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Student Profile: Transfer Student and Veteran Phillip Kantor '12 Brings Military Experience to Pomona

Phillip Kantor with parents and girlfriend Erika at graduation from boot camp. (July 2005)

Phillip Kantor '12 with his parents and girlfriend Erika at graduation from boot camp in July 2005.

Upon return from a patrol in Afghanistan in October 2009. Phillip Kantor is on the left.

Upon return from a patrol in Afghanistan in October 2009. Kantor is on the left.

An economics major in shorts, a polo shirt, and flip-flops walks into the Coop Fountain and orders a grilled chicken sandwich. He doesn’t look that different from any other 5C student, but it turns out he’s a little bit older than most recent graduates and commutes daily from his home in Pasadena.

And, a little over a year ago, he was under attack by Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

Like most Pomona students, Phillip Kantor, a 25 year-old junior, has a story to tell. His just happens to involve the United States Marine Corps.

Kantor is from Cleveland, and his military experience began after an underwhelming freshman year at Miami University of Ohio.

“I wasn’t doing as well as I should have,” he said. “I’d always been interested in the armed services, and at the end of that freshman year, I really had to take a look in the mirror and figure out what I needed to do to get myself back on the path that I wanted to go down.”

Kantor’s lifelong interest in military service was rooted in a number of factors: his grandfather’s service in World War II, a strong interest in history in general and military history in particular, and certain aspects of military culture, specifically “…the opportunity to take part in something greater than yourself while at the same time being pushed to your limits.”

So he met with a recruiter, thinking that “it seemed like a now or never type deal.”

He took two military aptitude tests, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) and the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB). The former tests general aptitude for military service, and the latter tests aptitude for the acquisition of a foreign language.

“I did really well on both of those,” he said, “so I got the chance to go into the marine corps as a Korean linguist, which was a pretty cool opportunity, and one I hadn’t really known about before I’d gone and talked to a recruiter.”

After the tests and his conversations with the recruiter, Kantor was ready to enlist. However, during that freshman year, Kantor had acquired a serious girlfriend, Erica, another student at the college.

“We had a fairly honest, tearful conversation where I told her that basically I wanted to do something I was interested in doing, something I felt like I had to do, something that I felt like was going to make me a better person in the end,” Kantor said. “She, after the initial shock, really took it amazingly well and supported me completely… And she’s been with me every step of the way.”

From there, it was off to Parris Island in South Carolina for three months of boot camp, and then to Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, CA, for 19 months of language training. During that time, Kantor learned Korean and got to spend some time in Seoul as part of his education.

Kantor contrasted this educational experience with his college experiences: “I was in an academic setting when I was at the Defense Language Institute for those 19 months, but it’s a very different academic setting. It’s one subject for seven hours of classroom and three hours of homework a night.”

After that, it was off to Goodfellow, TX, to learn “the basics of signals, intelligence collection, and analysis.”

Kantor put these skills to use when he was stationed with the 3rd Radio Battalion in Kāneohe Bay, Hawaii, from 2007 to 2010.

“While I was there, I got deployed to the Philippines and to Afghanistan, worked as an analyst and airborne signals intelligence operator in the Philippines and then worked as the senior analysts and special signals collection team leader while I was in Afghanistan,” he said.

In Afghanistan, Kantor was the senior analyst for the 3rd Radio Battalion in the Helmand province.

“I was part of the first surge that went in April and May of 2009 into Helmand,” he said. “For my first six months there, I was in Camp Leatherneck on a base.”

Kantor described his duty for these first six months as something of an “office job,” albeit an important one with tangible consequences. “You’re briefing a general who is then making decisions about what to do,” he said. “So you’re seeing it all on sort of a macro level.”

Kantor contrasted this experience with the “micro level” view he got in the next part of his time in Afghanistan.

“My last three months I spent as a team leader for a special signals collections unit attached to a marine corps reconnaissance battalion. So I basically went out on every mission they went out on for those final three months,” he said.

“Every mission we went out on, except for one, we got into combat,” he continued. “It doesn’t really become real…until the first time you get shot at, and then it all comes home very quickly that what you’re doing is not some exercise, sitting in front of a computer.”

“Our first mission I went out on was a helicopter raid on a Taliban drug and weapons bazaar,” he said. “So we went in there and we hit hard in the morning, early in the morning.”

The team found the place abandoned, and they established base there. But things were not quiet for long.

“My team started picking up some indications that the Taliban was watching us…. And then around 9:00 a.m., all hell breaks loose. We start getting mortared, RPGs come in, machine gun fire comes in…. It becomes very real, very fast when RPGs are hitting a wall five meters away from you and mortars are falling right on the other side of the wall.”

Combat experiences like this one helped solidify Kantor’s decision not to pursue a military career. He had always planned on rejoining civilian life and reuniting with Erica after his five-year stint, but he did give a military career some consideration, due to the benefits he would have received and the educational options available to him.

“I could’ve gone back to Monterrey for a couple of years for Chinese. I could’ve gone back to a more advanced signals intelligence analyst course. I could’ve gone and done an intense Korean immersion course and spent a year in Seoul going to college,” he said. “They really offer you a bunch of incentives and make it very tempting, but the issue is that it’s really not the style of life that I wanted to live. I wanted to finish up my college degree before I got too old. I knew pretty early on that I didn’t want to make the military career. There’s really no option but moving around a lot. That’s how you advance in the military…. When it’s all said and done you’re going to be moving pretty much every three years. Erica’s got her own career, and I plan on being with Erica for the long run so that wasn’t really an option. And I couldn’t imagine raising a family like that.”

Erica had moved to L.A. to work as an accountant for Ernst & Young, and Kantor began looking at schools in the area just before the end of his service. He described his college tours as a “whirlwind” that took place the week before he was deployed to Afghanistan.

“The default, I guess, is to look at the big universities—USC, UCLA—but I went in and talked to a couple of them, and it really wasn’t what I was looking for.”

Kantor quickly identified the liberal arts college setting as the right environment for the next phase of his life.

“The marine corps and military as a whole is a large behemoth, but intelligence in general, and signals intelligence in particular, is a very small community of fairly intelligent, focused people, and that’s the community I wanted to stay in when I went to college. So I started looking at some of the smaller schools around here, and very quickly Pomona became my top choice,” he said. “Military life and college life are completely separate worlds and it’s hard to compare the two, but when you get right down to it, it’s a group of young, intelligent, driven people working in a collaborative environment.”

Kantor said that his experience at Pomona so far has fulfilled his expectations, citing the variety of his classes and the quality of his professors as two key attributes. He mentioned “Asian Traditions” with Professor Samuel Yamashita and “US Foreign Policy” with Professor David Elliott as two of his favorite classes. “The wealth of knowledge that these professors have that they’re passing on… it’s extremely intellectually stimulating and just a lot of fun,” he said.

Kantor’s military experience has helped him take “less of an ad hoc approach” than he did in his freshman year at Miami of Ohio. “I take a very regimented approach,” he said. “I basically view it as a work day, like I would if I was at work, if I was in the military again.”

Though Kantor lives off campus, he is still part of a sponsor group, and he spends a lot of time doing his work in the transfer hall in Walker. Though he’s not on the meal plan, he eats with his sponsor group regularly.

Regarding his status as a veteran, a very unusual distinction at the Claremont Colleges, Kantor said, “People are very curious about it. They have a lot of questions about what it was like, about how my experiences were, about how I ended up here. So it’s definitely a topic of conversation, but honestly on a day to day basis… I fit in very well. I’m lucky enough not to be a 25 year-old who looks like he’s 35.”

“I was in the military, but everybody has an interesting story to tell,” he concluded.

Of Kantor’s contribution to the college, Senior Associate Dean of Admissions Art Rodriguez wrote in an email interview: “Like many Pomona students, Phillip has had an experience that has helped shaped his own perspective, and because of his background, he brings to life an important period in our country’s history, which can add a unique voice to the discussions in class, on-campus, and amongst classmates.”

Kantor is attending Pomona in part thanks to the Yellow Ribbon Program, a component of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, also known as the new GI Bill. The program provides veterans with the maximum public university in-state tuition and fees for their education. It also allows more expensive colleges to provide funding beyond this baseline amount, and, under the program, the government matches the college’s contribution.

“The College considered participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program about two years ago as an opportunity to provide veterans with a residential liberal arts experience,” wrote Rodriguez. “Since the program is consistent with our need-based financial aid program, it seemed like the right thing to do—to support veterans interested in joining a community where they would have access to great faculty, students, and resources.”

Information about Pomona’s participation in the program can be found on the College’s website, and Pomona is also listed as a participating institution on the US Department of Veterans Affairs website. Claremont McKenna and Pitzer are also listed as participating institutions for the 2010-2011 academic year.

This article originally appeared in the October 7, 2010, edition of The Student Life.