A veteran's journey from combat to the classroom
News > A veteran's journey from combat to the classroom

A veteran's journey from combat to the classroom

Joseph Mah says that his wife, Mallory Kanaeholo, has worked as a Veterinary Technician for years and had adopted three cats before he met her. Mah has a particularly close bond with Kwitten, pictured here, who likes to rub his face on Mah's beard.
by Olivia Sanchez / The Beacon

The gunner on the convoy was following guidelines when he fired his machine gun at a car speeding toward the U.S. Forward Operating Base at Spin Boldak in Afghanistan. Joseph Mah, who was near the convoy at the time, watched the unidentified car stop as frantic voices on his radio blared.

The gunner misperceived the threat — the car was full of rowdy civilians who were on their way to a wedding, but they would not live to see the ceremony. The bullets killed them instantly.

Now, four years later, Mah sits on a grey couch in his cozy North Portland home with his wife of almost four years curled up next to him. The 28-year-old is now a junior at the University of Portland, but he still talks about his time in Afghanistan in present tense. He sits in classrooms with students who will likely never see the things he’s seen.

According to the Rand Corporation, at least 20 percent of the 1.64 million veterans who served active duty in combat zones in Iraq or Afghanistan return with mental health problems. Mah is one of them. The organizational communications major suffers from social anxiety disorder, but many would never know that about the big, burly, bearded man sitting next to them in class. 


Vet in the Classroom

Mah stands tall at 6 feet, 2 and a half inches, and his forearms are covered in tattoos. He is half Chinese, and the oldest son of two police officers. Like the majority of veterans in higher education, he did not enroll right after high school and is considered a non-traditional student. 

At UP, Mah stands out and he knows it. His wife, Mallory Kanaeholo, said that he has had trouble connecting with other students. “Do I look scary?” he would ask in bewilderment. 

He calls it a “mis-generational high-five”— it’s difficult to find common ground with students who are so much younger and can’t relate to his time in war. So he mostly keeps to himself.

When he does open up about who he is, in the classroom or in other settings, he feels like he is lumped into one of two categories. He said people either assume he is a washed-up, former Captain America, or a shell-shocked, unfortunate wreck. The truth is, Mah is neither. And he struggles to combat the stereotypes that come along with being a war veteran.

Joseph Mah's path to The Bluff is unlike other UP students. He enrolled in community college after high school, but only lasted a semester or two. Mah also spent time living out of a van in Seattle during what he calls an "anti-establishment phase", and living in a hut in Hawaii doing work-trade farming. He did not enroll at the University of Portland until spring semester of 2017. Photo Courtesy of Joseph Mah.

 Thank You For Your Service

Despite the frustration that the stereotypes and assumptions cause him, he understands why they exist. Most civilians learn what they know about military life from movies and television, which Mah said often greatly misrepresent what life as a serviceman is actually like. 

This is a big part of why he feels so uncomfortable when people walk up to him and say, “Thank you for your service.”

Often when he has these interactions, he feels compelled to fire back with “Well, thank you for paying your taxes.” It’s frustrating, he said, because he can’t imagine that most people know what they’re thanking him for. 

Mah said people tend to tune out after they hear him say the word “veteran”. They think they know his story, as if every combat zone deployment experience is the same homogenous war movie. But in reality, everyone's experience is different, he said.

“Vets come in all shapes and sizes,” Mah explained.

Although Mah knows that his military experience will always be a part of him, his identity is more than that. 

“(War is) something other people can know about, but not really unless they’ve experienced it,” Mah said.

Afghanistan

Mah enlisted in the military after a short experiment with island life — he’d been doing work-trade farming in Maui, Hawaii, but soon realized that he’d come down with Island Fever. He walked into an Army recruiting office: “Sign me up! Get me off this island!”

He enlisted with deferred entry and flew home to spend time with his family before heading off to basic training in May 2011.  

After six short months, the self-identified ‘wanderer’ crossed the country to attend basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He trained as a water treatment specialist, only to find out shortly after completing basic training that that position was eliminated. He served as the utility guy in Fort Lee, Virginia, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, before his time for deployment came. He was restless.

“You felt like you were on the bench until you were deployed,” Mah explained. “This is what you were trained to do— you wanted to go do your job.”

The Pacific Northwest native was in for a surprise when he landed in Afghanistan. The dry, desolate desert was unlike anything he’d seen before —The infertile soil bore no resemblance to the lush, green surroundings he’d grown so used to at home in Washington. The only sign of non-human life was camel spiders that were “the size of a dinner plate”. The creepy arachnids hid in the shadows, and would scare grown men so badly they’d jump.

He was deployed to Spin Boldak, Afghanistan in Jan. 2013, and stationed in a small base 80 kilometers south of Kandahar, just west of the Pakistan border.

It wasn’t glamourous. It was lonely — he grew acquainted with some of the people in Spin Boldak, but still, it was very difficult. 

“It was long stretches of boring broken up by short excitement,” he said. 

Mah never shot and was never shot at. His time was primarily spent searching for and deactivating improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs that were hidden by enemies just below the surface of the dirt roads near his base. The bombs were pressure-activated, and would explode if they were driven over or stepped on. 

He recalls driving for miles and miles thinking, “Please don’t explode. Please don’t explode. Please don’t explode.”

It wasn’t like the movies, Mah explained. “Traditional war isn’t fought like that.”

One day while in Afghanistan, Mah received a package from his grandfather. It contained letters his great-grandfather had exchanged with his great uncle during his World War I deployment.

The 1917 correspondence between the Canadian solider and his brother was set in a totally different world, and yet, the narrative made sense to Mah. 

“I’d be like flipping through and they’d be talking about how they’re taking vacation from the front to go to wine country in France or how they’re picking lice out of their bedding— it was very different, but the tone of the narrative just really resonated with me,” Mah said. “Being a soldier, no matter where you are or what era, it’s very similar in experience I think.”

Coming Home

After returning from deployment, Mah served one more year on Fort Campbell in Kentucky, and was soon done with the active duty time requirement on his contract. His contract, which was for eight years, will be up at the end of 2018. Until then, he could still technically be deployed should the U.S. go to war. But it’s very unlikely, he said, and this possibility does not cause him to worry. 

Still, upon release from active duty, many veterans struggle with the adjustment to normal life. The military provides a regimented lifestyle, a sense of purpose, and an irreplaceable camaraderie. When all of these things suddenly vanish, many find it difficult to self-direct, and lack a sense of purpose.

“When you’re a soldier, you have a defined purpose. But when that is taken away from you, what are you?” 

Mah explained that this abrupt transition often ushers in mental health struggles for floundering veterans. For him, it’s been a battle with social anxiety disorder. 

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, this disorder manifests itself in many veterans, and “the anxiety is strong and long-lasting and gets in the way of them doing things they want to do, especially when they avoid social situations that cause them to feel uncomfortable.”

Although anxiety is a large component in post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which many veterans suffer from after returning from combat zones, this is not Mah’s diagnosis. 

“Joe doesn’t have full PTSD, but he would have these anxiety episodes where he would lash out emotionally or have panic moments,” Kanaeholo said, reflecting on the first few years after Mah returned from deployment. “Once he started getting involved in things and found a focus of where he wanted to be, I’ve seen a huge shift in how he deals with things, and how he interacts with people.”

Organizations such as Mental Health First Aid work with veterans and their families to break down the stigma around mental health, connect them with resources, and ultimately, prevent suicide in veterans. 

Mah found the support he needed in the Returning Veterans Project, an organization that provides free health and wellness services to Oregon veterans, and in the Disabled Veterans Vocational Rehabilitation, a program that was developed through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that funds education or vocational training for veterans deemed disabled after returning from combat. 

It is because of this program that Mah is able to fund his education at the University of Portland, an institution he chose because of the small class sizes and the close proximity to his North Portland home, both of which ease his social anxiety. 

Unexpected Love, Marriage

But Mah’s transition was a little more complicated than others. In addition to adjusting to life as a civilian, Mah was learning how to be a husband.

He hadn’t expected much when he accepted an invitation from an old friend to take a spontaneous road trip and see Portugal The Man, a band they’d both liked, just days after returning from his deployment. He had saved up almost $27,000 and he craved anything normal after living on what felt like another planet for nine months.

He hadn’t expected much, and he definitely hadn’t expected to meet his future wife. But he did.

When the music proved too loud, and the crowd too wild, Mah stepped outside to get some air. Craving a smoke, but finding his pockets empty, he approached two women and bummed a cigarette off them. One of them was Kanaeholo. 

They spent only that evening together — Mah offered to buy her and her friend a drink in exchange for the cigarette, and they danced and bar-hopped the night away. Kanaeholo had had fun, but still declined when Mah asked her last name and phone number, knowing he would soon return to his military base across the country. But when she woke up the next morning, she’d changed her mind. She called the hotel she knew Mah was staying at, and left her name and number.

Mah was headed back to Seattle the next day, and soon back to Fort Campbell in Kentucky. But they spoke day in and day out, without fail, for exactly two months.

“Every second I had I’d pick up the phone and we’d be talking,” Mah said. 

The next time he saw her was Dec. 23 — the eve of their wedding. 

“I lied to my folks and told them I couldn’t make it back for Christmas,” Mah said, explaining that although his parents were used to their son making drastic decisions, they weren’t ready for the shock of a surprise wedding.

Joseph Mah and Mallory Kanaeholo smile on their wedding day, Dec. 23, 2013. Kanaeholo said the photo is in black and white because flash photography was not allowed in the chapel, and yellow lighting made all their wedding portraits look somewhat strange. Photo Courtesy of Joseph Mah.

Mah and Kanaeholo were married on Christmas Eve 2013, on the third day they’d ever seen each other in person, at the only drive-thru chapel in Reno. (Although they did not make use of the drive-thru for their nuptials.) Mah smiles when he flips through their dusty wedding album that Kanaeholo jokingly calls their “white trash wedding album.” She wore a black dress and a custom-made headpiece, and Mah had dressed up in his formal military uniform. It was not a traditional ceremony, but they are not a traditional couple. 

“We just kind of winged it,” Mah said. “We’d only met each other that one night.”

Mallory Kanaeholo says this was the first photo strip that she Joseph Mah ever took together. It's from the week of their wedding.
by Olivia Sanchez / The Beacon

After nine months on what he said felt like another planet, it was something different for Mah to be a husband.

“She had nothing to do with the military — things just came together that way,” Mah said. “She liked me for me.”

As for the future, Mah plans to graduate in May 2019, and said he and Kanaeholo may move to the Oregon Coast so that she can pursue an education in marine biology. As long as they bring their three cats, Ernie, Eddie and Kwitten, Mah is willing to move.

“I’d be happy being a bartender-fisherman out on the coast,” Mah said, laughing. “But I also wouldn’t mind making more money, so we’ll see.”

Life as a Civilian

Unlike many of his peers at UP, Mah isn’t counting down the days to the next 21st birthday bar crawl, or using Command strips to hang up band posters in the dorms — he is 28 and married with three cats. He served one tour in Afghanistan for nine months in 2013, and come 2018, will have completed his eight-year contract with the U.S. Army.

He and his wife live in a small, North Portland home with a big grey couch, homemade curtains, Kanaeholo’s art collection on display and seasonal candles burning. They still live with a roommate, the friend Kanaeholo was with the night she met Mah for the first time.

He’s not a normal guy, and he’s definitely not a normal UP student. He never will be.

The day he decided to enlist, and the years that have followed, have changed his life. He is a completely different man than he was when he suited up for the first time. 

“Before I was a little selfish and entitled and I just wanted to do my own thing,” Mah said, looking back. “I just didn’t have that same level of investment, which I think has changed a lot with the military.”

Mah snuggles his cat, Kwitten, and admits that the military helped him open his eyes to a lot of the suffering in the world. Now, he says, he is invested in identity politics and civil rights issues — things he may have naively turned a blind eye to before. 

More than anything, Mah feels like the military gave him the discipline, direction and drive he needed.

“I’m a lot more awake now.”

As Veterans Day approaches, he knows he'll see dozens of “Thank you for your service” messages on social media, and boasting discounts or free entrees at chain restaurants. He knows that many of them will come from well intentioned people who have never seen the giant camel spiders in the Afghanistan desert, who have never watched anyone die, who have never been presented with the sinking feeling of coming home and feeling aimless after the structure of battle is done. 

But all that's ok with Mah. As he sits sipping beer with his wife, snuggling with his cats, he finds himself somewhere in the middle — not quite a soldier anymore, but not quite a college student either. He knows that his time in Afghanistan will never leave him, but he's grateful for his life now.

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