May 26, 2011
Joel Francisco remembers how he felt when he first saw footage of the twin towers crumbling on Sept. 11. In a moment when much of America felt weak and helpless, something grew stronger: Francisco's resolve to serve his country. As a high school senior, he was already planning to join the Army. A few weeks later, he headed to a recruiter's office in his hometown of St. Louis.
On his way there, Francisco's older brother Adam happened to call him. A Navy veteran, Adam persuaded Francisco to sign up for the Air Force rather than the Army. Francisco heeded this advice, a decision that profoundly affected the types of experiences he had in the following five years.
He found himself on something of a world tour with stops in Texas, Maryland, Idaho, Korea, England and Kuwait. Much of his time was spent repairing or reproducing aircraft parts in military shops, but he also participated in volunteer opportunities, such as playing with orphans in Korea. "It was actually some of the best times of my life," Francisco says. "You get to know people on a different level."
Even though Francisco wasn't in combat, he still felt the reverberations of war. While Francisco was in England, he accepted a special escort mission in Kuwait for six months. During that time, he provided security for the base and acted as a customs agent for flights — mostly military — in and out of the country.
"All the casualties of war came through there," he says. Francisco and his troops saw casket after casket holding the fallen, both Americans and enemies. Some days it was just one person. Other days they saw 10 to 20 people.
Although no one was there to see them do it, Francisco and his colleagues performed ceremonies to honor the dead. It shook up the people who participated. "It was heart wrenching," he says. "I guess you question if it's worth it, but in other ways you feel proud."
By the time he finished his service, Francisco had changed. He can't hear as well as he once could. His brothers think he's more confident, but also a little quieter. Francisco says he accepts life's twists and turns more readily.
But Francisco's drive to serve others has remained the same. This past semester he balanced his time between mechanical engineering classes at MU and acting as president of the Mizzou Student Veterans Association.
Although he says each veteran's experience is different, many have found they can relate to one another better than when they are surrounded by much younger students in college classes. The veterans find companionship in one another. "They're kind of outsiders for a little bit," Francisco says. "They realize, 'I need a drinking buddy. I can't take a freshman.'"
Francisco's presidential term ends when the fall semester starts, and he's already held an election to find his successor. His veteran peers praise him for making the MSVA fun and welcoming. At a recent meeting, one member of the organization said, "If it weren't for the MSVA, I wouldn't still be in college."
He's already considering his next service opportunity. "I still have a little bit of interest in going back in the military," he says. He's not sure what branch. He's more concerned with the people he'll encounter. "I like that interaction with the troops, to be able to help them make decisions," he says.