After speaking with Shoreline Community College student Miguel Escalera even for a moment, you get the sense that he was born to help people.
After speaking with him for an hour, you understand why Escalera’s friends say, “He’s just got a huge heart. He will do anything for anyone.”
Escalera, a Navy-corpsman-turned-Mercedes-mechanic-turned-college-student, will walk in June as a graduate of Shoreline’s Nursing Program. When he crosses the stage and receives his diploma, this humble overachiever will be the first in his family to earn a college degree. He will also already be attending classes at the University of Washington on his way to becoming a Physician Assistant.
Escalera didn’t always know this is where he’d end up, or even where he wanted to be. At 18, he graduated from Mountlake Terrace High School, but had no roadmap for what to do next.
“My parents encouraged education,” he says. “But they didn’t have the money to pay for it.” One of eight children to a farmer and a then stay-at-home mom, he was on his own to get a job or find a way to pay for school and, he says, “I didn’t know how to do college.”
The military, with its GI Bill and career training, felt like a safe bet.
Escalera enlisted in the Navy, and his ASVAB test — the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery — revealed he was qualified to train in medicine. That sounded like a career path that could take him places, so he accepted the Navy’s track and in the process, found a passion.
Training to become a Hospital Corpsman began at the Naval Hospital Corps School in Great Lakes, Ill., and continued with field emergency medicine at Camp Pendleton, Calif. That’s where he was when his unit — Unit 2/4, 5th Marine Regiment, Echo Company — got their orders. In April of 2004, (HM) Hospital Corpsman (FMF) 2nd Class Miguel Escalera deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“It was the craziest time in my life,” he says of his experience in the Al Anbar Province, which encompasses most of Iraq’s western territories. Listening to the stories, his choice of words — “the craziest time in my life” — doesn’t feel like it comes close to describing what he encountered.
Escalera was there during the Battle of Ramadi, one of the longest and fiercest conflicts of the Iraqi campaign and the battle depicted in the Clint Eastwood film American Sniper. He says simply: “I was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for Heroic Achievement for that.”
“For that,” means fighting in a fierce 12-on-12 skirmish while simultaneously administering medical aid to wounded members of his unit. He set up triage, pulled others to safety, and attended to their injuries all while fighting back against the insurgent attack.
“I miss the adrenaline,” he says. “Being in the military is a constant adrenaline rush that’s hard to mimic or find elsewhere.” But it’s not just the blood pumping through his veins, but rather the relationships between the soldiers and the feeling that he’s a part of something bigger than himself that Escalera had a hard time finding after leaving the military later that year.
When he got out, Escalera knew he needed time to recoup, but wasn’t quite sure what to do. Some friends talked him into heading to Arizona where he trained to become a luxury auto mechanic. Once certified, he found his way back to Washington and a job as a Mercedes mechanic in Bellevue. It was lucrative, and he was comfortable.
But after five years, something was missing.
“No one was saying ‘Hey, Doc, thanks for fixing my leg’ or ‘Hey, Doc, that medicine you gave me really helped,’” Escalera says. “When you’re out in the field, you’re it, you’re your unit’s doctor and I really liked being counted on like that.”
Escalera decided it was time to go back to doing what he loved. He reactivated with the military by joining the reserves. Then, he took a long look at colleges in the area and Shoreline’s Nursing program. Along with having some of the best options for transferring to the UW, Escalera says Shoreline is also “very military friendly.”
And Escalera is helping to keep Shoreline friendly to his fellow veterans by serving as the Vet Corps Navigator and helping steer others through the college experience. He remembers when he “didn’t know how to do college,” when no one helped him navigate SAT testing or scholarship applications. Now he’s figured it out and he’s happy to share his knowledge.
“I help with anything they need,” he says. “I’ve helped people with transportation issues, finding housing, talking through a problem they’re having with a class, anything.”
Being Vet Corps Navigator helps him feel like he has a family on campus. “(Before), I didn’t feel like I was contributing to anything besides myself,” he says. “But at SCC, I’m not giving medical care directly, but I can still give help and still find that community satisfaction. So (the veterans) are giving me support as I’m giving them support.”
Escalera recently learned he will be able to continue giving that support in a new way. He’s been accepted to the UW, where he will soon begin training as a Physician Assistant while he is still finishing his Nursing degree at Shoreline.
Shoreline, Escalera says, will always hold a special place in his heart: “You can’t outgrow a home and Shoreline is home. But you can grow a new set of roots and find more than one home.”
So what advice does he have for those who will come to Shoreline after him?
“Become dedicated to your schooling and to your community in your school. Money and job satisfaction will come, but community is most important. No one gets anywhere by themselves,” he says. “I succeeded because Shoreline made their campus so vet friendly. You need that community. You need that support.”
Now 33, Escalera has that map for his next steps.
“It takes a while to nurture dreams, but when you finally start to see goals come to fruition,” he says, “it’s worth it.”