The ceremony focused on the transition made by military veterans who become students. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

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Warrior Circle marks a new USC tradition for veterans and the Trojan community

The first-time ceremony uses ashes to symbolize the visible wounds of battle — and the invisible sacrifices — made by men and women who serve their country

August 29, 2017 Joanna Clay

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Some 100 people stood quietly in concentric circles in McCarthy Quad.

The Rev. Jim Burklo sang a song and lit sage. Then Nathan Graeser led a ceremony in which Burklo walked around with a bowl of ash and rubbed two markings on the forehead of dozens of men and women.

“The first stripe is for the visible and physical wounds of battle,” Graeser said to the group. “The second is for the invisible sacrifices and wounds of battle — the missed birthdays, anniversaries … and the moral and psychological injuries.”

Friday’s inaugural Warrior Circle was a spiritual manifestation of the transition all military veterans make, said Graeser, an army veteran, military chaplain and doctoral candidate at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. He organized the event with help from Burklo, the university’s associate dean of religious life.

“Drill and ceremony is a key part of military life,” Graeser said. “It’s nice to formalize these significant moments in someone’s life — the transition from being someone who served in the military to a student.”

The veterans also took part in the ceremony by placing a mark on the foreheads of civilians, which symbolized the shared responsibility of the community.

We’re going to embody what we are committed to do at this university with this ceremony.

Jim Burklo

“We who are civilians help to carry the burden — help to carry the emotional and physical burdens and ongoing impacts military service has had on you who are veterans,” Burklo told the crowd. “We’re going to embody what we are committed to do at this university with this ceremony.”

Mark Todd, vice provost for academic operations, pointed out that USC is a place for warriors, starting with the legendary Trojan warrior that stands at the heart of the University Park Campus.

“If you go around the back of Tommy Trojan, you’ll see the five words — faithful, scholarly, skillful, courageous and ambitious — they’re the words we associate with military folk,” he said.

Moving the needle

USC has about 1,000 veterans in its student body — the majority of them, about 800, are graduate students. Because veterans skew older and tend to have more commitments such as work and family, it can be difficult to engage them, but events like this move the needle, Veterans Student Association President Sebero Quintero said.

Besides the association, there were people from the Veterans Resource Center, the USC Alumni Association’s Veterans Network, the USC Marshall School of Business’ Master of Business for Veterans program and USC’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families.

“I think it’s crucial,” Quintero said of such events. “One of the ongoing problems with veterans is they don’t know the resources available to them.… They don’t know there’s a USC veterans association, that we hang out and have events.”

That was the case for Keith Lopez-Jackson, a 49-year-old Marine veteran, who introduced himself to Quintero after the ceremony.

“I want to be more active,” he told Quintero, handing him a plaid cardinal-and-gold business card. “I live down the street. If you need a hand or anything, let me know.”

Lopez-Jackson, a second-year graduate student studying military social work, said veterans are a group that can feel left out and might need a nudge to participate on campus.

“We just come to school and leave and we need to fix that,” he said, noting he was one of those.

The event “most certainly” got him excited to extend his social hours on campus, he said.

“I want to be part of the tradition,” he said. “I want to empower the new vets who come in.”