Illini Student Veterans president helps former military members transition to life on campus

Johnny Watts poses with his squad leader and two squad members on the “shoot house.” In the live fire training exercise, the squad practiced clearing houses.

Johnny Watts refused to get out of his car. He pulled into the garage at his home in Champaign 10 minutes ago but wasn’t ready to go inside.

Johnny spent six years in the Army, ascending to the rank of Staff Sergeant. He endured basic training. He fired automatic weapons and drove some of the heaviest machinery the military has to offer. He survived a deployment to Iraq — twice. He had friends killed in war. But being a 23-year-old freshman at the University of Illinois majoring in electrical engineering was the hardest thing he had ever done.

He had just gotten his first exam back — pre-calculus. He thought he aced it. He got a C-. The professor said everyone who received a grade below a B needed to meet with her to discuss their future in the major.

He sat in the car, the same thought running through his head:

“How can I tell my wife?”

***

Johnny didn’t fit in at the University. He was five years older than everyone in his classes. He was married. But he was used to that. He had never fit in anywhere.

That’s how he ended up in the Army. He was looking for a way out. He was supposed to call Madison, Ill., home, but it never really functioned as that. Instead, it served as a place where he spent years of his life getting teased and bullied.

Johnny spoke differently than everyone in Madison. He wasn’t interested in sex, drugs, gangs or anything else that tied the community together. Instead, he liked math and science. He liked school.

The other kids knew from Day 1 that he didn’t fit in. But it took him 10 years to get out.

***

Johnny didn’t live in Madison until he was 8 years old. The son of an Air Force man, he grew up in Europe, moving from base to base. On the bases, Johnny didn’t have much freedom to play with friends.

He remembers the culture shock when he moved to the United States.

“In the Netherlands, we would go out into the woods and, like, throw rocks,” Johnny said. “That was the intensity of our mischief. But here, man, they would talk about drugs. I never knew anything about that.”

Though he is black, he wasn’t used to black people. He wasn’t used to rude people. He wasn’t used to anything but the military.

He wasn’t used to Hispanic people. He wasn’t used to diversity. And he wasn’t used to rude children like those he encountered in Madison. 

On his first day of school, one kid confronted Johnny on the playground.

“At first, I was like, ‘Is this really going on?’” said Johnny, who had only seen bullying on television.  “But then he started picking on me, and I fought back.”

Johnny didn’t get in trouble for the fight. “It was just little kid stuff,” he said. But it showed him that his transition to Madison wouldn’t be easy.

***

Johnny never got along with his father. To him, his dad was unfair. He always dished out ridiculous punishments, putting Johnny “on punishment” for a month for forgetting to take out the trash or forcing Johnny to sit in his room and read the dictionary. Johnny’s dad wasn’t afraid to get out the belt to teach his kids lessons — even when Johnny was 15.

“Whenever we had the opportunity, we were not in the house,” Johnny said. “If we were in the house, we were in sight and normally that just meant we got in trouble for something.”

Johnny doesn’t remember ever having a family dinner with his mom, dad, brother and sister. Johnny’s dad’s stubbornness and treatment of his children led to Johnny’s parents’ splitting up during Johnny’s sophomore year in high school. Relieved, Johnny moved with his mother to Granite City, two miles north of Madison, but he remained in the Madison school district.

Johnny still didn’t like high school. He got mugged in the locker room and continued to endure bullying, but at least he didn’t have to deal with his dad on a daily basis. Although he said he still never felt he fit in with his family, he enjoyed the increased freedom of living with just his mother and brother.

During his junior year of high school, Johnny and a friend were sitting in Wilson Park in Granite City when an Army recruiter approached them and began to tell them about the Army’s benefits: being able to see the world, receiving job training and having a consistent paycheck. The boys, surrounded by housing projects, drug dealers and prostitutes, didn’t see much of a future in Madison.

***

Johnny Watts joined the Army before graduating high school. When he crossed the stage, all he had to do was sign the paperwork before being shipped off to Basic Training.

At Basic Training, Johnny drank his first beer. He learned about the importance of personal responsibility — how if one person could take care of himself, it made it a lot easier for a group to function. He learned about the Army, and he learned to follow its rules, like shaving every day, though he was an 18-year-old private who could barely sprout peach fuzz. He learned to appreciate having a bed to sleep in or having a roof over his head.

For the first time in his life, Johnny fit in. The drill sergeants didn’t get to him as much as they did the other soldiers. He took everything in stride, and he credited his readiness to his father’s strict upbringing.

After Basic Training, Johnny went to Advanced Individual Training, or training for his job of military intelligence. After AIT, Johnny was assigned to Fort Campbell, a four-hour drive from Madison. Johnny went home the first few weekends he was on base and remembered why he left.

“I realized why I never fit in — I wasn’t like them,” Johnny said. “I had my own group of friends that kind of grew over the years while I was there, but we were very different from the rest of the people we were around.”

He began to stay at Fort Campbell on weekends. He felt more at home there than at his parent’s home — by this point his mother had moved back in with his father, though she would only stay there for two years. A few months after he arrived, a girl named Gricelda, who he had met in AIT, came to Fort Campbell. They worked together, and he befriended her.

Eventually, after Gricelda got out of a previous relationship, her roommate persuaded her to go on a date with Johnny. The couple dated and the relationship flourished, even when Johnny deployed to Iraq.

Johnny doesn’t remember much about his deployments; he puts up a mental block because he would rather not think about it. His six years of Army service all blend together, and he struggles to recall where a specific event occurred on a timeline of his service. He remembers specifics but is reluctant or unable to bring up examples when prompted.

Johnny probably would’ve made a career out of the Army instead of discharging after six years if it weren’t for the quick turnaround on his second deployment. After the first deployment, Johnny was supposed to be reassigned to England, but he was the only person with experience in his job type left in his brigade. He was forced to stay with the unit.

“I had plans, man. I was going to do trips around Europe,” Johnny said. “Any weekend I had, I was just going to drive somewhere. I was stoked about it, and then they canceled them.”

Instead of England, Johnny was assigned to deploy, just nine months after returning from Iraq.

Johnny couldn’t believe it. That was the quickest turnaround on deployments he had heard of. He and Gricelda rushed a courthouse wedding, delaying the elaborate ceremony, before their 17-month separation — the longest 17 months of Johnny’s life.

“It was like one long, continued deployment,” Johnny said. “I had just got back from the first one. When I got back to Kuwait for the second deployment, everything looked like it hadn’t changed from the last time I was there.

“It didn’t even feel like we left.”

***

Although Johnny’s memory of his deployments is fuzzy, he remembers they turned him off of the Army and onto something else: school.

After being in Iraq for six months on his second deployment, Johnny went on rest and relaxation and went back to the states to see his wife. During his reprieve, he and his wife struggled to decide whether he should reenlist — he had considered it as a career before his request to go to England was denied. They didn’t make a decision during the break, so on his way back to Iraq, the thought consumed him, keeping up at night. But arriving in Kuwait reminded Johnny of the war’s misery. He decided the Army wasn’t for him anymore.

He slept like a baby that night.

He wanted to try something new — engineering. But it had been five years since Johnny had stepped foot in a school — and a lousy one at that. The prospect of higher education was frightening, a feeling shared by his fellow student veterans.

“We come with a full life, and we’re trying to start over,” Johnny said. “It can be a really stressful time because we left certainty for uncertainty. We knew we were getting paid. We knew what we were doing. Whether we liked it or not, we knew. And that was comforting.”

***

Johnny eventually got out of his car.

He told Gricelda about his exam. He met with the professor. She told him he would need to learn to study, but if he was able to do that, if he dedicated himself, he could make it in electrical engineering. Four years later, the 28-year-old fifth year senior is scheduled to graduate in May.

Johnny has also found a place where he fits in.

This year, he is the president of the Illini Veterans registered student organization, a group of former soldiers who now attend the University of Illinois. Johnny wouldn’t have had the courage or the know-how to lead his peers before his time in the Army. He knows his fellow veterans benefitted from their military experience as well.

During his tenure as president, Johnny has made it his goal to make veterans aware of careers outside of the federal government. He feels many college-educated veterans don’t see another option than returning to government work because it’s all they’ve known.

Johnny knows veterans can be an asset to any company because they know the importance of being a team player, working and motivating those around them.

He also thinks the club, which started before Johnny’s time as a bunch of guys going out to a bar on Thursday nights once a month, helps the veterans find a place where they belong on campus. It provides them with a group of people who know what they’ve been through and what they’re going through.

***

Johnny doesn’t go back to Madison often; he doesn’t have a reason to. When he does, he sees classmates with multiple babies from multiple partners. He sees his old bullies dealing drugs or looking for work. He sees a dysfunctional extended family, cursed with drugs and low income.

Johnny will be working as a hardware engineer in San Diego, starting shortly after graduation in May. He plans to permanently move to Southern California with his wife. He worked in San Diego this summer and loved it.

His wife, a graduate student in Business, currently works at the University of Illinois Employees’ Credit Union. She has a few contacts in San Diego and is trying to find a job there.

Once Gricelda settles into her job, the couple plans on having two kids. They already have a dog.

Johnny has already begun to think about what type of father he will be. He wants to provide his children with a father who is fairer and more engaged than his was, but he doesn’t want to be overbearing. He plans on taking an invested interest in his children’s future — something his father never did.

That’s how he sees his family: a wife, two children and a dog living in San Diego. He sees a family that functions. A family that fits. A place where Johnny belongs.

1,858 miles away from Madison.

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Johnny Watts reached the rank of Master Sergeant. Watts reached the rank of Staff Sergeant. The Daily Illini regrets the error. 

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Johnny Watts sees a dysfunctional family cursed with low income and drug. This refers to Watts’ extended family.