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Jonathan Reiland (Photo: Sandy Huffaker Jr.) Jonathan Reiland (Photo: Sandy Huffaker Jr.)

Portraits of Courage: Jonathan Reiland

Jonathan Reiland helps veterans adjust to student life at SDSU.
By Michael Price

This is the third of four "Portraits of Courage," a series featuring courageous Aztecs who fight to make the world a better place for themselves, their families and their communities. The stories also appear in the fall 2016 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University.

There are two Jonathan Reilands. Former Staff Sgt. Jonathan Reiland entered the U.S. Marine Corps looking for adventure. He served multiple tours in Iraq, rose quickly up the ranks, ending his military service as a brash and demanding but well-respected combat instructor.

San Diego State University engineering student Jonathan Reiland is, by his own admission, quiet and shy, often preferring the company of his custom-built motorcycles to other people.

Fall 2016 Cover of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University
Fall 2016 Cover of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University
He is above all what others need him to be, which makes him well-suited to serve as president of SDSU’s Student Veteran Organization (SVO), advocating for the university’s military population and helping them adjust to civilian and student life. Vets have a lot to offer in both the classroom and the workplace, he advised, but when you’re used to the military’s highly regimented existence, the freedoms of civilian life can feel unstructured and baffling.

“When we come to college, the place we’re at in our lives is different than other students,” Reiland said. “We’re typically a bit older. Some people have families. It can be hard to relate to your classmates and feel like you fit in.”

“Fitting in” is a feeling that eluded Reiland as a young man. He grew up in Pittsburgh and went to the same high school that Andy Warhol attended, foreshadowing his first career as a graphic designer. After a few years, he felt stuck and constrained. A friend who had just returned from a military tour in Iraq told him that during deployment, he got to drive around Humvees and see the world.

That sounded exciting to Reiland, so he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He excelled at military life, finding the structure, discipline and sense of meaning he’d been looking for. By the time boot camp was over, he’d been promoted to Lance Corporal.

Reiland deployed to Iraq, just outside Fallujah in Anbar Province, in 2006 and drove Humvees in a convoy. At this point of Operation Enduring Freedom, fighting was intense and he saw his share of combat. Again he excelled, and two combat meritorious promotions bumped him up the ranks.

After finishing his tour of duty in late 2006, Reiland returned to Camp Pendleton in California and continued training until his second tour in fall 2007 returned him to Anbar Province. “By that time, things were more relaxed,” he said. “There was more engagement between American troops and the Iraqi army and security forces.”

Throughout both tours, Reiland enjoyed the simplicity of military life: You wear the right clothes, you get the right haircut, you follow orders, and you succeed. There were rigors and heartache, sure, but you always knew what to do. He earned a Navy Achievement Medal and returned to Camp Pendleton in 2008. At that point, he had the option of discharging, but he felt he wasn’t finished with the military just yet.

Reiland re-enlisted as a combat instructor, a non-deployable position. He flourished in this role. Though reserved in his private life, as an instructor he relished barking orders, breaking people down and then rebuilding them into tougher individuals. He was so good at it that he became a combat instructor instructor, teaching newly minted combat instructors how to do the job.

Finally in 2013, he faced a choice between being transferred to a base in North Carolina or getting out of the military. He owned a house in Vista, Calif. He liked his life here. So he chose to discharge.

With the G.I. Bill footing his education, he enrolled in Cal State San Marcos, studying applied physics, and then transferred to SDSU in 2015 to pursue mechanical engineering. The field suits him. “My whole life I’ve been a tinkerer,” Reiland said. “I’ve always had a knack for it.”

He opened his own custom motorcycle and hot rod shop, Close Fabrication, out of his garage and built himself a couple of rigs and a few more for friends and clients. That’s his passion project. Professionally, Reiland works as an intern for Northrop Grumman, figuring out ways to improve product design and assembly procedures. As he completes his SDSU degree, he’s working with devices designed to jam the signals of improvised explosive devices, the kind that he became all too familiar with driving Humvees in Iraq.

Reiland might have left the military, but the military hasn’t left him. He continues to serve SDSU’s military community as SVO president. The SVO, celebrating its 10th year at SDSU, does a variety of community service projects and offers camaraderie and support for student vets.

He’s trying to grow the organization’s membership and give its members a sense of place and community at the university. When he stands in front of his fellow veterans and tells them about the resources available to them, all of his shyness and introversion disappears, and the two Jon Reilands comfortably coalesce.

“Jon displays a solid tenacity to not only get things done, but also to reach out and connect with the wider military-connected student population,” said SDSU veterans coordinator Todd Kennedy. “He is approachable, resolute in his actions, and dedicated to supporting his fellow military and veteran students.”