Travis Werling ’21 became infatuated with the bass guitar when he was 12 years old. His dream was to tour the world in a rock band.

And he did just that when he joined the U.S. Army Music program. The program is comprised of 31 active duty bands and each band includes various ensembles, including rock and pop groups.

He had stumbled on a YouTube video of a rock band playing for a group of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and was inspired by their performance in such austere conditions. After high school, he enlisted and joined the program to play music and travel the world.

Headshot of Travis Werling.

Travis Werling '21 transferred to study economics at Pomona College.

“I didn’t know [the Army bands] could be for guitar players too. I thought it was primarily ceremonial music for dignitaries. I didn’t know that there were Army rock bands touring around,” says Werling. He decided to request an audition for the U.S. Army Band.

Werling served in the Army for eight years. Not only did he learn to march with the bass drum and perform with different ensembles, he also got to play in ensembles that spanned all the genres, from Dixie to Latin to rock music.

The Power of Music
His first musical mission came when his rock band was deployed with the 82nd Airborne Division to a small outpost in Iraq.

The small unit of about 40 soldiers had recently lost two of their own to an explosive device.

“I remember it being really difficult. You could just see they were devastated. It was really hard to get any response,” says Werling. “They were kind of shut off in a sense, but we saw one sergeant of theirs who was giving us the encouraging nod.”

Trying to think of how to break the mood, Werling’s band invited the sergeant to come up and sing a song.

“The next thing you know everyone is like, ‘Go up!’ So he sang ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ and it was the funniest thing. He was a total ham on stage- a natural performer. You could see the weight lifted off everyone’s shoulders. They were laughing and singing along. You could see them enjoying themselves, probably for the first time since the incident happened, and the rest of the performance took off. I think we really helped them in that moment.”

Trading the Guitar for Textbooks
As Werling grew older in the Army, he also started to develop a new interest.

“I started to save some money, and everyone was like ‘Why don’t you invest your money?’ The economy was starting to recover but I didn’t even know what that meant, so I thought I should learn what that was and what I can do with my money,” he says.

After leaving the Army, Werling became more interested in stocks and learned to invest his savings. He enrolled in community college where he surveyed a wide breadth of classes until he found economics. With a plan to continue his education in this field, Werling transferred to a four-year university in San Antonio, Texas.

Although he declared a major in accounting, he realized that he wanted to pursue career opportunities in finance and attending a school like Pomona might provide unique opportunities.  

“I dedicated all my energy and free time from work to studying for class and researching schools,” says Werling who connected with Vetlink, a partnership between Service to School and a small group of elite colleges and universities committed to increasing veteran enrollment.

With Vetlink’s support, Werling transferred to Pomona College this fall.

How’s Pomona going so far? Werling is enrolled in Professor of Economics Michael Steinberger’s Macroeconomic Theory class, a class that Werling says is “by far the most challenging and most rewarding.” 

“This is just a phenomenal class if you really want to see how cause and effect happens in the economy. He pushes you to your limit and there are lots of moving parts. Every time I step foot in that classroom, I’m scared,” jokes Werling. “But I’ve learned so much in the past month. Being scared is good: it’s challenging and very rewarding.”

The Transition for Veterans
Werling has some words of advice for veterans who are transitioning to civilian life and thinking of college: “Be proactive.”

“The college admission process takes a lot longer than people think if you’re really pushing it as hard as you should be,” he says. He advises veterans to get paired with someone from Services to School, a free nonprofit organization that helps with college admissions. They review the application essay and know what the schools really want to see.

Werling advises veterans to think deeply about what schools will best fit their journeys.

“Embrace the idea that your mind is going to change or it’s not going to work out the way you thought. Be fluid and enjoy the process – it’s the best mentality to have. I think it’s easy to become reliant on having every component of your life structured in the military, but getting out, especially when you’re applying to selective institutions, is inherently unstable and uncomfortable. It’s part of the exciting and tumultuous transition into being a civilian again.”