Transitioning from war zones into civilian life is a treacherous, confusing, and often fatal endeavor endured by veterans. An article on the Huffington Post estimated that veterans take their lives at a rate of 22 a day, a staggering number that does not account for lives lost to drug and alcohol addictions. Not only is it a sad loss of a life, but also a loss of potential; a rare combination of motivation, knowledge, and leadership snuffed out before its potential can be realized.
June 20th 2005 was my first day of boot camp. I joined the Marine Corps because I wanted to serve my country, to challenge myself, but also because I was trying to escape college. Now 8 years removed from the yellow foot prints, I am a product of Marine Corps culture, a veteran, and a student just days away from my first class at The University of Texas.
My first departure from the Marine Corps in 2009 was as liberating as it was terrifying.
I wasn’t told when I had to be out of the rack, or to shave. I didn’t have to cut my hair every week, or be cut to libo (military slang for free time), and I certainly didn’t have to wait for a chow hall to open in order to eat. I had my own room, my own bed, and I did what I wanted, when I wanted. It was terribly gratifying, for about two weeks. But after you’ve done all the things you’ve been dreaming about for so long, and everyone has said they’re glad you’re home, you realize how much you depended on the structure and culture of the military, and you begin to crave it.
Although I reveled in my new found freedoms, I didn’t anticipate the hardship. Anxiety, depression, feeling disconnected from friends, and worrying that the best years of my life might be behind me. This might seem short-sighted, but after all, many vets from WWII, Korea and Vietnam view their service as their crowning achievement. At 22, was my highest calling already behind me?
This was hard to grasp at a young age and since departing the service, I still have not found a new identity outside of the Marines. Although I worked part-time and then full time at Gold’s Gym for a year, I never felt like an employee. I’ve been accepted into UT, but I don’t feel like a Longhorn. More like a Marine going to class with a bunch of kids. Although finding a new identity has been a struggle, the fact that my identity has remained so intact has contributed heavily to my post Marine Corp success.
You see, the Marine Corps changes your DNA. All the way down to way you walk, how you talk, and your thought processes. When you’re in the military, you don’t see the change. You might even try to resist it, but it grows into your identity. An identity that I tried to shed, learned to accept, and then used to my advantage.
I got out of the military in 2009 and fell flat on my face. I didn’t adapt well to school, felt out of place in social circles, and so I rejoined the Marine Corps in 2010. But in the year and a half since returning state side and again departing Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children (USMC), I have learned how to use my experiences in a positive manner. I found that the system is bent in my favor, and my identity and experiences as a veteran to be extremely valuable to my peers.
For the first time in my post-military life I understood that just because my mission in life had changed, it didn’t mean my identity had to. Contrary to that, my identity, and experiences as a Marine put me into a well-respected minority on campus, at work, and in my social circle. At first this was uncomfortable. As a veteran you may choose not to disclose details of your service but as you become accustomed to your new surroundings you begin to see the platform you’ve been provided with. The feelings of appreciation expressed to me by friends, coworkers, and school faculty regarding my service is not typical of the reactions you receive in the military. In the service there is always someone who has been around longer, deployed more times, or seen more shit than you ever will. But the career you had, however glorious or lack luster still counts for a whole hell of a lot in the civilian world.
Upon being accepted into The University of Texas I have seen opportunities in business, had doors opened for internships and networking prospects that wouldn’t have been afforded to me had I not gotten into UT and most importantly been a veteran. That’s not to say it came easy, every bit of it was earned.
While my second transition out of the Marines was much smoother, I was still a work in progress. During my transition I attended school full time, worked part time/full time, and volunteered in the community. I consistently missed out on Friday nights with friends and Saturdays by the pool because I was studying or closing at work. But it paid off. Over the course of two semesters I finished with one B, seven A’s, and an overall GPA of 3.8. I didn’t feel good about my chances of getting into UT, I felt great about my chances. But sure enough 3 months after submitting my application a letter from UT informed me my acceptance had been denied, my overall GPA being .04 points under the minimum requirement. The rejection was a kick in the chest and took the wind out of my sails.
Despite having respect for the school’s standards, I felt bitter. Did the last 5 years of my life mean so little that it could not overcome .04 points of a GPA? Did they not see my letters of recommendation, or my resume filled with military experience? Did it really translate into nothing? All the progress made transitioning into school seemed to be hanging in the balance due to poor academic performance in 2009. But this was 2013. Had I not proved that I could be a good student, citizen, and employee? It took me three weeks before I was able to muster enough optimism to write an appeal. I felt like I was begging and I hated that. I knew inside I was a capable student, so I constructed an appeal which I hoped the school would re-evaluate me based on a curve. I wasn’t looking for sympathy, or a hand out, just for someone to grade me on my total body of work and not just a GPA. Lo and behold a week and a half later, almost by mistake I logged into UT’s admissions system and it read “Congratulations, Daniel, you have been admitted to The University of Texas at Austin.” I’ll never forget the feeling of accomplishment I experienced reading that.
From that point forward my perspective on my time in the military, my transition out of it and its worth to others in regards to my future were all altered.
My service suddenly had tangible value because it helped me get into a university. What I once viewed as a hindrance to my social life and GPA was suddenly turned into a rare asset which helped me attain a spot in a classroom. It meant that I and other vets are seen as assets in their communities and not just for what you did in the past but for what you can do in the future. To me it meant my future would not be spent looking back on a once glorious past, but rather reaching new heights.
I understand now that my words carry great weight. That I am watched intently by fellow students, and that my opinions are heeded with greater regard due to my military service. But the opportunity to attend school was not just achieved by my hard work or determination alone, but also because of benefits like the GI Bill and Texas’s Hazelwood act which allow me to earn money for the school I attend. To the tax payers and the lawmakers who have passed and funded these programs, veterans like me are eternally thankful. It is because of programs like this that we are able to make our future brighter than our past.
To veterans struggling through the war zone to school zone transition, I promise you your service has value that will open doors not afforded to your non-military peers. The challenges you face are no doubt a result of the overwhelmingly negative encounters you suffered while serving, but my challenge to you is to not let those experiences define you as a person. Although your grades, your mental health, or your relationships might suffer I hope you cling to your identity as a Marine, soldier, sailor, or airman. Due to your service you are already an established leader and inspiration to those in your community. Positions in businesses, government, and schools will not be handed to you, but they will come easier if you put in the effort to pursue them.
The United States has a deep leadership crisis in its families, communities, businesses, and government; you can help fill that void. Although your journey may be an uphill climb you have been given the tools to succeed. And when you get to the top you will have achieved more than you ever dreamed possible. Use your service to create a better future for yourself and those around you; this country needs a few good men and women now more than ever. – DH
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil
Your rod and your staff they comfort me
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows…
(Dedicated to Vietnam veterans who fought for better care and treatment of returning vets. We are forever grateful for your sacrifice.)