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How Cal Poly Alumnus Lance Lunker Merged His Background as a Veteran With His Political Science Major For His Senior Project (Q+A)

Get to know Lance Iunker, a veteran and political science alumnus, as he talks about his service, senior project and life after Cal Poly. 

Lance Iunker with his wife and daughter
Lance with his wife Laurie Iunker (Liberal Studies, '12)
and daughter Scout.

 

What branch of service and which war(s) did you serve in? Where did you serve?
I served in the US Army as an Airborne Infantryman (Paratrooper) in the 82nd Airborne Division. I was in a Reconnaissance Surveillance Target Acquisition Unit (RSTA) that was tasked with going after the most wanted high value targets in Baghdad, Iraq during the Surge in 2007. I was involved in over 200 combat missions in nine months before being severely wounded.

How did your service affect your life?
Service affected my life in so many ways. I was 17 when I joined the Army, I turned 19 in Iraq, and I was medically retired from service due to my wounds at 20. If you think about it, that was so much experience at such a young age and in such a short amount of time. I definitely would not be the person I am today without having gone through everything I did while in the Army. I had to grow up really fast and do things most people will never have to do in their life. I experienced and saw horrific events. I lost eight of my Army brothers and was severely wounded along with 15 others during my deployment. I am still dealing with physical and mental injuries over a decade later. On the flip side, I have had many positive things come out of my experiences as well. I am a much stronger and more resilient person and have a much deeper respect and appreciation for life now. Many opportunities have been opened to me because of my service, like education benefits, employment, and healthcare. I have never once regretted my decision to serve in the Army and would do it again if I had to. Perhaps I would choose to fly the planes instead of jump out of them this time around if I did get to do it over again.

Why did you choose political science at Cal Poly?
I chose political science because I had just finished working for the Governor of California (2009-2010) and felt I had gained a ton of experience but didn’t have a proper degree to back it up. I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. with his office on several occasions and spoke to the entire Congressional Democratic Caucus, the White House, the Pentagon, the VA, and many other departments of the Federal government. When it was over I was unsure what to pursue next. I hadn’t used my GI Bill Education benefits yet, and my wife was getting her teaching credential and masters at Cal Poly, so it all came together and made sense. Political science at Cal Poly was an amazing program. I had so many incredible professors including Dr. Krishnan (absolute legend), Dr. Den Hartog (his congress course is the best class I have ever taken), Dr. Moore (who pushed me to be a much better reader and writer) and so many others I am leaving out.

Tell us about your Student Veteran Organization (SVO) senior project.
For the political science major, you have the option of either writing a massive paper or creating some type of project (and write a little less massive of a paper). I had a strong desire to do a project that had some permanence to it — something that would outlive my short time at Cal Poly and not collect dust on a professor’s shelf. My idea stemmed from when I first came to Cal Poly and found out that it did not rank very well among other CSU’s for veteran friendliness. This is not to say they were not supportive or unfriendly to veterans, but there was almost no infrastructure to support the veteran population on campus. I set out to change that with my senior project.

I started the Student Veterans Organization first and registered it with the national organization called Student Veterans of America. This gave a little more stability, legitimacy and longevity to the group than some of the veteran clubs that had been formed and folded in the past once the leaders graduated. The next step of the project was to get a dedicated space for Veterans on campus and this seemed insurmountable at first. A space was finally dedicated a few months after I graduated, and it was a major victory for Cal Poly and their student veterans. It could not have happened without the help and support of so many dedicated individuals, from President Armstrong to the SVO’s first staff advisor Everette Brooks, to my current co-worker at CalVet, Calvin Angel, and most importantly the co-founder and first Vice President Sean Ahlgren.

The final step in my senior project was getting a permanent dedicated veteran staff position on campus. I was so excited to find out last year that this had finally come to fruition! It has been incredible and inspiring to hear stories of how the SVO and Veterans Success Center are still growing and doing amazing things. It is more than I could have ever imagined it to be thanks in part to everyone who followed after me, including Bryan Cochran (the second President of the SVO) and Ariel Crisostomo (the third President and first veteran dependent to ever serve on the SVO board).

Swords of Victory platoon with Lance Iunker
Iunker's platoon in Iraq under Sadam's Swords of Victory.
Courtesy photo. 

 

What inspired you to work with fellow wounded Veterans?
I have always looked up to Veterans. It is one of the main reasons why I joined in the first place. I wanted to thank Veterans and I thought the best way to do that was to walk a mile or two in their boots. After being wounded myself and experiencing the hard transition back into civilian life and the challenge of navigating the world of Veterans' benefits, it has been a natural byproduct for me to share my knowledge and help veterans succeed and not make some of the mistakes I made along the way. I have had an incredible support system with my family, and especially my wife, and so many incredible advocates who have helped me get where I am today. Unfortunately, many Veterans do not have this support system, and advocates are essential to success. We all need someone who is willing to fight for us when you can’t anymore and to push us, motivate us, and inspire us when we want nothing more than to give up. I have been given so much along my journey and feel a duty to return the favor.

What were some of your most memorable projects (referred to as “challenges”) when working with the QL+ Program at Cal Poly?
They are all memorable! A couple that stand out are a single-arm hand cycle built for a triple amputee veteran named Nick and a blind kayak slalom course built for a Veterans organization named Team River Runner. All of the projects are pretty incredible and everyone at Cal Poly should go by the QL+ Lab and check out what they do! Learn more about the QL+ Program. 

Tell us about your current role as the San Diego LINC with CalVet.
CalVet is short for California Department of Veteran Affairs and offers California Veterans specific state benefits like our CalVet home loan and Veteran Dependent College Fee Waiver. I am one of the state’s eight LINCs (Local Interagency Network Coordinator) who oversee large regions of the state and provide outreach of our benefits to the military and veteran communities within our regions. I work with over 250 San Diego County Veteran Service Providers and nearly 1.3 million veterans, active duty and their families. I provide assistance and offer advice at the local, state, and federal level as well as work with the five major universities, nine community colleges, and eight military bases down here providing training and outreach to veterans and military. It is an incredible job for me, and I am very honored to be a part of CalVet.

How did Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing philosophy prepare you for your work?
I can tell you the Learn by Doing philosophy has helped me obtain all of my positions in my career. How many students get to leave college with actual experience they can put on a résumé? My senior project showed my future employers what I was capable of and what I had actually done and accomplished before they hired me. In the same way, senior projects the student engineers build with QL+ are invaluable real-world experiences that speak volumes to prospective engineering firms.

What advice would you give to current Cal Poly students looking to make a difference?
My advice: take your senior project seriously — it isn’t just for a grade; and don’t wait to make a difference until after you graduate — start making a difference now!

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