The Martial Plan: How Student Veterans Adjust to D.C. Colleges
Before TM Gibbons-Neff cracked a textbook at Georgetown, he was patrolling Helmand Province, Afghanistan, where strangers tried to kill him and his friends.
Before Kate Hoit studied creative nonfiction at Johns Hopkins University, she spent a year with Army public affairs in northern Iraq. At a military hospital, she refused to turn a general’s handshake with a badly wounded soldier into a photo op. It was a matter of dignity.
Before Alex Horton made it to Georgetown, he survived a hellish 15-month Iraq deployment that killed 21 soldiers in his battalion. He doesn’t like talking about it, but if you really want to know, you can read the New York Times or The Atlantic, where his byline appears.
These twentysomethings aren’t the indecisive, archetypical youths alternately celebrated and fretted over these days. They don’t live with their parents; they have no problem making hard decisions; they tend not to agonize about their futures because they’ve already survived their pasts.
Gibbons-Neff did two tours in Afghanistan as an 0311—the occupational code for “rifleman” in the Marine Corps—first in 2008, then in 2010. He enlisted because it would get him into the fight faster, and he volunteered for infantry, because why wouldn’t you?
By 2010, he says, it was a different war: The bad guys had their shit together. They were slammed with roadside bombs and stalked by snipers. His assistant team leader was shot twice but got back in the fight as soon as he could.
Sucking down the powder-fine moondust in Helmand, Gibbons-Neff wasn’t thinking about college. It’s not why he joined the Marines, and it probably wasn’t an option, anyway. “I had pretty sad grades in high school,” he says, which is something you hear a lot from student veterans. “Georgetown was kind of a pipe dream.”
He started looking in the fall of 2010, with Marjah behind him and his End of Active Service date looming in January. He liked Georgetown—reputable academics, good city, and no Greek life. And thanks to a beefed-up GI Bill, he’d be able to afford it.
The 2008 Veteran’s Assistance Act, or Post-9/11 GI Bill, gives men and women with three years of service after Sept. 11, 2001 a full ride to a public university, with a stipend for housing and books. Should they choose to attend a private school, the Veterans Administration will pay out $19,198.31 per school year—still a decent benefit, even if it doesn’t nearly cover the $40,000 tab at schools like Georgetown and George Washington University.
To make private schools financially feasible for vets, the VA created the Yellow Ribbon Program, in which the federal government and participating universities match funds on a set number of grants. American University, GW, and Georgetown all participate.
It’s the best GI Bill in history, and it turned Gibbons-Neff into a Hoya, a 23-year-old freshman with more than 100 combat missions in a war his classmates elected to skip. As a student veteran, he was one of few, and as an undergraduate student veteran, he was one of fewer: During the 2012-2013 school year, only 70 of 509 student veterans were undergrads. At GW, the split is similar: roughly 300 to 1,000. At American, officials put it at 50-50, with 300 student veterans enrolled overall. Nationwide, undergrads constitute 52 percent of all vets using the GI Bill.
* * *
It was 10 a.m., day one of student orientation, when Gibbons-Neff heard that his assistant team leader—“my best friend,” he would later write for the New York Times, “and one of the most outstanding Marines I had ever served with”—was dead.
Gibbons-Neff went to the bar and ordered two shots of whiskey: one for the living and one for the dead. He drank the morning away, blew off orientation, and watched through the window as his classmates launched their journeys of knowledge attainment and self-discovery. Unlike them, he was of drinking age.
“It was really tough,” he says. “But at the same time, it made everything very clear. You can either push through it, or you can let it push you back on your ass.”
For Alex Horton, it was a different war, but the same issue: His 15 months in Iraq, prolonged by the troop surge, defined his life but separated him from the student body.
Horton’s unit started in Mosul, northern Iraq, where they took their first Killed-In-Action. Then they moved to Baghdad, where they took their second. Then Baquba, on the bleeding edge of the Sunni triangle, where they took the next 19. It was 2007, at the height of the Bush administration’s troop surge—a bad time to be in Iraq, if there was ever a good time. When he got home and started college in Austin, he was still buzzing on the combat high.
“The first month, everything’s great, unless you encounter a loud noise,” he says. “Your hypervigilance is keyed up. Colors are vivid. You can hear everything. You could go into a loud club and single out sounds.”
His blog, Army of Dude, got him a communications gig with the VA but interrupted his education. He knew D.C. schools tended to be vet-friendly, and word-of-mouth recommendations steered him toward Georgetown.
The skills he honed in Baqubah—the skills that kept him alive—had no application in the classroom. If anything, they isolated him. He was among students who discussed Moby Dick as if it wasn’t a metaphor for war. In one class, the professor asked him about his Rules Of Engagement for running checkpoints. Horton felt his face grow hot. Until then, nobody in the classroom knew he was a veteran.
“What do I say?” he says. “Do I tell them that a lieutenant didn’t understand the ROE, and he didn’t know where to shoot warning shots" so a kid got shot in the face? "Do I talk about that?”
He didn’t. And doesn’t. For those who ask, he rolls out a go-to story about his Stryker getting stuck in a ditch of raw sewage. It’s a nice story—no one dies, and the reality of death doesn’t make visible the vast gulf of experience that separates students from student veterans.
Kate Hoit, back from a public affairs tour in Balad, Iraq, disengaged completely. It was easier to focus on her work, she says. “I’ll be honest: I was a little angry. I sat in the back of the classroom. I did not talk at all,” she says.
For most student veterans, the greatest solace comes from the community offered by Student Veterans Associations and the veteran coordinators hired by universities to advocate for them. Among each other, veterans can bitch about class, bullshit about their weekends, and be normal students without having to explain their contexts.
Student Veterans of America, a national organization with chapters across the country, helps student vets organize and advocate: At American, for example, diligent lobbying led to a dedicated veteran’s lounge, complete with fridge and microwave. It’s a meeting room, a hangout, and should it need to be, a safe space.
“It’s brought a lot more community to the students,” says American’s Marianne Huger Thompson. “It’s a good meeting spot.”
SVA chapters give vets the opportunity and means to merge into mainstream student life, rather than cloistering themselves away from it. During his tenure as GU Vets’ president, Gibbons-Neff organized a 5k race that raised funds for the Wounded Warrior Project. With the lure of free food and a T-shirt, the race drew 230 runners, a solid turnout.
At George Washington, Navy veteran Emanuel Johnson, pictured above, heads up GW Vets and encourages members to participate in other student organizations, too. Their treasurer volunteers at a humane society; several members have joined Greek life.
“I want people to know GW Vets is here, and I encourage people to permeate the campus,” Johnson says. “The value they have with other organizations is enormous.”
Chris Navarra, president of American’s SVA chapter, says his vets are active in campus life. “We have members who are active in various other student organizations and clubs,” he says. “Involvement has been limited but we are starting to shift towards more collaboration with other groups.”
Standing between student veterans and university administrations are veteran coordinators, full-time staffers with a mandate to help veterans transition to college life. For those applying, they answer questions about programs and benefits. For those enrolled, they’re administrative Swiss Army knives, eager to help student veterans, register for classes, deal with stress, and tackle the universally dreaded challenge of applying for VA benefits.
“It’s not an easy process, and it always gets a little bit more complex,” says Mike Ruybal, GW’s veteran coordinator. “We try to make it stress-free. It’s one of the best services that the university provides.”
Operation: College Promise, a nonprofit that studies student-veterans’ issues, agrees. In an ongoing multistate, multicollege study of student vets, the latest iteration of which was released in November 2013, College Promise concluded that appointing a student veteran coordinator was the single best way a university could support its veteran population. (A spokesperson for the VA noted that the department has at least improved its response time—it now takes less than 15 days to process benefits, as opposed to 33 in 2012—and introduced a centralized complaint system, allowing the department to collate feedback from student vets and identify “bad actor” schools.)
Like Ruybal, Georgetown coordinator and alumnus David Shearman, pictured above, says his job is to make the process less intimidating. He’s fluent in the bureaucratese of both the VA and the university, and he interprets each for incoming freshmen.
Shearman says Georgetown tries to bolster its undergraduate ranks by reaching out to area bases and community college and spreading the good word: If you’re among the 17 percent accepted, you can probably pay for it.
He acknowledges that the university’s reputation can be a little intimidating.
“If someone told me, ‘Hey, you should apply to Georgetown,’ I would have laughed in their face,” he says. But he did, and he wants others to know they can, too.
Horton says he’s grateful for coordinators like Shearman and professors who valued his experience. Still, he says, Georgetown has plenty of room for improvement.
“I think the administrative staff have a long way to go, and the rigidity of a traditional undergrad system clouds what students can or should be,” he says, sharing a nightmarish anecdote about trying to switch majors that he says is an example of an administrative culture that’s “probably the reason why I feel like a visitor at home basketball games.”
As veterans carry the positive aspects of their experience to the classroom—the discipline, the drive, the focus—they also bring the weight. The weight is Gibbons-Neff in a bar, two shot glasses before him.
It’s Horton breaking into a flop sweat as he remembers the warning shot that wasn’t.
It’s Hoit sitting in the back of the classroom, silent and walled-off, a one-woman fortress.
The trick, she says, is for student veterans to meet the student body halfway. No, they won’t understand, not really—how can you understand what incoming fire feels like until it happens to you? But they can try, and veterans can help.
“Some of it has to be on us,” she says.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, this story originally misidentified the vehicle in the story Horton tells that got stuck. It was a Stryker armored personnel carrier, not a Humvee. Also, a quote in Horton's anecdote about warning shots originally contained an accurate quotation that misstated the nature of the shots, and it has been edited.
Photo of Alex Horton courtesy Alex Horton; photos of Emanuel Johnson and David Shearman by Darrow Montgomery