Shifting focus: Army veteran finds pride in academic success

SANTA CRUZ — Jeremiah Ridgeway studied filmmaking and graphic design at Pima Community College in his early 20s. But mostly, the Army veteran says, he frittered away his time.

He’s not about to make the same mistake again as he takes advantage of the educational benefits in the G.I. Bill.

The 30-year-old Santa Cruz resident graduated with honors from Cabrillo College in Aptos last year. In May, he completed his first semester at San Jose State, earning straight As, a first in his academic life.

And though he once dreamed of a career as a filmmaker or a photojournalist — the photographs he took to document his unit’s experience in Afghanistan captured national recognition — when it came time to pick a major, Ridgeway chose business administration with the aim of landing a job in Silicon Valley’s high-tech world. It’s a practical turn for a man who described his younger self as “a dreamer.”

“I didn’t want to feel like I wasted it,” Ridgeway said of his second chance at higher education. “It took a lot of personal experience and 15 months in Afghanistan to sit in this class.”

Born and raised in Tucson, Ariz., Ridgeway is the son of a Marine reservist who worked in copper mining and a registered nurse. He said he was a “so-so” student at Canyon Del Oro High School, where his primary interests revolved around the social scene and making short videos. Afterward, in college, he lacked direction, and his father, who encouraged Ridgeway’s older brother to go to North Dakota to work in the burgeoning shale oil industry, recommended he join the military, Ridgeway said.

His father wanted his sons to find careers with “longevity,” he said.

“I was 22, and had no goals whatsoever,” Ridgeway said.

Documenting duty

Ridgeway signed his enlistment papers March 15, 2005, and was assigned to the Army’s 3-71 Cavalry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division. He thought he was headed for Iraq. But 11 months later, he received orders for Afghanistan.

Though he sought combat duty in his enlistment, finding himself at the edge of the Hindu Kush in Nuristan Province was a “complete shock,” Ridgeway said.

In his book, “The Outpost,” CNN anchor Jake Tapper describes the area bordering Pakistan as one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan, and the scene of one of the deadliest battles of the war.

An Afghan Army soldier is on guard during a U.S.-led visit with the leadership of an Afghan village. (Jeremiah Ridgeway/Contributed) ( SCS )

An Afghan Army soldier is on guard during a U.S.-led visit with the leadership of an Afghan village. (Jeremiah Ridgeway/Contributed) ( SCS )

Ridgeway’s photographs are featured in the book. He allows the images to speak for themselves, saying he doesn’t want to “delve” into the experience of spending 488 days in a war zone.

But he hasn’t left it behind either. He worked with former soldiers for more than a year at a local veterans center, and keeps in contact with members of his former unit on Facebook.

“Everybody who went to Iraq or Afghanistan came back with stories and their own interpretation of what they experienced,” Ridgeway said. “I had my own experience and I’m still digesting it.”

Back in the U.S. and posted at Fort Drum in New York, Ridgeway submitted some of the 8,000 photographs he took in Afghanistan to an online magazine and to the National Geographic digital media project, “Your Shot.” National Geographic editors were so impressed they published several of his images and produced a short video of Ridgeway talking about his experiences and work. The video was nominated for an Emmy, and, in its submittal, National Geographic described Ridgeway as an “emerging talent with great potential.”

After his discharge in July 2008, Ridgeway moved to Santa Cruz with girlfriend Electra Karamargin, whose stepbrother was attending UC Santa Cruz.

Life lessons

Ridgeway enrolled at Cabrillo College, looking to polish his photographic skills before pursuing work as a combat photographer. He completed an internship at the Sentinel, but after receiving more praise than compensation for his work, he became discouraged. Contacts with professional combat photographers who told of risky work for little reward also dampened his enthusiasm.

Karamargin’s struggle to find work after graduating from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 2008 also factored into his shift into business administration. Karamargin returned to school, as well, earning an associate’s degree in accounting at Cabrillo.

“I learned from her life lesson,” said Ridgeway.

This summer, Ridgeway and Karamargin are spending a lot of time at Seacliff State Beach in Aptos, where they study and take breaks to walk along the long stretch of shoreline.

In a T-shirt with a Santa Cruz logo, Ridgeway, known as “Jeb” to his friends, fits right in. But he’s retained a military demeanor, answering questions with a “Yes, ma’am.” His manner is calm, reflective, sincere. He’s appreciative of the chance to talk about his life.

He is taking a couple of online courses through the state university. Karamargin is preparing for exams required for certification as a public accountant.

Looking ahead

Ridgeway said it’s been a while since he picked up his camera. He said he broke his lens and jokes he’s looking for a sponsor willing to provide a new one. It’s a Canon, he said. But, becoming serious, he said while he’s fallen in love with the relaxed lifestyle and natural beauty of the Santa Cruz area, he’s uninspired. The life he documented in Afghanistan was “hard-edged,” a more urgent story to tell. He doesn’t know how to make the leap from wartime to wedding images.

Jeremiah Ridgeway sits with his girlfriend Electra Karamargin, Tuesday. Ridgeway is an Afghan War veteran whose photos of the war have achieved national acclaim. (James Clark/Sentinel) ( SCS )

Jeremiah Ridgeway sits with his girlfriend Electra Karamargin, Tuesday. Ridgeway is an Afghan War veteran whose photos of the war have achieved national acclaim. (James Clark/Sentinel) ( SCS )

“I don’t know if I’ll ever pick up a camera again,” Ridgeway said. “I don’t know if that love is gone.”

David Sullivan teaches English at Cabrillo and became interested in veterans a few years ago when he noticed more showing up in his class. He said he wouldn’t try to generalize the veteran experience, but one thing most seem to have in common is a hunger for knowledge. The veterans also seem older, even the youngest among them, than his more traditional students.

Ridgeway, a former student, returns to Sullivan’s classroom once a year to share his military experience and his photographs with current students. Ridgeway has a gift for connecting with people and an empathy for diverse beliefs and backgrounds that comes through in his images, Sullivan said.

An award-winning poet, Sullivan knows something about the balancing act between earning a living and creating art. He said he’s been lucky to do both.

“I hope he goes back to (photography) in some manner,” Sullivan said. “It’s part of his life.”

Ridgeway can’t say what the future will bring. He said he hasn’t abandoned a dream but rather is focused on reaching “one goal at a time.” He’s looking forward to earning a bachelor’s degree in the next 18 months, hopefully with honors. Along the way, he’s recognized how much he has to learn and developed a passion for acquiring knowledge.

“I’m very proud because I’ve never really applied myself academically, and now that I am, it’s working and it’s amazing,” Ridgeway said. “Education is a humbling experience, but I’m so happy I’m getting this opportunity.”

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