Navy veteran docks at FDU, finding community in a time of transition
By Spencer Cowley
March 18, 2020 — “Military veterans are less than one percent of the population, and we have gone through things that most people never experience,” says Dillon Pontes, a 26-year-old veteran of the United States Navy. “I think the most important thing for veterans is to connect with other veterans and share their stories.”
Pontes, an undergraduate computer science student at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham Campus, is referencing the importance of resources like FDU’s Office of Veterans Services, for which he works as a veteran student ambassador. He found FDU because his mother, Maria Leitao, BS’88 (Ruth), is an alumna. As a yellow-ribbon school, the University covered the portion of Pontes’ tuition not funded by the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
He’s a cheerful man, quick with a grin, and quick to talk about his serious job history.
Pontes enlisted in 2013 as a Cryptologic Technician Technical (CTT) and currently serves in the U.S. Naval Reserves. As a CTT, Pontes fights on an electronic battlefield — his job includes the operation and maintenance of electronic sensors and computer systems, the collection of electronic intelligence, and, most vitally, anti-ship missile defense. Above all, he’s a sailor first.
“All sailors assigned to a ship are required to become first responders,” says Pontes. “This includes learning how to fight fires, perform first aid, repair flooding compartments and combat CBR (Chemical, Biological and Radiological) casualties. There’s no 911 out at sea. It’s up to us to save the ship and finish the mission.”
Now, Pontes is keeping busy as a college student. While pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science and concentrating in cybersecurity, with minors in wealth management and mathematics, Pontes also belongs to the Finance Club, the Cybersecurity Club and the Student Veterans of America Club. Pontes works at Rutgers University’s New Jersey Vet2Vet, a peer support line for veterans. He does everything from mitigate crisis situations for homeless veterans to chat with fellow student veterans struggling in school. In his spare time, he is a captain of a flag football team and volunteers as an adaptive rock-climbing instructor for children with physical disabilities at Peak Potential.
It’s clear that time management isn’t an issue for a CTT who spent three years at sea on the USS Farragut DDG 99, a destroyer deployed with the Theodore Roosevelt Strike Group as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. The operation, launched in 2014, is the U.S. military’s intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Pontes would spend periods of 45 days performing his main CTT functions and his secondary tasks. Again, and again, and again.“Six hours on, six hours off,” he says. “You get like three hours of sleep, and then one day turns into two days … the hardest part about being in the Navy is the operation tempo. The constant being away, and the constant high level of stress. It takes a toll, but it also helps you learn how to overcome challenging situations. If I had gone to college before the Navy, I don’t think I would have been as successful.”
That doesn’t mean that Pontes didn’t see the light of day during his hectic deployments. On the Farragut, he traveled to Portugal, Spain, France, Oman, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Cuba. He also participated in Fleet Week in New York, N.Y.
This summer, Pontes is set to deploy to San Diego, Calif., as part of a helicopter squadron engaged in a large-scale, multinational exercise called RIMPAC (the Rim of the Pacific Exercise). The helicopter squadron is attached to the USS Nimitz, a behemoth nuclear aircraft carrier. Pontes will aid Navy leadership in understanding the importance of a CTT’s presence on the new helicopter, as he learns about the machinery, too.
While excited for his next mobilization and appreciative of civilian life, Pontes says it takes time to adjust to life away from the heavily-structured schedule of active duty.
“The veterans program here has been absolutely phenomenal in helping with that transition,” says Pontes. “Martha [Papson Garcia, director of veterans services at FDU,] has been incredible. I’m very lucky to be here. A lot of the success I have now is because of the wonderful camaraderie that we have with the veterans at the Florham and Metropolitan campuses.”
For now, Pontes is preparing for a larger career in the tech industry. He wants to be on the other side of the equipment that he used in the field, developing and innovating, to continue saving lives.
“Every day, there’s a new threat,” says Pontes. “I’m going to put a lot of love and passion into building these things to make sure that they’re not just some random thing that someone did for a contract worth a lot of money. I’m someone who actually cares. I want you to have that best fighting chance.”
For more information about FDU’s Office of Veterans Services, visit www.fdu.edu/veterans/veteran-services/.