If you had asked Caitlyn Sweat in 2012 where she would be in 2017, she wouldn’t have been able to fathom it.
She would have never imagined life on a military base or going to college without debt. She wouldn’t have guessed she would end up in the Pacific Northwest double majoring in biology and psychology at the University of Oregon.
With a broad smile and welcoming eyes, Sweat is the kind of person you have no problem having a conversation with. Her warm laugh puts people at ease when she greets them at the Student Veterans Center, so it sometimes comes as a surprise that she served her country for nearly three years as a Navy aviation ordinanceman.
“I kinda came up here on a gut feeling,” Sweat said. “It has been a really good decision I think.”
Sweat is in her second year at the university, where she is thriving, but it wasn’t an easy road. At 18, Sweat left home. She and her mom had reached a breaking point, and a newly independent Sweat was ready to follow a new path.
She moved in with people she now considers her godparents, Rick and Lynda Berardie. She was working a part-time job at a coffee shop and had no plans for the future. She felt stuck.
College didn’t feel like an option because she was terrified of debt. That’s when Rick Berardie, a Navy veteran with more than 20 years of service, encouraged her to think about the military.
“I knew something radical needed to happen and I couldn’t think of any other way out of my circumstances,” Sweat said. “It was exciting because I was jumping into something I knew nothing about.”
For Sweat, it was the clean slate she was looking for. “It gave me a sense of purpose,” she said. It also was healing for the relationship between mother and daughter. Sweat says that her decision forced her mom to see her as her own person.
In March 2012, Sweat shipped out to Great Lakes, Illinois, where she would spend two months in boot camp.
“I was freakin’ gung-ho,” Sweat said. Within two weeks she was promoted to the head of her division, where she had more freedom and a certain amount of responsibility.
After boot camp, Sweat was assigned her rate as an aviation ordinanceman. She learned to assemble, load and transport ordinance, namely massive bombs.
In a stroke of irony, Sweat was stationed in San Diego, just minutes from her mom’s new apartment with a view of her daughter’s new home, the USS Ronald Reagan.
But she struggled to acclimate to her new life as a Navy woman.
“There was a sense of community. Everyone was there, and we were all serving for the same goal,” Sweat said. “But I felt like an outsider to that community, and I did so pretty silently.”
She spent many nights of the first year sleeping in her SUV when she wasn’t out at sea.
At sea, she felt the tug of adventure and wonder in the world. Standing on a balcony at the stern of the ship, Sweat was amazed.
“Regardless of what my day was like on the ship, my favorite thing would be when we were out to sea,” Sweat said. “I would find a little crevice to hide in where I could see the ocean, and I would just watch the way that the water moved, and occasionally I would see a dolphin or a flying fish. One time, I saw a whale. It was just insanely beautiful. There is nothing in the world like that. Nothing at all."
Despite the joys she found, her time in service brought her to a low point. Sweat faced depression and anxiety, which were debilitating. Eventually, she was honorably discharged.
She felt scared and guilty, but also relieved. She did not ask to leave the military, but after nearly three years out of her five-year enlistment, she was happy to move on.
She worked on general education credits while she figured out what came next. Sweat decided that she wanted to move to the Pacific Northwest. It was a new adventure.
Utilizing the post 9/11 GI bill, Sweat’s fear of debt was alleviated. The university was welcoming, and she had no problem getting her questions answered.
After registering, she was included in a program called PAVE, or Peer Advisors for Veteran Education. Every week Sweat received an email or text message from another student veteran offering support in navigating school, outside resources and the complexities of personal life.
PAVE advisors share a history of military service. Advisors must have been at the university for a year and are trained for their role.
Sweat did not often reply to those emails and text messages, but she recalls a sense of community, regardless. She started going to the Student Veterans Center, where she became active.
“I really appreciate that they go out of their way to make sure that veterans feel comfortable here,” Sweat said. “They have a space that no matter who you are, what you believe, where you are in your life, you have this one thing in common — you were in service.”
For Sweat, the people at the Student Veterans Center are like family. She can rely on them for support
Now Sweat is a PAVE mentor herself. She was approached by Trent Goodman, a PAVE team leader, to be a coach in her second year at the university. She admits it can be stressful, but it’s worth it.
“If you need help, sometimes it’s like drinking from a water hose out there. You can go and be bounced around to 30 people when all you need is this little drop of information,” Sweat said.
Sweat’s experience and training make that process easier. If one of the students she advises has a question, she can direct them to the right place, clarifying an often convoluted system.
“Her approach comes with empathy and an open mind,” Goodman said. “There may not be a definite answer given, but she will make sure that you have taken the proper steps to be where you need to be. She is a person to talk about experiences with because she sees that that is what has made us who we are.”
Sweat currently has nine students she calls, “PAVEees.” She doesn’t always get responses, but she knows from her own time on the other end that responding may not be the most critical part.
No matter what, Sweat wants to help others. She enlisted, and now she's giving back to veterans like herself.
Sweat hopes to graduate college, although she says that she may take some time off to travel. Eventually, she says, humanitarian work is in her future, which is just one more way to be of service to others.
—By Matt Gatie, University Communications