Chris Boutin, a Marine and Army Guard combat veteran with multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, spends a lot of time these days in Ken O’Connell’s Klein Hall Office of Veterans and Military Family Services as his work-study student, doing the legwork for events like a Veterans Day presentation in the student center, or recent and coming programs that encourage veterans at colleges to bond over fly-fishing or gardening.
The 31-year-old married dad of twins from nearby Milton is majoring in psychology, hoping to help fellow veterans through the type of issues that he personally has confronted during and after his military service.
A Newport, VT, native, Chris grew up on a dairy farm. He says his grandfather was a tanker in World War II, so he had an awareness of and respect for military service growing up. The September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. occurred when Chris was in high school and motivated him to join the service. “It was our Pearl Harbor,” he says.
A recruiter convinced him to go with the Marines, and after boot camp he went to infantry school and was assigned to the Third Battalion Sixth Marines in 2004. Soon they were deployed to Afghanistan. “The furthest I’d gone from Vermont before that was to Maine,” he says.
Chris turned 19 on his first deployment, posted to the large Bagram base, and says he found it empowering as a young man to go from small farm life to being considered a sort of “mythological warrior,” as Marines were regarded by many Afghan locals. He remembers one security detail when he made a 25-mile hike through harsh mountains with 150 pounds of gear, looking for Taliban, but also trying to get remote villages involved in voting. He lost some friends along the way.
He returned home after that tour for a short time, but soon was sent to Iraq for seven months with the same unit, sustaining a non-combat injury there in an accident that burned him severely, although he was able to minimize injuries to a nearby Marine during that incident by his quick instinctive actions.
Military life became his new normal. “I was more afraid of going home than going back,” he says. While home on leave one time, however, he met his future wife during a visit to a buddy in Maryland, and they kept their connection all through his coming years of service, even when it was long-distance.
Once back from his second tour, Chris eventually ended up doing training in urban warfare in California with the Marines, which he found satisfying, with superiors recognizing his capabilities and accomplishments, and he was discharged in 2008 after being on medical hold for a year. But military life and its deep comradeship had become his comfort zone, and eventually called him back to duty, he says -- not long after, he joined the Army National Guard and returned for a tour in Afghanistan at Camp Phoenix, before being medically retired.
Pushing forward in his life after diagnoses with PTSD and head injury from his extended combat service, Chris had looked into culinary school, long a dream of his, but that fell through. He got married and worked for a time at civilian jobs as a corrections officer and car-audio installer after completing the requisite training programs.
But, he says, “I kept losing military friends to suicide, and decided that instead of just sitting and complaining that the VA doesn’t do enough for them, I would go to school and learn how to fix it myself.”
Chris eased back to college by taking classes at Community College of Vermont in a substance-abuse counseling certificate program for two years before transferring to St. Mike’s. “I chose St. Mike’s because it was a small school in the area, and, to be honest, because they sent me a personal handwritten note on my birthday - sometimes it’s the little things that can make the difference -- somebody showing a personal interest.”
So far, it feels like the right move. He transferred his own military benefits to his wife so she could get her MBA, since his own costs of attending Saint Michael’s are paid by Vocational Rehabilitation.
“I really like St. Mike’s, and I think veterans could flourish here and strengthen the school,” he says. “The smaller class sizes here are great, and being back in a religious community helps me, too, as a Catholic who struggled for a time with religion relating to some things that came up during the service … but just knowing someone like Father Ray Doherty (a campus priest and former Marine) is here to maybe talk about the Marines, that’s helpful --I haven’t met anybody here who I really didn’t like.”
Chris wants to remind veterans looking at the College that “The Vermont VA system is far beyond most states from my experience, and the education here is high-quality.” As to his many Student Veterans of America activities – organizing programs, sending care packages to overseas troops, bonding with other veterans -- he says, “Helping other veterans helps me.”
“Ken O’Connell in the Military Family Affairs Office is great,” Chris says. “He’s always there to listen. I joke that he’s a ‘transitional concierge.’”
Chris says that in his experience, effective leadership, whether on the battlefield, in a classroom or among supporters of a College, is about “earning and showing respect.” He’s finding that at St. Mike’s.