Del Mar resident Kenyon Ralph arrived in Kuwait two days before the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003. For the next three months, he crisscrossed southern Iraq as a radio field operator in the Marine Corps Reserves. He returned for an eight-month tour in 2004, setting up computers and satellite Internet connections for the military base in Ramadi, the capitol of Al Anbar Province.
"It was long periods of boredom with very short peaks of high activity," Ralph said. "But it was very dangerous all the time, even if you were on the base, because there were rocket and mortar attacks, IEDs (improvised explosive devices)."
Ralph's unit was also focused on civil affairs and rebuilding missions, but as reserve members they mostly provided security for other military officials. Therefore, most of Ralph's interaction with Iraqis was with people on the street.
"I don't speak Arabic, so it was hard to understand each other," Ralph said. "There were a lot of kids, just kids everywhere."
Far from the hot desert, Ralph has left the reserves after seven years and is now honing his skills as a computer-engineering student at UCSD.
"I love it," the 25-year-old said. "It's hard, it's brutal."
As a noncommissioned veteran, Ralph's education is only partially covered by the GI Bill. He's making up the remainder with student loans, working on campus and with the generosity of La Jollans Pat and Bob Whalen.
Ralph received the Pat and Bob Whalen Endowed Military Transfer Scholarship, which provides a $2,000 award.
"There's no finer group of individuals than the military," said Bob Whalen, a retired aerospace company president. "It's an opportunity to help some kids, particularly the ones coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, to get an education."
This is the first scholarship at UCSD for military transfers. The Whalens have set up similar scholarships at other universities.
"You can do anything with an education," said Pat Whalen, who serves on the university's scholarship board. "No one can take that away from you."
Ralph said he was extremely appreciative for the Whalen's support and especially of veterans: "I hope they continue to support veterans here, it's great of them and important."
Since coming to UCSD in 2007, Ralph helped found the university's first Student Veterans Organization. The group has about 60 Facebook Group members, but a solid 15 regularly attend meetings.
The organization works on improving student life for veterans, such as streamlining the process for applying for GI benefits, Ralph said. The students were successful in lobbying for early registration for veterans, which helps speed up benefits processing at Veterans Affairs.
The social group also "provides a good way for us to connect," Ralph said. "I haven't had any problems interacting with anybody here, but some other guys have had a little more."
Ralph said he joined the Marines because "the recruiting worked, it looked like fun." When he was not accepted into ROTC, he went straight to boot camp after graduating from Rancho Bernardo High School in 2001. In between training and tours, he continued to take community college classes so he could transfer to a four-year institution.
He considered other out-of-town schools, but is glad to be at UCSD because he is able to live with his grandparents close to school, and also because of the hefty scholarship support.
He plans to graduate at the end of this year, technically the class of 2010, and then go on to graduate school in computer engineering.
The only thing staying local hasn't helped with is having time to surf his favorite 15th Street breaks.
"It's hard to get enough sleep," he said. "Time management is what college is all about."