Army combat medic Rick Velasco peered into the inky darkness that shrouded the Iraqi desert.
Suddenly, explosive rounds erupted from the AK-47s of enemy insurgents. Velasco and other soldiers in his company returned fire and then came an urgent shout: “MEDIC!” Velasco headed toward the voice and found the shouting soldier with an unresponsive platoon sergeant lying in a desert hollow.
“Initially, I thought he had a gunshot wound,” Velasco said. But there was no blood so he pivoted to other possibilities, working in darkness because a light would have made them an easy target.
Velasco concluded the sergeant had collapsed from a cardiac-related issue. “He needed immediate intervention, and I didn’t have a defibrillator to help stabilize his heart,” Velasco said.
The sergeant required hospital treatment. So, Velasco radioed for a Blackhawk and did CPR to keep blood flowing to the man’s brain as he waited for the transport. The whirling sound of helicopter rotors soon cut through the night. The Blackhawk arrived in time and the sergeant survived with no brain damage.
Velasco grows silent today when an interviewer observes that he saved a life that night in the desert. “Yes,” he finally said quietly. No more words are necessary.
Velasco grew up in Tulare and joined the Army National Guard when he graduated from high school in 1992. He enlisted to follow in the footsteps of an older brother and, he said, finishing basic training at Fort Knox in Kentucky is one of his greatest accomplishments.
In 1994, Velasco went on active duty and over the next seven years was deployed to Egypt, Kuwait and Qatar, as well as twice to Iraq. In 2001, he returned to civilian life — not yet 30, proud to have served his nation but carrying with him the stress of that service. Velasco took a job with the California Department of Corrections and worked for the next 17 years as a correctional officer in five prisons.
In 2017, he left the department because of work-related injuries and soon made another life changing decision: Velasco, 48, joined the Veterans Education Program at Fresno State and encouraged his 26-year-old son, Tyler, to do the same.
Tyler joined the Army Reserve at 19 and three years later went on active duty. “I wanted to figure out what I was about and what I could do both physically and mentally. I feel the military is still one of the greatest things American society has to offer,” he said.
Like his father, Tyler became a combat medic — a soldier trained to fight but also render medical aid in both combat and non combat situations.
“I was really proud to do the job my dad did in the Army,” he said. “There was a time growing up when I was distant from him. But becoming a combat medic bridged a lot of those gaps.”
Tyler was stationed in both the United States and Europe, and he left the Army early in 2020 with pride for having served but also emotionally exhausted. “To be frank, I didn’t think I was going to do anything for a few years.”
Then his father told him about the Veterans Education Program. “I decided if he was so set on moving in a healthy direction, I would follow. His excitement was infectious,” Tyler said.
Velasco was excited to attend college with his son. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sit in a classroom with him and see how he thinks and tackles things,” Velasco said. “It was a great opportunity for both of us.”
The Velascos started the Veterans Education Program in the fall 2020 semester. Rick Velasco said he was “a little bit overwhelmed” having not been in school for more than 25 years. “But we have a lot of support in the program,” he said.
Tyler praises the professors in the program. “They’ve helped me — and all of us — to reintegrate into school and build confidence. I’ve been able to jump back into school in a way I didn’t think I’d be able to.”
Father and son have gained greater understanding of one another. Rick Velasco realized he was too hard on Tyler about his grades when Tyler attended community college before joining the military. He has since apologized to his son.
“I didn’t know all that college entails until I got into the Veterans Education Program,” Rick Velasco said. “Now, I see it as a student. It’s like, ‘Man, I’m with you. I get it now.’”
For Tyler, he’s seen his father’s natural leadership play out in the program. “It’s so cool to see his charisma and how he interacts with both the professors and the other students,” Tyler said.
Father and son do homework together, which benefits each in different ways. “He helps ground me,” Tyler said, “and I help push the limits of his analysis in our research papers.”
Both Velascos plan to continue their education and study psychology. Rick Velasco said that he suffers from service-related post traumatic stress disorder and that he’s experienced inadequate counseling over the years.
“I’ve had struggles with psychologists who have book smarts, but they have no experience with PTSD,” Velasco said. “They don’t know what it’s like to be fired on and (to) shoot back. I’m hoping I can deliver a better support system for my fellow veterans.” He wants to become a veterans counselor.
Tyler aims to work as a clinical psychologist. “I want to help people understand the demons that haunt them and make a difference in their lives.”
Other students in the Veterans Education Program have made that difference in his life, helping with the stress he experienced after leaving the Army. “Being around other veterans has been so much more therapeutic than I thought possible,” Tyler said.
The Velascos and fellow students have shared their stories with community members; Sandy Stubblefield, a new supporter, recently made a $75,000 gift to the Veterans Education Program, which is entirely donor-supported. Donors appreciate the students’ stories of hard work and perseverance and as a result are “inspired to philanthropically support future students in the program” said Katie Bewarder, associate director of development in the Division of Continuing and Global Education.
The Velascos appreciate that support and say it changes lives. Rick Velasco didn’t believe the program was real when he first heard about it. “It was like too good to be true,” he said.
The Stubblefields said the same.
Adds Tyler, “I know this sounds like a cliché, but the program actually changed the direction of my life, and I’m so thankful at every turn.”
(Written by Doug Hoagland, a freelance writer based in Fresno.)