Serving Those Who Serve

by Rachel White

Andrew Montes ’15 remembers the cold, dreary winter afternoon at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, in 2010 when the care packages arrived. Boxes containing handwritten notes and drawings from school children, Christmas cards from neighbors and strangers alike, warm socks, and an assortment of candy and snacks brightened the day and made Montes even more grateful for his hometown of Azusa. He shared the contents with his fellow servicemen and women and posted the cards and notes of support in a common area so all could benefit from the encouraging words. “Just knowing I had everyone back home thinking of me made all the difference in the world,” said Montes. “It demonstrated what I love most about Azusa—the people.”

The Montes family’s roots run deep in the city, with three generations calling Azusa home. “My grandparents, parents, and extended family all live here,” said Montes. “In fact, Azusa Mayor Joseph Rocha was my mother’s sixth grade teacher.” Montes’ dad coached him in baseball and served as the league vice president, constantly modeling the value of hard work and sacrifice—traits learned from his father, Andrew’s grandfather, Bacilio, a veteran who served during the Korean War. While Bacilio made it home from the war, six others from Azusa did not. The Veterans’ Memorial Monument in front of City Hall honors their sacrifice, and each July, residents gather there for the Korean War Armistice Day Ceremony to thank veterans and share yellow roses in remembrance of those who gave their lives. This enduring commitment to veterans and servicemembers defines the heart of the city, according to Mayor Rocha. “Freedom is not free,” said Rocha. “Life as we know it is only possible because of our servicemen and women.”

The city’s strong support of its military men and women and the courage of his own ancestors affirmed Montes’ decision to enlist in the U.S. Air Force upon graduating from Azusa High School in 2006. He deployed to Iraq in 2007 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, facing the harsh realities of combat when the U.S. moved to secure and protect critical areas of Baghdad and Al Abner Province. After Montes completed his tour in Iraq, the Air Force sent him on a peacekeeping mission in South Korea, more than 50 years after the Korean War, which proved a poignant end to his military career. Montes returned to Azusa a hometown hero who downplayed his service and focused on his new mission––to use his experiences to help others.

The support Montes received from his family, friends, and community helped ease his transition to civilian life. “Not everyone is that fortunate,” Montes said. “I personally know veterans who struggled when they returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), homelessness, substance abuse, and marriage and family conflicts.” The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 10 to 18 percent of veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars face PTSD, and returning troops experience depression and engage in excessive drinking and substance abuse at higher levels than the general population.

Given these dismal statistics, Montes aspired to pursue a career where he could assist veterans in need and sought the advice of his older brother Jesse, MSW ’10, to help him define a path forward. “I see my brother as a role model,” he said. “Through his work as a licensed clinical social worker at a California state hospital, Jesse makes a positive impact on the lives of his clients who battle mental illness. He attributes his success to hard work and the education he received at APU.” Montes decided to follow in his brother’s footsteps and enroll at APU as a social work major. “My experience was just as Jesse said it would be,” Montes said. “I benefited from small class sizes, supportive faculty and staff, and a strong social work program that helps students prepare for this challenging field.”

After graduating with his Bachelor of Social Work in May 2015, Montes chose to continue his education in APU’s Master of Social Work program, securing a competitive 500-hour internship beginning fall 2015 with the VA Loma Linda Healthcare System, which provides services to more than 67,000 veterans in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. As a social work intern, Montes will assist veterans seeking mental health services.

“I believe Andrew will connect and empathize with his veteran clients in ways that other social workers cannot,” said Rukshan Fernando, Ph.D., associate dean, School of Behavioral and Applied Sciences. “The knowledge and competencies he learned from his BSW and MSW programs, coupled with his military experience, equip him to validate and help navigate the personal, educational, and professional challenges veterans face when they return to civilian life.”

Active duty may be behind him, but for Montes, this new chapter of service is just beginning.

Rachel White is associate director of public relations in the Office of University Relations. [email protected]

Originally published in the Fall '15 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.