By Jennifer Willis
For many, Memorial Day is just another holiday. A day to barbecue, hang out at the pool and enjoy not having to be at work. But for those who have served in the armed forces, the day means something else.
GCU has a variety of active and veteran military students taking classes on campus and online. For two online master’s students, husband and wife Chris and Janice Voeller of Hutchinson, Kan., Memorial Day has a special meaning that only those who have put their lives on the line could understand.
Chris always had wanted to be in the military.
“When other kids were dreaming of growing up to be firefighters or policemen, I wanted to serve in the 101st Airborne Division (of the Army),” he says. “It was my dream.”
He eventually enlisted and the dream became reality. Several years later, he met Janice.
It seems appropriate that their life together started online; that’s how they met. Living in different states -- he in California, she in Florida -- they cultivated a relationship. When Chris’ mother became ill, both flew to Oregon to be with her. That was the first time they had met in person, and it reaffirmed that they wanted to be together.
“Janice was awesome,” Chris says. “She was there for me and my family through a very difficult time. She helped me get through everything.”
A month later, Chris’ mother passed away, and within two days of her death he was being sent to Iraq.
“I had a conversation with my dad and he told me I had to go. It was what my mom would have wanted,” Chris says. “'They need you right now more than I do,’ he told me. My dad is my hero.”
Shortly thereafter, Chris was gone and the couple endured an even longer distance between them. They became engaged before Chris left and were married by proxy while he was serving in Baghdad. Such an arrangement is made for military personnel in certain states when one of the parties is actively serving and unable to be present.
“My best friend actually knew I was married before I did,” Chris says, laughing. “I was out in the field and he checked my email for me. It’s something we still joke about.”
Before leaving Iraq, Chris was diagnosed with post-tramatic stress disorder and sent to Germany and then to Oklahoma for therapy. In July 2006, while Chris was still receiving treatment, he and Janice had an actual wedding ceremony with family in Texas, flying his dad and his sister down from Oregon.
Five years later, he’s still seeing counselors and attending therapy sessions.
“It’s been difficult,” Janice admits. “He has good days and bad days. But I'm very proud of him. He's my best friend and it's so hard sometimes because I wish there was more I could do for him.”
With Chris back home, the couple finally was able to live a life together. When Chris started looking at going back to school, the next chapter began.
“I wanted to find a place that was military friendly,” Chris says. “And I wanted to find someplace that felt like a real school. Even though I would be attending online, I looked at places that had an actual campus. I filled out forms for about four different schools, and GCU called me back within five minutes. That was impressive.”
Both Chris and Janice are working on master’s degrees in psychology, and they say they love GCU.
“I’m still serving in the National Guard Transportation Support Division,” Chris says. “When I’ve had assignments come up, GCU has been extremely accommodating, which is something that I had issues with when I was getting my bachelor’s degree at Wichita State.
“It’s important for those serving who want to go back to school to look into the military program at a school. Some colleges just don’t click, so you need to make sure you ask lots of questions to find the best fit. I’ve told my whole unit about GCU.”
When she finishes her degree, Janice would like to work at an adoption agency. Chris wants to work for a veterans hospital.
“I want to help veterans who have come back from war, because I’ve been there,” he says. “I know what they’re going through. Even if it’s just volunteer work, I’ll do it because I think it’s that important.”
Janice says balancing work, school and family is a struggle, but it will be worth it in the end.
“Education is so important,” she says. “Everybody should go to school if they really want it and not talk themselves out of it because it might be hard. An education is the best thing you can do with your life, and there is a way to balance everything. If you want it, you can make it work. We just make sure that we take time out to do things together.”
For the Voellers, Memorial Day usually is spent honoring those who have served.
“My unit does a memorial service every year, complete with a 21-gun salute, and I always volunteer to be a part of it,” Chris says. “To see the looks on the faces of the veterans when we visit means the world to me. It’s an honor for me to serve and to be able to honor the people who have died and sacrificed their lives so that I can do what I want to do.”
Reach Jennifer Willis at 639.7383 or [email protected].