Around the World and Back Again: Battocchio on Marine Corps at Manhattan

Kirsten Battocchio, a former United States Marine Corps Sergeant, stands at the podium before a packed crowd in Kelly 5A. Light filters into the room by way of the massive windows positioned behind Battocchio while she, speaking to a group of her peers, outlines this semester’s agenda for Veterans Academic Learning Opportunities Realized (VALOR)— the still-nascent student veterans organization for which the former Marine Sergeant now has the distinction of serving as its newest, and first female, president.

As with many things in her life, Battocchio viewed her election to serve as VALOR’s president at the end of the fall 2016 semester as a new challenge for her to take on and overcome —something for which she has an affinity and was the source of her motivation to enlist in the United States Marine Corps.

“I chose the military to serve — and for the adventure. But I chose the Marine Corps because I knew it would be the most challenging and it was,” Battocchio said.

However, for the Bethel, Conn., native, the military wasn’t always her first choice as she initially opted to study psychology at the similarly-named Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y.  Although she excelled academically during her single year at Manhattanville, she had an epiphany, realizing that she felt as if she “was not moving forward… [and that] it didn’t feel like [she] was doing anything meaningful.”

In response to this sense of stagnation, she gave herself an ultimatum: either transfer to the University of Connecticut or enlist in the military — and make the final decision before her nineteenth birthday. Despite having already been accepted and having placed a down payment for her housing at UConn, Battocchio, now 26-years-old, eventually choose the latter, beginning her near six-year stint in the Marines.

The impetus for her decision? A rather vivid dream — one in which she envisioned herself as a student at UConn. Upon waking, she realized that her experience at the state university would not satisfy her desire for change. Looking back on the episode, Battocchio said, “Usually a dream like that would be a sign to go to UConn, but it was the opposite for me.”

After three months of boot camp at the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot in South Carolina, Battocchio was assigned the military occupation of Aviation Maintenance Administration Clerk and was shipped overseas to the Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, Japan. Spending two years at Iwakuni, she was tasked with handling “all of the reports for all the maintenance of all of the squadrons on that base.” She added, “That was all my shop.”

Towards the end of her deployment in Japan, she realized that it was extremely likely that she would be sent back stateside.

“I loved being overseas, and I knew that I wanted a different position,” Battocchio said.

Wanting to find a way to remain overseas and seeking a new challenge, Battocchio decided to try something new. “I applied for Marine Security Guard duty, which is a secondary billet, so you have to apply and be vetted for it,” she said.

Upon being selected and thoroughly vetted, she subsequently underwent additional training at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, V.A. for about six weeks.

As part of her duties as a member of the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group (MCESG), Battocchio spent three years ensuring the security of the U.S. Embassies in Colombo, Sri Lanka and Kampala, Uganda as well as on the island nation of Barbados, serving approximately one year at each posting.

“It was great living in those places and not just visiting as a tourist. When you are a tourist, I think you only see what they want you to see, but living there is an entirely different experience. Instead we experienced these countries from an intimate first-hand perspective. Each country became a home for me,” Battocchio said about her service as part of the MCESG.

Speaking at length about how she ended up at the countries that she did, the veteran said that “they try to give you one that’s not high threat and Sri Lanka and Uganda were considered tier 3 which is usually a third-world country and high-risk post. So Barbados was more like a ‘here you go, you did your time.’”

When asked whether she could say which foreign country was her favorite, she struggled to deliver a definitive answer, saying: “I loved everywhere I was. It’s so hard picking a favorite country because they are all so different. Japan, I loved, because it was completely different from America, but Sri Lanka and Uganda were both amazing.”

After finishing her tenure at the U.S. Embassy in Barbados, Battocchio’s time in the Marine Corps had finally come to an end. Even so, she was already planning her next move.

“I got out of the military in May 2015… I started school in August [of the same year]. I actually applied to Manhattan while I was still in Barbados and still on active duty. I was emailing Troy [Cogburn, the Director of Transfer Admissions and faculty advisor for VALOR] back and forth,” she said.

For all of the possible schools to attend, the question remained: why Manhattan? Battocchio explained her choice to become a Jasper by saying that she “really wanted a school that was going to align [her] with a career afterwards, and [she] chose New York City just because [she] couldn’t imagine going back to Connecticut.”

“When you’re away that long, you never really feel home in any one place anymore,” she said, “so I wanted to be somewhere that was going to have everything I loved about being overseas, from Sri Lankan food to Ugandan food. People say getting out of the Marine Corps is a culture shock, and it is. But coming back to the States was a real shocking experience in itself.”

Having low expectations for the school and simply grateful for having her tuition expenses covered by the G.I. Bill, she didn’t know what the next three years would have in store for her. Fortunately, the transition from military life to life as a student at Manhattan was made easier by meeting fellow veterans on campus. “Once I got here, I started meeting the other veterans, so that’s when I started getting more involved,” Battocchio said.

Not only have her extracurricular endeavors been shaped by her military service, but so have her academic interests. Now, three semesters after beginning classes at Manhattan, she has decided to double major in international studies and government. Despite her love for psychology, her experiences abroad “changed [her] and made [her] look at the entire world differently.”

In addition to this, Battocchio has opted to study Arabic as a foreign language, following the advice of a fellow veteran that she met her on her first day at the college. Although she says her Arabic class “has been great,” she does admit that “it’s definitely hard and definitely a struggle.”

As for her election to be president of VALOR, she says that it was simply the result of “voicing her opinion” which lead to the group “pulling [her] in more and more.” With a laugh, she said, “And now I’m the president. Last semester, I was Secretary, and they saw what I was doing and I guess that’s why I got elected.”

Looking forward, Battocchio has extensive plans for the organization during her term. Chiefly, she wants VALOR to move away from the perception of being a club. On the subject, she said, “I don’t really like that it’s called a club. Everyone pretty much agrees we’re not a club, it’s not a hobby. It’s definitely something like a fraternity.”

Instead of a club, she’s hoping to rebrand the group as the Manhattan College chapter of the Student Veterans of America (SVA) — a nationally recognized organization. Also, she — with the assistance of her fellow student veterans — is working to ensure student veteran representation on the Student Government Executive Committee in order to give a voice to student veteran concerns on campus.

Outside of VALOR, Battocchio will be representing the United States of America on the U.N. Security Council at National Model United Nations New York 2017 this upcoming April. She has also applied to intern at the state department and has been offered a position to work in the U.S. Embassy in Oman on diplomatic security. If her internship is confirmed, she plans on using the opportunity to practice her Arabic.

After her graduation in May 2018, Battocchio says that she’s “keeping all of her options open.” However, for her, one thing is certain: her involvement with VALOR has made it all possible.

“I can’t even imagine what it would be like not having this organization here. The other veterans were the first people that I really got to know at Manhattan College. It’s hard to fathom this transition without them and this organization. I am thankful for it.”