasn’t interested in making friendships. I was like, “I don’t have time for that. I need to do this, and I need to do this right.” But I was acing my classes. I was in Honor Society. I volunteered at a nonprofit. Now I’m trying to make the transition happen, because I always had in the back of my mind that schools like Amherst, they don’t want people like me. I’m not talking about veterans. I’m talking about first-gen students, people who don’t know what college is. I had my false ideas about these schools. I had a weird sense of anger.

Kathy: So let’s move on to being here at Amherst. What was it like at first?  

Ryan: Coming here, I think it was more me than anything else, but I did not feel like I fit in. I was ready to dive in. I did the whole orientation, and I was the only veteran in the entire orientation. I’m of the belief that if people tell you they want you to do something, especially here, it’s part of a process, and they want you to immerse yourself in it. But I was the only one, I guess, who felt that way. It was hard being with 17, 18 year olds.

Kathy: Yeah, because at that point you would have been, what, 28?

Ryan: It was hard. I’m trying to relate. I’m trying to feel where they’re coming from. But at the same time, I’m just not there.

Kathy: You’ve been away from your parents, you’ve been in the military. I mean, the gulf between 18 and 28 is huge.

Ryan: Yeah. I was trying to work on building more empathy and that was one area I could definitely see myself having a huge deficit. Especially because I’m a sociology major. I need that. That’s an essential skill. So, yeah, that was hard. But I did find a cohort: fellow transfer students. That’s when it sank in for me that, yeah, I can make this. There are people who are like me, coming from community college. That’s when I felt like Amherst is the place to be.

Kathy: Given what you’ve told me, I’m sure you study incredibly hard. Have you had time to make some connections or friendships since you’ve been here?

Ryan: It’s tough. I was also flying, my first year, I was flying to D.C. every other weekend to see my now-wife. We currently live in Connecticut at a boarding school, The Gunnery, which is also a whole another world.

Kathy: So you moved there and you drive up here. Is that how that works?

Ryan: I was doing that last fall—driving every day. But that’s four hours in a day. It was brutal. So this year, I’m driving every weekend, but I’m staying here, which is the best of both worlds.

Kathy: I’m going to ask you to sort of be a spokesperson here. If you were to say to Amherst, “Here’s some suggestions for how to recruit and welcome and support veterans,” what would you say?

Ryan: Amherst provides so many resources, and they are all about feeling inclusive. I mean, I think they need to keep doing what they’re doing. They’re doing an incredible job. Between not only the administration, but also the faculty, being incredibly supportive, I would say the onus would more be on the Amherst Military Association. There’s not a whole lot of us, unfortunately, because I don’t think they’re getting applications. But we’re really trying to push. I would say we want not only veterans: We want female veterans. We want veterans of color. You know, it can’t just be straight white guys coming out of the military. We want to see diversity there, too. But again. Amherst is doing a great job. [Amherst President] Biddy [Martin] meets with veterans. Once a semester she has us over for dinner, and she talks and listens, and she’s incredibly supportive.

Kathy: Since you mentioned Biddy, what are some other names of people who’ve been part of your life? Professors?

Ryan: Leah Schmalzbauer is my adviser. She’s absolutely fantastic. I will say also Professor [Jerome] Himmelstein, who used to be the chair in the sociology department. He helped me through a lot of not only academic issues but personal issues. I was taking his theory class while figuring out how to be a spouse, while coming here. I was having a lot of insecurity in terms of: I’m here and I’m doing well, but what comes after? What does that look like? He helped me through that. I feel like that’s common with a lot of the professors here. They go above and beyond what I would think a professor’s job is.

I would say also Professor [Hannah] Holleman. I took her class “Reproducing Social Order: Prisons, Schools, and the Military.” Basically, we studied institutions. While I think the majority of veterans would find some of the books I read abrasive to their way of thinking, I thought it was eye-opening. Absolutely eye-opening, and I think the best book I ever read was Feminism and War. [Feminism and War: Confronting U.S. Imperialism, is by Robin Lee Riley, Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Minnie Bruce Pratt.]

Kathy: What are your plans for after Amherst?

Ryan: I think my first year upon completion, I’m going to work at the private school that my wife works at [as dean of students], and tutor, teach, coach, dorm parent. Great school, The Gunnery.

Kathy: And an amusingly military name for our conversation today!

Ryan: I know. That’s what I thought going in. It’s very much not that.

Kathy: What will you be teaching?

Ryan: That’s a good question. Whatever they need.

Kathy: So you just have to power through the next few months.

Ryan: I’m trying to savor this last semester. I’m trying to savor it all.

Kathy: Is there anything that I missed?

Ryan: Other than Amherst being one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I’m so thankful that they’ve given me this opportunity.

illustration by Adam McCauley

Veterans' Days

For nearly two centuries, Amherst has taught veterans, and it's been a triumphant, complicated, promising march of setbacks and progress.