‘Like brothers:’ Combat vets find friendship, purpose at OCC

OCC students Brian Baumgartner (left) and Mike Webster (right) operate a tablesaw in the Makerspace on April 27. The pair met in fall 2021 at OCC and bonded over both being combat veterans. They are now regular fixtures in the Makerspace where they often help other students complete their projects. 

On the surface, Orange Coast College students Mike Webster and Brian Baumgartner are oil and water. Baumgartner is analytical, data driven and delivers everything with a deadpan accuracy that would be off-putting if it weren’t for his wicked sense of humor and his giant heart. Webster is an ideas man with a frenetic energy and inability to sit still that seems to be cocaine-driven, but isn’t. 

“He's naturally very twitchy,” Baumgartner said of Webster. “Some people first meeting him start to think maybe it's drugs, but it's more than he just needs to be in motion doing something. People ask me about him a lot. I can only say ‘yeah, that's just the way he is.’ It's just he needs to be doing things.”

Somehow together, they seem to make the perfect pair. 

“He’s not exactly the full opposite of me,” Webster said about Baumgartner.  “I'm quirky with frickin’ 18 things on my mind, but I'm task oriented. How are we gonna get this done the best? Brian's detail oriented and a planner – kind of sometimes over plans. But at the end of the day, we get it done. It works very well.”

When they met in the Computer Numerically Controlled Machining class in fall 2021, Webster and Baumgartner initially bonded over their shared military service. Both served in the Iraq War, with Webster first deploying in 2005 and Baumgartner in 2008. 

Webster said that he enlisted in the Marines on Sept. 10, 2001 because of his patriotism and his grandfather who had served in the Korean War. The following day’s events terrified his family that he would be sent off to war, which ultimately came to pass when he arrived in Fallujah four years later. Webster went on to serve several tours in Iraq as a tank mechanic. 

Baumgartner said that he joined the Army because he sees his role in society as that of a protector of others. 

“I felt that I had an obligation to at least try again to see if I could get into the military, and try to apply myself in a way that I can increase personal safety and security for people that straight up don't have options,” Baumgartner said. 

Baumgartner worked as a combat engineer dealing with explosives and spent a lot of his deployment clearing routes of improvised explosive devices. 

Both said that their experiences in combat have given them a dark sense of humor, and there are very few limits on what they can joke about.  

“That's the best part of our friendship because we don't have the whole filter thing,” Webster said. “We don't get offended by 99.99% of the things that we could say to each other.”

Baumgartner’s humor is dry and sardonic, while very few of Webster’s jokes are appropriate to put in a news story. 

“Last week, I took an exam and he asked how the exam went. I said I bombed it harder than Dresden. I thought that Nagasaki was too easy,” Baumgartner said, referring to two historically significant bombings during World War II. 

During their time at OCC, Webster and Baumgartner have not only found a sense of community in each other, but in the Makerspace, which allows students to use woodworking, embroidery and 3D printing machines to complete both personal and school projects. 

“I'm in there all the time,” Webster said. “It's like a second home.”

Makerspace professional expert Garret Hill said both Webster and Baumgartner have brought a wealth of knowledge that has benefited everyone who uses the facility. 

Hill said that Webster has been instrumental in helping to repair broken machines in the shop. 

“Mike worked as a mechanic for tanks,” Hill said. “He has definitely a mechanically inclined mindset where he knows how to build, he can take anything apart and rebuild it.”

Baumgartner brings his own skill set in to assist other students with their projects, Hill said. 

“Brian, for one, has an incredible knowledge base of woodworking, everything to do with woodworking,” Hill said. “I've even had students come to me that want to build a certain project and it requires certain woodworking techniques. I'll just toss the question to Brian, and he immediately is able to just answer it.”

Hill said their time in the service has informed how they operate within the space. 

“I think the military experience also helps along with that level of integrity and professionalism, because that's probably the number one thing you learn when you're in the military, levels of respect towards people and the things around you in your environment,” Hill said.  

Baumgartner said he has enjoyed being educated by the other students. 

“It's a place where I can interact with some interesting people, especially some of the older people who use it, as well as Garret, where I can learn about things that are not inside my repertoire, conventionally,” Baumgartner said. “I can get quick information on that or detailed information by someone that actually knows.” 

Baumgartner and Webster said that they both want to learn skills acquired in the Makerspace and at OCC in future careers. Baumgartner hopes to work for a composites company with aerospace or defense applications after he finishes degrees in history, tooling, manual machining and Computer Numerically Controlled machine operations this semester. Webster said that he would like to start a construction company with his brother that would employ disabled veterans. 

No matter where life takes them, their friendship will be a cornerstone of Baumgartner and Webster’s time at OCC. 

“They kind of act like brothers,” Hill said. “Honestly, it's hilarious. They kind of joke around with each other. I don't know how long they've known each other for, but they seem like childhood friends – good, good buddies – that's for sure.” 

Webster echoed Hill’s comments, also describing himself and Baumgartner as “brothers.”

Baumgartner said their relationship reminds him of another kind of partnership. 

“I'd say that if he had different equipment and wasn't so fugly. We fill enough gaps [with each other] that would be good for marriage,” Baumgartner said with his characteristic deadpan delivery. “Yeah, it's just not gonna work. We just can't.”

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