Recognizing Those Who Served: VCU History Department

Nov 8, 2021

Author: Nyah Graham, VCU history student

In recognition of Veterans Day, history student Nyah Graham interviewed two members of the VCU History Department staff – adjunct instructor John Lemza, Ph.D. and undergraduate student advisor Ryan O’Hallahan, both of whom served in the U.S. military.

frame one: john lemza / frame two: ryan o'hallahan

What were some of the reasons you joined the military?

Lemza: I joined, because of feelings of patriotism and it was economically the best option at the time. It also meant a free education. So, all of that worked for me.

O’Hallahan: Most of the people in my family have served in the military, most of the men anyway, even some of the women. My great aunt was one of the first female marines back in World War II. So, there's a long tradition of it. My grandfather was a Civil War historian. He would take me to the battlefields and stuff like that. And it just seemed obvious.

How did you choose your branch of service?

Lemza: I chose the army, because everybody in my family, in the past, had been in the army. Uncles, cousins, my father, that sort of thing.

O’Hallahan: It goes back to my grandfather. He was in the Navy during World War II. As a kid I would wear his crackerjack blouse and read a lot of nautical historical fiction like Horatio Hornblower. There was sort of a romance about being out to sea. That's why I was just always so much more interested in the Navy then in any other branch.

What was training like?

Lemza: Training was mixed, because we spent a lot of time in the classroom. But, I enjoyed it a lot. It was everything that I thought it should be. It was rigorous, physically and a little bit mentally demanding. But it was really hands-on, and I enjoyed that the most. I never had a bad day of training, I enjoyed being outside with my friends, and I really enjoyed what we were doing.

O’ Hallahan: Frustrating. No matter what your prior knowledge coming into the military, they assume you have none. I didn't mind getting yelled at and I didn’t mind doing a bunch of PT or anything like that. I also think being around people who weren't as serious about it was very frustrating. Training for my job was a lot of fun, I think that’s true for most people. Once you get to your specialty training, you’re now within the community of people you're going to be working with in the Navy. And I enjoyed being outside. I also enjoyed the transition from being a boot to being a full-fledged sailor. You don’t really feel a big amount of pride at boot camp, at least I didn't, but when I finally got out that's when the pride of being in the military, and in the U.S. Navy, really hit me.

What do you feel you’ve learned from the experience as a whole?

Lemza: I learned a lot about leadership and people. I think that helped me a lot in life later on. I also learned a lot of self-confidence, something that I lacked a lot coming out of high school.

O’ Hallahan: I learned a lot about people, and why they do certain things. There's a myriad of different people who exist in the world, and you find that entire cross section within the military, every race, every creed, every socioeconomic ladder, everybody is there.

How do you feel your experiences helped you in your current field within the History Department? What take-aways do you feel helped you excel?

Lemza: It gave me a deeper understanding of what warfare is like, so when I do teach warfare, I talk about warfare in politics, but I have a deeper understanding for the things those individuals went through during wartimes, the leaders as well as the soldiers. The leadership and management skills really helped me understand how to relate to people and communicate, to students and all people alike. Basically, whether they're above, below, or equal to me. As well as different sized groups, both small and large. It helped me to work with them, and respect them as well as act as a team player.

O’ Hallahan: I’ve gotten a lot of leadership experience out of the Navy. The Navy requires you to jump through a lot of hoops, and I think continuing to be in the process of doing that gives me more empathy for students when I see them having to jump through hoops. There's far more hoops students have to jump through now in 2021 then I had to jump through when I was in college. I have a lot more empathy now for those students. The experience of reaching out to people and not hearing back, helps me make sure that if somebody gets in touch with me, hopefully, within a day, I get back to them. Or at least I'll let them know “hey I got your email.” I stay more accountable to myself because I deal with the same issues in the Navy.

What advice would you give others who want to enlist?

Lemza: My advice would be that everybody should do some sort of community service, whether it’s the military or the Peace Corps, something along those lines. I really think that service to the larger community, whether it's the nation or a local community can be so valuable to your development as a person. And it’s a great way to give back. If you don’t want to do the military (and there are so many branches to choose from) choose to do something like that before you embark on your path for life.

O’Hallahan: Do your research. Talk to people who are in the military, don’t just rely on a recruiter. My recruiter was great, and others were not, and there are plenty of people who get fed a pack of nonsense. So if you're going to enlist in the military, talk to people that are there and get the breadth of experience. I’ve really enjoyed it, other people have hated it so talk to both of those types of people and find where your truth lies.


John Lemza (M.A. History, VCU 2005) served in the Army for over 20 years, attended the Infantry Airborne School and Graduated from West Point in 1972 as a 2nd Lieutenant. 7th and 8th Infantry Divisions and worked at the Pentagon for 4 years before retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1976.

Ryan O’Hallahan (M.A. History, VCU 2017) serves as a Builder, 3rd class, in the Naval Reserves since 2020.