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War veteran finds his groove in academia

By Jennifer McDermott

Publication: The Day

Published December 26. 2013 4:00AM
Tim Cook The Day
Justin Charron listens as other poets speak during an open poetry night at the Bean & Leaf in New London.
Justin Charron left Navy and is hoping for future as an English professor

When Justin Charron went to Iraq at the start of the war in 2003, he said he began questioning the motives for the invasion.

An aviation ordnanceman, Charron said he handled the weapons on planes flying off a Navy amphibious assault ship that was attached to a marine expeditionary unit. Charron said he felt what he was doing was morally wrong, so he left the Navy after just two years because of the toll it took on his mental health.

"It's not Hollywood. It's not what you see in video games, on TV, and it's not even what you see on the news," he said. "It's very, very different and it's very real, and you will have to live with it, for better or worse, for the rest of your life."

Charron described his return home to Waterford as a "dark period," where he and his family struggled to adjust to the fact that he was not the same person he had been when he left. He later moved into an apartment on Pearl Street in New London.

At a recent open mic poetry night at the Bean & Leaf in New London, Charron read a poem he wrote in the summer of 2012, "#9 Pearl Street":

Just an ordinary ordnanceman,

Laid my mind down to rest with the souls of the best

Part of me will always be

Buried here, in this drunken casket

a fourth floor tomb, #9 Pearl St.

Today, Charron says he is in a better place. He finished his studies in liberal arts and sciences this month to earn an associate's degree at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, and he will pursue his bachelor's degree at Trinity College, a selective, private college in Hartford.

Charron said his relationship with his family is fantastic and he is living with them again. Don Charron said he is very proud of his son because it took a lot of courage to enlist.

Only three students from Three Rivers went on to Trinity between 1992 to 2013, said Laura Qin, the director of institutional research at Three Rivers.

Some students did go to comparable colleges - Sacred Heart University, Connecticut College, Boston University, Yale University and Wesleyan University - but Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut, Central Connecticut State University and Southern Connecticut State University are the top institutions in Connecticut to which students transfer, she added.

Charron eventually wants to earn a doctor of philosophy degree in English and become an English professor.

"I feel like I am completely prepared. I don't know what is ahead, but I feel like I have a solid writing foundation and I had more than enough experiences with being able to work with my peers as a writing tutor," he said. "Basically, school has shown me what I'm actually capable of."

Charron thought he would study geology in college, but he discovered his love of writing, poetry and argument theory at Three Rivers.

Frederick-Douglass Knowles II, an assistant professor of English at Three Rivers, said Charron is an "innovative student," who often devised counter-arguments to his theories in class to provoke discussion and engage other students. Knowles said it is great that Charron wants to be a professor because "that is what life is all about - using your gifts to share with others, to help inspire others."

"All he needs is that piece of paper. He's ready. I look forward to seeing him in his classroom. I may even take his class and be a thorn in his side every once in a while," Knowles said with a laugh.

Charron also used to be afraid of public speaking. He said he failed assignments at the Ella T. Grasso Southeastern Technical High School in Groton because he froze when he tried to present his papers to the class.

One of his first college classes was in public speaking. Assistant Professor Michael Stutz said by the end of the semester, he forgot about Charron's fear because Charron had gained confidence and became an engaging speaker. Stutz, who was also Charron's adviser, became a mentor.

"To have a student like Justin, who loves learning for the sake of learning, is really phenomenal," Stutz said.

Charron, who is 33, plans to study English and philosophy through Trinity's Individualized Degree Program for adults who did not complete their undergraduate degree directly after high school.

"I had no sense of whether or not Trinity was looking for a student like Justin, a student who was years removed from traditional-age students because he had been in the Navy and had other work and life experiences," Stutz said. "And so it was one of those things that when he was interested in it, I supported him 100 percent, but I wasn't sure how likely he was to get in. I was extremely pleased when he did."

Only 73 people are enrolled in the IDP program this fall, said Trinity spokeswoman Michele Jacklin, so it is "pretty significant to be accepted in that group."

Knowles said Charron is the "epitome" of why community colleges exist, because he came to Three Rivers as a young man and a war veteran, and used it as a stepping stone.

Charron wants to set a good example for his 8-year-old daughter, Ana, who, he said, teaches him something new each day. His poem "Step" was inspired by her, and time he spent in New York and San Diego.

"I found myself worrying about the things that had happened or could happen and wrote this as a reminder to be present and not forget the beauty of the wisdom that we all find in youth," he said.

At the beginning of the poem Charron notes, "Look into the eyes of those children/See the spark of divinity; the Wisdom of youth."

Charron ends by saying,

The past is present in the future

The future is now

And if you only worry about the now

You'll never understand how to

Step, step to the rhythm

Step, step up to the street

Where life moves so fast,

Sounds flow so unique.


#9 Pearl Street

Fresh home from the 'box,

Welcomed to the states by

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna

A month in San' Dog to recuperate

Long nights of drinking away memories

Never enough to alleviate

Checking boxes from behind the safety of a clipboard

Words, devoid of real compassion, mindless

"Have you thought about hurting anyone or yourself?"

Words ring through my head

Stop, rewind, think back

Streaks of tears on red, white and blue steel

Inane questions leave me wondering

if they even know why I'm here

Back to the grind, back to the race

Everything so different, still the same.

Contemplating demise

Swimming at the bottom of the crimson Cossack glass

Wake up 6 a.m. do it all again.

Flared tempers, barbed words slice through hulls

Forced to abandon ship

Into icy black night streets

Pushed out by those that asked me to return

Greeted by exasperated words of a cop

Shoving awards, commendations and presidential unit citations

Into sea bags like yesterdays garbage

Wondering how a father can reject the prodigal son.

…Pin my medals upon my chest, tell my mama I done my best

Forget tellin' her

Just an ordinary ordnanceman,

Laid my mind down to rest with the souls of the best

Part of me will always be

Buried here, in this drunken casket

a fourth floor tomb, #9 Pearl St


Step, step to the rhythm

Step, step up to the street

Where life moves so fast, sounds flow so unique

Listen, listen

Like children sitting at their grandma's feet

Reach down into memories

That flow like rivers from our past

Look into the eyes of those children

See the spark of divinity; the Wisdom of youth

From Beijing to Berlin,

Ethiopia all the way to the East End

Memories and metaphors

Coalesce into day dreams and fantasies

Turning bed knobs and broomsticks into castles and horses

What about the past you may ask

As you worry about the future

And I'll tell you it ain't gone anywhere

Those things you call the past

Yeah, they'll reach up and kick you in the ass!

They ain't gone anywhere.

The past is present in the future

The future is now

And if you only worry about the now

You'll never understand how to

Step, step to the rhythm

Step, step up to the street

Where life moves so fast,

Sounds flow so unique

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