The Yellow Ribbon Welcome

A modest room inside the century-old Armory on Drexel’s campus hangs the first infantry flag flown on the field at the Battle of Gettysburg. This rare artifact keeps company with lavish swords presented to Civil War officers, a soldier’s wooden leg from the Mexican-American War, and an early 19th-century military accessory known as a tar-bucket hat.

These are just a few of the gems in the collection of the little museum, generally not open to the public. It’s dedicated to the 103rd Engineering Battalion of the National Guard, the oldest continually existing military unit in the state of Pennsylvania. Curator Mike Benson can tell story after story about the battalion’s history, including the fact that in 1922 the unit decided to make engineering its focus.


“We did that because we were right here on Drexel’s campus,” says Benson. “It was like, ‘Hey, look at all the engineers!’”

Down the hall from the museum is the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps headquarters and the gymnasium where young ROTC members train. Until 1969 all male Drexel students were required to participate in the ROTC, and when they completed their qualifications they got a commission as a 2nd lieutenant.

The Armory is also home to the Veterans Lounge that was opened in 2011 for student veterans to study, socialize and host meetings. The space includes a small collection of art by internationally recognized graphic artist Poto Liefi from his “Freedom’s On Me” series.

While the Armory is a nexus for Drexel’s ties to the military past and present, the spirit of dedication to military personnel fills corridors campus-wide.

Since Congress passed the Post-9/11 GI Bill™ in 2008 to provide up to 36 months’ worth of tuition aid for those who served in the military after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Drexel has created an elaborate welcome network and a generous tuition waiver for veteran students.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill™ pays the full tab at state public universities but generally only a percentage of private-school tuition. Drexel, however, went to the next level. It joined the bill’s Yellow Ribbon Program, in which institutions agree to cover full tuition in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Affairs above the standard amount paid for by the government.

Unlike many other Yellow Ribbon universities, Drexel doesn’t put any limits on how many veterans can enroll or on what they study.

“Here, they can attend any program — medical, law, undergrad, grad. There are no quotas whatsoever,” says Melissa Englund, assistant vice president for student financial services.

Drexel’s efforts have earned it a “military-friendly school” designation by Victory Media for five straight years, since the list began. In addition, Drexel was recently ranked No. 12 in the nation by US News & World Report as a top school for veterans. US News also named Drexel No. 13 for best online bachelor’s program for veterans and No. 7 for best online graduate engineering program for veterans.

But while Drexel’s tuition aid enables eligible veterans to attend for free, several challenging factors specific to their situation can impact their success once they’re on campus.

For example, the strict 36-month-maximum limit on GI Bill™ benefits means that student veterans must manage their credits wisely and succeed academically.

“Not being in a rigorous academic program before, I was going in thinking: ‘Can I do this?’” says Katherine Cassel, a nursing student who spent 10 years in the Army as a medic during the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns and with a Kosovo peacekeeping mission. “You have to be humble enough to say, ‘I need someone who’s an expert at this field to teach me how to understand the information and apply it.’”

A GI Bill™ student who fails a course must repay the cost of those credits to the government. “So there are a lot of things riding on succeeding in an intense program,” explains Cassel.

In addition, student veterans have to make social adjustments: They’re generally older than their classmates, may have spouses and children, and have already faced many extreme challenges.

“I started here when I was 30,” says Christopher Diaz, who spent six years in the Navy and two years as a corpsman in Afghanistan before using the Yellow Ribbon program to attend Drexel’s accelerated BS/MS program in clinical psychology.

“Think about being in a big math class with 18-year-olds,” Diaz says. “There’s a huge disconnect.”

The identity shift that occurs might be jarring, also. Simply taking off the uniform can make for a difficult transition, observes Peter Altavilla ’83, a retired lieutenant port networks. Chuck Vincent ’57 is active in the aforementioned Drexel Veterans Alumni Network and often travels from his home in Virginia to participate in events with current student veterans. “When I came back from Korea I knew there were other veterans, but they were not organized,” he recalls.

The Drexel Veterans Association, or DVA, does community outreach and acts as an advocacy group and social and career network.

“We want to bridge that divide between the veteran and the civilian,” says Diaz, who is president of the DVA. “We’ve opened up our membership. Anyone can join.”
DVA Vice President Andrew Gerard notes that the group “helps reintegrate people back into civilian life, specifically college life — which really isn’t like regular civilian life,” he says with a laugh. Gerard joined the Air Force in 2009 and was deployed to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.

“Drexel has been great to veterans,” says Gerard. “They’ve been doing as much as possible.”

That praise would please members of the founding Drexel family, who themselves had notable military careers. Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle, the colorful grandson of founder Anthony J. Drexel, attained the rank of colonel in the Marines and at the outbreak of World War I opened a military training camp near Lansdowne. His son had a distinguished career as an ambassador before and during World War II until 1944, when he retired from diplomatic service, joined the Army as lieutenant colonel and served on Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff. The contacts he made in the occupied nations from his diplomatic years provided intelligence for the Allied invasion.

Drexel’s long-standing military history underscores its dedication to its Yellow Ribbon veterans today. “We want to help them use all their skills, talents, experiences and leadership abilities,” says Weidensaul. “They make the community better and richer.”

Remembering the Battle of Mogadishu

Thomas Matthews
BS Business Administration ’72

Years after Tom Matthews commanded the mission popularly known as “Black Hawk Down” in 1993, he continued to fight for an honest portrayal of the Battle of Mogadishu in book and film.

There’s a Trader Joe’s around the corner. Cars wait patiently at the light. Handsome large-ish suburban homes line up neatly along the cul de sac. It’s an ordinary Northern Virginia suburb.

The house is typical, too. Lucy the boxer bounds out the front door. Jessica Matthews ’73 leads the way to a tidy kitchen island and pops open a Coke for the visitor.

It’s all so normal. Hard to believe former U.S. Army Colonel and Drexel ’72 alumnus Thomas Matthews led American troops through the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, immortalized in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.” In brief, the U.S. military set out to capture a couple of high-ranking aides to a particularly vicious Somali warlord. Eighteen Americans died in a thunderous gun battle, along with hundreds of Somalis. Matthews directed it all from a helicopter, remaining aloft for 18 hours.

Hard to believe he’s one of ours — two decades earlier, Matthews was a business student at Drexel. At school, he says, “you have to strive, you have to achieve, you have to prove yourself academically. I also had sports, football and lacrosse. You have to walk away with a well-rounded experience.”

Here at Drexel, in the early ’70s, he honed his mind and his body, and, yes, he was in the campus ROTC also, acquiring some of the steel he would draw on later as a battle commander and later still, as an uncompromising consultant to filmmakers and authors.

In 2000, moviemakers sent Matthews a screenplay for his consideration. “My comments were all pretty negative,” he recalls. “This was how someone who had never been in the military would have seen it.”

The filmmakers didn’t flinch. When they asked him to consult on the film, Matthews balked, but wife Jessie urged him to take on the project: Maybe he could make the film more true to life. Matthews thought of his comrades in arms — “I did it for the memory of those guys, given the story was going to be told anyway” — and soon was on set beside director Ridley Scott. They shot for five months in Morocco.

Matthews keeps the memorabilia hanging in his basement stairwell: Movie posters signed by the director and the cast. A signed photo from President Bill Clinton, taken during a White House ceremony honoring American casualties.

Read up on Mogadishu and you’ll quickly wonder: Did we win this one? By most accounts it’s a tossup, unless you ask Matthews, who calls it a clear victory. To get to the truth, he says, you have to understand the context.

His men went to Somalia on a combat mission. People shoot at you in combat. You shoot back. So that’s point No. 1: Despite what some might think, this was war.

But what is a war? Last time Americans had seen fighting, they were watching smart bombs flung at Iraqi troops from miles away. No one really fought. War had become antiseptic. So when they suddenly saw Americans engaged in bloody violence, in a war most people didn’t even know we were fighting — well, the news was not well received.

“No one saw this coming. No one even told them we were at war,” Mathews says.

Then came the book “Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War” by then-Inquirer staff writer Mark Bowden (very well received in military circles) and then the film. Getting the story right took endless conversations between the director and the military consultant, but at the end of the day, it all worked out. “I am OK with the product,” Matthews says.

Scott and Matthews butted heads. The director wanted a Movie, while the soldier wanted History. A major clash occurred when the filmmaker decided to use the real names of the fighters. At that point Matthews had to draw a line.

“I felt, you cannot depict the death of an American soldier unless you show it exactly the way their families have been told,” he says. “Once you use their names, at that point this isn’t a movie anymore. It is a combat operation. They died for their country. Their families really suffered those losses.”

By pushing for realism at every step, Matthews was able to steer a more meaningful experience for moviegoers. “Instead of getting entertained, the average American got an education. Instead of suspending reality, they got a dose of just how dirty and dangerous an urban fight can be,” he says.

Looking back on America’s involvement in Somalia, and his own experience on that battlefield, Matthews says he has only one real regret. He’s sorry that we went home so soon after the battle.

“Here’s what matters to me. When you commit the U.S. military to a mission, you finish it,” he says. “If you are going to put us there in the first place, don’t pull us out until we finish the mission. If it wasn’t worth the consequences, don’t put us in. That’s what the people in the mission said. That’s what they felt. Yes, we may take casualties. But let us finish the mission.”
—Adam Stone

Remembering WWII and the Korean War

Herb Schneider
BS Business Administration ’40

At 96 years old, Herb Schneider has preserved rich memories of military life during World War II and the Korean War, and of Drexel, where he was enrolled until drafted as a private in 1941. For the next four years, he served in field artillery, Army ordnance, and in the 8th Army Air Force — eventually finishing the war as a first lieutenant. He spent four years between wars as a captain with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard before rejoining the war effort in the Korean War. After the war, he returned to Reading and put his business degree to use managing a furniture store until his retirement in 1985.

Starting out: “I graduated from high school in Reading in 1936. Drexel Institute of Technology sparked my interest with their five-year co-op program, and I enrolled that September. Annual costs were $335 for tuition, books, fees and supplies.”

School memories: “There were no men’s dormitories, as Drexel consisted of a girl’s dormitory and the Main Building. Out-of-town students rented rooms in frat houses. My fondest memory of Drexel is the time I spent with my date on the sofa behind the piano in the girl’s dormitory.”

Life in the service: “In July 1941, I was drafted into the Army and sent to Fort Bragg, N.C., for the princely salary of $21 a month. After basic training, I was assigned to a special human salvage operation, Battery B. This unit received men who could not read and write or who were physically uncoordinated. Our job was to help them overcome their problems. We then salvaged for the artillery those with whom we were successful and discharged the remainder.

In 1942, I graduated from the ordnance officer’s candidate school in Aberdeen, Md., as a second lieutenant and eventually ended up at Fort George Wright in Spokane, Wash., where the 351st Bomb Group of B-17 Flying Fortresses was being formed. My team loaded planes with bombs and ammunition. After five months of training, we were on board the Queen Elizabeth passenger liner, four officers to a stateroom, headed for Polebrook in England, which was a Rothschild estate whose home was turned into a recuperative hospital and whose land was turned into an airfield.”

War stories: “Clark Gable was in our outfit and made a movie of it titled “Combat America.” We occasionally had dances on the base, and about three girls for every man would show up because the girls wanted to see Gable. He never came, but they didn’t know that. I had dinner with him one day and we both discussed how we hoped we wouldn’t be sent to Russia or the Pacific.

Fondest memory: “My most meaningful memory of my service is when we arrived in England. I had no garage to maintain my trucks and trailers. One day my mechanic spied a metal hut across the road from our base. After making inquiries, I learned it was an abandoned anti-aircraft site. In one night, my mechanic single-handedly dismantled that hut in the English blackout and hauled it back to the base. A remarkable feat.

The men dug a trench between the buildings and bootlegged the electricity from my office to the garage so we could work at night.

One day, British civilian contractors were digging nearby and hit the hot wire. All hell broke loose and I was summoned by the base commander. The British clerk of the works was there, and he shoved a map in my face, saying, ‘The hut is not in the plans. It’s not in the plans!’ The colonel asked me, ‘Schneider, where did that hut come from?’ I innocently said, ‘It was here when we got here.’ Again I heard, ‘It’s not in the plans.’ After the clerk left, I told the colonel the true story and he was amazed. His only reprimand was, ‘For God’s sakes, bury that electric line deeper.’ The ingenuity of the American soldier is what won the war.”

Remembering the Korean and Vietnam Wars

Charles Vincent
BS Electrical Engineering ’57

Charles “Chuck” Vincent, 83, says that when he first came to Drexel he was undisciplined, and his grades showed it. After “busting out” of his chemical engineering program, he decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps — the first step in a 20-plus-year military career that took him to Korea, the Caribbean, Germany, Turkey and Vietnam and earned him 24 medals and ribbons.

He served in the Korean War as a Marine staff sergeant from 1950 to 1953, where he became a radar specialist. From the backseat of an AD Skyraider attack aircraft, he detected and jammed enemy radar signals on 67 flight missions over Korea.

In 1954, he returned to Drexel, with better results the second time around. He switched to electrical engineering, co-op’d with Westinghouse, celebrated his graduation and then headed immediately back to the military in 1957, finishing as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1975. While serving as an electronic intelligence specialist with the National Security Agency, he was selected for classified intel work during the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In peace time, Vincent had a long second career as an engineer for the Public Works Department of Prince William County in Virginia, a large property management firm, and Patton Harris Rust Associates (now Pennoni Associates Inc.) until his retirement in 2005.

College bound: “Upon my graduation from Ocean City High School, N.J., in June 1948, I had planned on studying chemistry at Washington College in Maryland. The week after graduation, I was fishing with my neighbor, ‘Doc,’ and he asked me my plans. After I told him, he asked if I had considered chemical engineering. He told me about Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia and the co-op program. The next week, with his help, I went for an interview and testing at Drexel, and was able to enroll in September.

Although I had fished with ‘Doc’ for two summers, I did not know he was Dr. Henry E. Warner, chair of Drexel’s Chemical Engineering Department at the time.”

School recollections: “Although I found academics very difficult, I enjoyed the fraternity activities socially, and the inter-fraternity athletic competitions. Initially I joined the Glee Club, but dropped it for wrestling, which I did for two years. I also enjoyed ROTC — at that time, two years of ROTC was mandatory for students. I struggled for two years, and decided that if I couldn’t make it at Drexel that I had to do something, so in December 1950, with the Korean War heating up and the draft beckoning, I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.”

Jamming radar in Korea: “At the end of boot camp I was selected to receive aviation electronics (now known as avionics) training, no doubt because of the basic science course I had taken at Drexel. I went off to training at the Naval Air Station Memphis in Tennessee and for some strange reason I took to it like a fish to water. Afterward I went to Korea and was assigned to seek out enemy ground-based radar and then jam it physically or electronically. Once in a while we’d get painted by an aircraft [hit by a radar] and we’d get out of there in a hurry.”

Back from the war: “In January 1954, I returned to Drexel in electrical engineering. I was a more mature and confident student, which I credit to the basic ROTC and Marine training that I had undergone. This training also opened my eyes to a career that I felt was both honorable and satisfying, so with that in mind, I enrolled in Senior ROTC with the goal of being commissioned in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers upon graduation in 1957.

A highlight of that time was in 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when a small group of naval personnel and I were tasked with analyzing electronic signals collected by reconnaissance aircraft flying over Cuba. We identified the types of radar being used in Cuba and its location. Later, while watching a retired U.S. Navy pilot on “The History Channel” discuss a mission and what he faced as he flew over Cuba, I realized the significance of the intelligence that we were providing.

My early military training provided me with the discipline to be successful academically and athletically upon my return. I went on to receive two more degrees with relative ease and had a reputation in the military and civilian career for being a problem solver. I attribute this to my ‘Drexel experience.’”

Remembering the War on Terror

Chris Young
BS Health Sciences ’12

When terrorists struck on 9/11, Chris Young was a 20-year-old student at Delaware County Community College. As the country erupted in patriotic fervor in the days and weeks that followed, Young was moved to action. He walked into a recruiter’s office and enlisted.

At Fort Benning, Georgia, he completed Ranger School, and then spent two years in Iraq — where he provided security and helped train the Iraqi National Guard, primarily in Balad, Baghdad and Tikrit. Before his second deployment, it was discovered that he had thyroid cancer.

During the summer of 2006, he underwent surgeries and radiation treatment at his base, missing his second deployment. After a clean bill of health, he was honorably discharged, but resolved to have something good come of the experience. He and his girlfriend (now wife) created a foundation that has raised $60,000 for the oncology department at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania.

Through the Yellow Ribbon program, Young was able to complete a bachelor’s degree in health sciences at Drexel, where he is now an assistant director of enrollment management operations.

Surviving Ranger School: “Think of the worst possible scenario that you could put yourself in, and then go live in that scenario for at least three months, and that is what Ranger School is like. No food, no sleep, you’re in the woods, constantly going. A typical day would be, sleep for an hour, if you’re lucky, eat maybe a meal, work 23 hours…it’s a test of will. So graduation is a pretty big deal. But at the same time, you’re physically and mentally drained and just want it to be over. I look back on it now and realize that at any point in my life, I know that I have truly pushed myself to my limit!”

The people you meet in the military: “The people who go out and put their necks on the line are really…there’s no comparing them. There’s this misconception that you’re just this dumb grunt who’s just able to lift a lot of heavy things, and that’s not the case at all. You have to be very intelligent and very bright, good with people, and you have to have the ability to withstand a lot and just keep going. The people who do that for little or very little pay, it’s humbling to be around that type of environment.”

Why talking about war is hard: “I know a lot of guys who have fought harder than I have, and longer, and lost more and I will always take that experience with me for the rest of my life.”

On starting a foundation: “When you have radiation treatment you have to be quarantined, so I had to go check into a hotel room by myself and was basically locked away in there. I needed something to do, and I needed it to be worthwhile. I didn’t want to put my energy into something that was for nothing — ultimately, that’s how I make a lot of my decisions. Since I’ve joined the service, I don’t think I’ve ever done something that was strictly to benefit myself.”

How service changes you: “You learn very quickly that you don’t live forever, whether you like it or not, and you don’t have to become an 80-year-old man to realize that; for me, I got that message in my 20s. The service forces you to realize what is really important in life, and what is secondary. For me, the service has taught me that what is important is being a good husband, father, friend and citizen. I think about my time in the service every day, and every day I want to try and be a better man because of the experience I have had there.”
—Sonja Sherwood

Drexel’s long-standing dedication to military veterans continues to this day in its unqualified support of the Post-9/11 GI Bill™.