Married Marines Coping with Campus Culture Shock

After years of campaigns and ordinances attempting to make SMC a smoke-free campus, not much has changed at the thoroughfare near the Pearl Street entrance. It’s still the same haven for musical students to practice their guitar strumming, skaters to get their kick-flip on, and congregating crowds of smokers fitting in a drag between classes as it ever was. The sidewalk of smokers on Pearl is a place to hurry past if you’re worried about the effects of carcinogens but for some it's a home where you can take a puff.

Of the many pairs of people you can find smoking next to the Bundy campus shuttle stop there are obviously a number of couples. One couple in particular is easy to spot by the comfortable body language they share. He’s a tall drink of water with short blond hair and a wide disarming grin. She's dwarfed by her backpack and his height and has long black hair kept in a ponytail and piercingly wise eyes. Neither likes to dress up, happy to keep T-shirts, jeans and sneakers as a daily uniform.

The couple is Chris and Samantha Purucker. They’re both first-year students here at SMC. They’re recently married. They’re Marines. And now, they’re still coming to grips with civilian life.

“It's still difficult. In some ways it's nice because I don't have to be up early or work 16 hours a day,” says Chris, “but in a lot of ways it sucks because you miss that sort of . . ."

“Camaraderie?” says Sam.

". . . Yeah." He responds.

No longer being within the regimented structure of the United States Marine Corps, they've found there's a lot to deal with after serving. The effects of their work life transcend into every moment. Chris, 26, brings up his frustration with the nature of politically correct campus conversation after spending years surrounded by rude, crude gear-heads working as a flight line mechanic stationed at Marine Corps Air Station in New River, NC.

Both bring up the sense of unfamiliar unease that comes when the easy identifiers of rank and uniform are stripped away. When the people surrounding you are truly strangers rather than being able to rely on the sense of unity shared experiences like boot camp can bring.

It was this unity that led Sam, 24, a member of maintenance administration in the same unit, to meeting Chris in a “smoking pit," much like the one they hang out in here at SMC.

She talks of the sense of family that the Corps brought and how marriage felt like the natural next step—about how the corps trained outgoing service members in how to balance a checkbook or invest in a business, but not how to handle civilian life on a social level.

“There's nothing to help you deal with culture shock,” says Sam. “That's exactly what it is. Culture shock. Especially because I did a little over four years and I left at 18. I didn't have a strong adult life to revert back to. All I had was high school and the Marine Corps."

This culture shock is a common experience for veterans. A study released earlier this year by USC and the Orange County Community Foundation (OCCF) showed that 61 percent of post-9/11 veterans reported adjustment challenges while 45 percent of them needed time to decide what to do with their civilian lives. A major cause was PTSD, which 44 percent of the veterans surveyed screened positive for.

This includes Sam. After being discharged in 2013, Sam was diagnosed with PTSD stemming from her time stationed in Afghanistan. It took her some time to be able to leave the house, having to learn to deal with a severe sense of agoraphobia and panic attacks. Aside from help from Chris, she’s also got Buddy, a service dog provided by the Veteran's Affairs, that also helps aid Sam’s balance after injuries sustained during her time in the military.

“People love him,” she says of the dark brown and black Rottweiler/St. Bernard mix. “Honestly I don't like being treated like someone who 'you got to be careful what you say around her.' I just want to be normal. Buddy helps that just exponentially."

Despite these hardships, Chris and Sam bristle at the idea that this isn’t something that they can overcome. "Were not freaks. A lot of people hear 'veteran with PTSD' and they think we're just going to snap and start killing people, but that's not how any of this works," Sam says, "We're just people who've seen some shit, our brains didn't process it properly. We have this, but just because I have this diagnosis, doesn't mean I'm crazy."

"I don't know what she's talking about, she actually is crazy," says Chris laughing.

If Sam’s crazy, then the Chemistry Club may be in need of a new treasurer. A chemical engineering major with an eye on transferring to UCLA, Sam quickly found a home in the club and is planning on being their official Madame Curie cosplayer. This explains why Sam came to SMC, but what about Chris?

“I got his grandmother to nag him into it,” she gloats.

Aside from sharing a psychology class here with his wife, Chris is pursuing his general education while he figures out what he wants to do next. He’s looking into aerospace engineering, primarily because he got frustrated with poorly designed automobiles in the military.

“Mainly I want to be an engineer so I can tell people to stop designing things in stupid ways," he scoffs.

Sam chides him for this having been the 10th time he’s changed his mind on this and the pair laugh. Watching them, it becomes easy to see why these two fit together so well and why the transition from a world of warriors to cushy campuses of precocious kids can be so tough.

As Sam says, "The Marine Corps operates like a family all across the board. We all treat each other like family. Being married is a small step from there."

The corps gave them a sense of family, but it’s in each other that they’ve actually started to build one. With a foundation like that, the pair is going to be hard to knock down.