From Bronze Star to Summa Cum Laude, CSUF Grad Heading to UCLA Law School
Thoughts of the horrific scenes she witnessed in Afghanistan raced through the mind of Staff Sgt. Jaclyn Blankenship as she stood at attention while receiving her Bronze Star three years ago.
She was recalling the Afghani woman with an axe in her head, wielded there by her husband who suspected her of speaking with another man; the children whose limbs were blown off by landmines as they played in dirt fields; the faces of Afghani soldiers, despondent from decades of guerilla warfare; the American soldiers carrying away their dead comrades; and the putrid fumes of the burning flesh of Germans who were on a bus exploded by a suicide bomber.
The medal acknowledges Blankenship's "exceptionally meritorious service as a flight operations officer, operating under the most extreme of circumstances." But, it is also "emblematic of human suffering in its rawest, most visceral form," Blankenship said, adding that her military experience instilled in her many ambitions. Among them: "helping Afghani women out of servile conditions, bringing infrastructure to Afghanistan, in order to create jobs and maximize mine removal efforts."
After reading about the late Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice who championed civil rights causes, Blankenship said she realized that "through litigation and mediation, I could change the underlying structures that perpetuate the existence of human suffering: human rights violations, trade laws and foreign treaties."
Today, as she prepares to receive her bachelor's degree in philosophy from Cal State Fullerton, Blankenship's ambitions resurface. The first in her family to earn a bachelor's degree, she is graduating with a 4.0 grade point average and the Philosophy Department's highest graduating student honor - the Paul C. Hayner Award. In the fall, she will be attending UCLA School of Law.
Blankenship, 27, joined the Army in 1996, after graduating from Troy High School in Fullerton. She did so because she wanted a college education - without creating a financial hardship for her parents or incurring debt.
She served in the Army and National Guard for nearly nine years.
In her first year of active duty, Blankenship learned Hungarian and became a military intelligence officer, serving as a cryptologist and high-level courier for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In other words, she was a spy. She spent four years in that position, which took her to Bosnia, Kosovo, Hungary, Italy and Germany. For seven months in 2003, she was in Afghanistan, overseeing medical evacuations.
Until six months ago, she worked as an air traffic control station specialist at the Los Alamitos Army Airfield.
Throughout her military career and before then, when she worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken as a teenager, Blankenship would give a portion of her pay to her parents, who live in Yorba Linda.
Her mother, Charlene Blankenship, has been disabled for more than a decade because she suffers from neuropathy, a disease brought on by deterioration of the peripheral nerves in her arms and hands.
"I love my family," said Blankenship, who lives with her two younger sisters in Fullerton and visits her parents at least three times a week. "I'm one of those people who has an almost perfect little family unit. I knew my parents would have tried to pay for me to go to college, but I just couldn't see that. That's why I went into the Army. It paid for my education."
With tears building up in her eyes on a recent day, her mother expressed her pride in her oldest child.
"Jaclyn is a dream achiever," Charlene Blankenship said. "She truly wants to make a difference, and she knows how important education is and how much her dad and I struggle because we didn't have it. She expects of herself only the best, and a lot of times, she makes it very hard on herself. We just support everything she does."
Her family is not her only support base. Cal State Fullerton faculty members also tout her accomplishments, determination and hard work.
"Jaclyn has learned the one lesson that our culture of instant gratification denies and that so many of her fellow students have yet to master: The path to success and happiness begins with discipline and fidelity," said Mitchell E. Avila, associate professor of philosophy and one of Blankenship's teachers. "What is most impressive about Jaclyn's personal character is her dedication and discipline. Certainly this has something to do with her military training, but I suspect that she was motivated and disciplined long before she entered the military."
In her letter of application to law school, Blankenship wrote: "As a 27-year-old veteran of two wars who has lived in six different countries and visited 12 others, I can offer a unique perspective to the study of law and international relations. … I have led soldiers in war and peace, successfully creating a climate of communication among diverse backgrounds and fostering esprit de corps. I have overcome pervasive stereotypes about women in the military, advancing in rank above my predominantly male peers and earning one of the highest combat medals awarded."
Blankenship will participate in commencement ceremonies Sunday, May 28, including the 11 a.m. exercise in the university's Little Theatre.
| Public Affairs Offices/Campus News
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