Shifting the mind-set for veterans moving from battlefield to classroom

Shifting the mind-set for veterans moving from battlefield to classroom

by T. Rees Shapiro
The Washington Post

Matt Menezes was a decorated combat soldier who served two tours in the valleys of Afghanistan. But one of the toughest challenges of his life came when he decided to leave the Army and prepare for his next deployment: college.

The shift to civilian life can be a stress-filled departure from the discipline and structure of the military. The transition from the battlefield to the classroom, however, can be even more daunting, and veterans say it can be difficult to find support.

“There's really no help on the Army’s end,” said Menezes, 31. “I was like, ‘Okay, what am I going to do?’ ”

Then Menezes found the Warrior-Scholar Project, a nonprofit mentorship program for enlisted veterans looking to enroll in college for the first time. He took part in a week-long “boot camp” at Yale in 2013, and he’s now studying neuroscience at Dartmouth, planning to head to medical school for a second stint in the Army as a physician. For the past week, he’s been at Georgetown, but this time as a leader helping other veterans make the same leap to college.

“We help veterans realize their own potential and get them interested in their own education,” Menezes said.

The Warrior-Scholar Project offered its first training in 2012 at Yale, serving nine enlisted veterans. This year, the program will be offered at 11 college campuses for more than 175 veterans.

The program is funded through donations and federal grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and is open to veterans or active-duty troops who are considering applying to college, at no cost to them. During the program, they join college-level seminars on politics, receive one-on-one tutoring sessions on essay writing and hear tips from fellow veterans like Menezes on how to study alongside undergraduates who may be years younger.

Menezes used military lingo to make the comparison more easily understandable: “You are basically the brand-new private coming into their AO.” (That’s “area of operations” to everyone else.)

One morning this week, 15 veterans piled into a wood-paneled classroom in Georgetown’s historic Healy Hall, energy-drink cans and coffee cups at the ready. As Georgetown professor Eric Langenbacher lectured on global politics and the spread of democracy, just the odd Army-issue camouflage backpack betrayed the students’ backgrounds.

A copy of the U.S. Constitution, which each veteran in the room had sworn to protect and defend, was displayed on the wall. They thumbed through pages of Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal text “Democracy in America” as Langenbacher pointed at a map showing countries shifting from authoritarian regimes to democratic governments, many with the help of the U.S. military.

The discussion about diplomacy fascinated veterans Mark Henderson, 24, who served in the Army as a field artillery specialist, and Cristine Starke, 23, a Marine Corps corporal who deployed to Djibouti as an Arabic linguist. Both will be enrolling at Georgetown in the fall and saw the Warrior-Scholar Project as a way to ease into their new routine.

“After high school, I knew I wasn’t ready, maturity-wise, for college,” Henderson said. “I saw my friends squander their college experience, so I wanted to set up my future.”

Henderson joined the Army at 17 and learned to “jump out of airplanes and blow things up” with the 82nd Airborne Division and took part in a humanitarian mission in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. He hopes to now bring his military work ethic to the classroom.

“I’m well aware that I may not be as brilliant as the 18-year-olds, but I can guarantee I’m not going to be outworked,” Henderson said.

Starke said she won’t be intimidated by her surroundings. She’s already endured sandy landscapes and insults from foreign-language instructors who questioned her status as a Marine because she is a woman.

“He said, ‘Oh, you’re a Marinette — you’re not a real Marine,” Starke recalled, laughing.

Her only concern now is learning how to schedule time for herself.

“The military is very structured, and what really scares me about transitioning to college is the freedom of your time and how you have to figure out where your precious hours will be spent,” Starke said.

Menezes addressed the same challenges when he left the Army in 2013 after nine years of service, including time as a drill sergeant at Fort Benning in Georgia.

“As veterans, I think we’re very adaptable,” Menezes said. As a squad leader in Afghanistan, he led patrols, ordering soldiers in the throes of firefights.

“When everything goes bad overseas and you know you’re in the heat of combat, every single soldier you’re in charge of is looking to you to make a decision and get them out of there,” Menezes said.

In one case, that meant helping direct his troops to apply tourniquets to a fellow soldier who was hit by the blast of an improvised explosive device, directions that ended up saving the soldier’s life.

Now Menezes organizes calculus study groups at Dartmouth, inspired partly by his work with the Warrior-Scholar Project. He said it offers a reward that feels similar to that of bringing his troops back safe from a mission.

Menezes said he loves inspiring veterans to rise to the challenge and see their own potential. They find “that ‘Aha!’ moment, when they see ‘I can do this.’ ”

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