Military affiliated students balance military, civilian life

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For many students, attending a institution of higher education occurs almost immediately after high school graduation, whether it’s with a community college, a private institution or a four-year public university.

Not all people choose this path, though. For some students, joining a branch of the U.S. armed forces is their first career choice.

Those who choose to serve our country rather than go straight to higher education have to go through different processes depending on the branch of the military they pursue. Men and women who choose the Army have to go through and pass Army Basic Training, which is divided into two sections: Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training. These can last a total of 12-52 weeks.

BCT takes 10 weeks to graduate. AIT takes anywhere from six to 52 weeks, depending on the skills needed to perform a specific job in the Army.

Of course, this path isn’t for everyone. It takes a certain type of person to join the Army. According to the Army’s official website, a soldier is tasked with upholding the Constitution and protecting American freedoms. Sometimes this means time away from family and facing one, if not more, deployment while enlisted and on active duty.

When soldiers do want to pursue higher education, they have many different options. They can wait until the end of their contracts to use the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, more commonly known as the G.I. Bill, to go to school. Soldiers can also use the tuition assistance provided to them while on active duty, or they can find colleges or universities that offer free or significantly reduced prices for higher education for veterans.

Of the two military employees who chose to pursue higher education here at K-State and be interviewed for this article, one was approved for time off to pursue his second master’s degree. The other went from active duty to the reserves, but plans to re-enlist to active duty once his bachelor’s degree is complete.

Military Life
Sean Matthews, senior in public relations, has put more than 16 years into the military as an infantryman, or 11B, working his way up in rank. From the time he signed his initial contract to now, Matthews has completed eight deployments.

He said he has spent more than half of his military career in foreign countries.

“My basic responsibilities are to secure, defend and digress,” Matthews said about being deployed. “The ugly part of war is that you have to be aggressive when you’re out there with your men, your comrades.”

He said when a soldier returns home from deployment, though they can always tell their story from being away, deployment is about protecting their friends and fellow soldiers.

“We fight for each other,” Matthews said. “Not for the flag, not for apple pie, not for any of that bull. We fight for each other in order to come home — that is the most important thing.”

While deployed, as well as being stationed on U.S. soil, Matthews said it was his job as a platoon sergeant to make sure his men did their jobs. He added that he made sure his men did their jobs effectively enough to guarantee their soldiers came home and without injury.

When discussing death and watching friends and fellow soldiers die overseas, Matthews said that though it is always hard, it’s a process of mourning and continuing to do the job assigned.

“You don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it’s going to happen,” Matthews said.“The thing is that most people aren’t prepared for it. The question you have to ask is if you’re prepared to die. The key thing I used to tell my men all the time was, ‘In order to take a life, you have to respect life itself.’”

Matthews said with that mentality, his soldiers can understand what they do as a job as well as who they are as people.

For each individual who is serving in the Armed Forces, deployments are going to be unique and challenging in a variety of ways. For LaRue Brown, graduate student in operations management, being deployed was a different experience than it was for Matthews.

For his first deployment to Iraq, which lasted 15 months, he was a pilot. For the first five months, he served in the ground maintenance company as a re-fueler. He also performed maintenance, service and performance checks on all aerial vehicles.

For the trailing 10 months, Brown was a flight platoon leader. Four to five times a week, he and other soldiers would fly out on different missions ranging from dropping air supplies to encountering air assaults.

“As a pilot, we were shot at all the time — the bullet just might not have reached the helicopter,” Brown said. “We never got direct fire. No one was ever just standing there on the ground shooting at us when we landed. When we saw bullets, it was when people were just shooting off rounds and we could see trace rounds flying past us.”

On his second deployment, a few years after his first one, Brown was deployed in Afghanistan for about a year.

“I was a psychological operations officer,” Brown said. “I was training Afghani special forces and Afghani rangers how to do psychological operations. I did lots and lots of teaching.”

Brown said that nothing too severe has happened to him while he has been deployed.

Brown will be achieving his second master’s degree when he graduates from K-State. He wants to be an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy when he graduates.

Education and the military
According to the K-State Office of Military Affairs, more than 3,000 K-State students are connected to the military in some way. Eleven percent of the total student body is military affiliated or military veterans.

Of that 11 percent, 31 percent are assigned to Fort Riley, 32 percent are recent veterans attending K-State on their G.I. Bill, 2 percent are active duty military, 25 percent are local military-connected students and the final 11 percent are R.O.T.C. cadets, according to a June 7, 2013 presentation by director of Military Affairs Art DeGroat. K-State has one of the largest military student populations in the entire nation.

“The Army is a microcosm of society, and we look for well-rounded soldiers; that includes the education piece,” Lt. Col. Sean J. Ryan, 1st Infantry Division public affairs officer, said. “It is important for all Army soldiers to pursue a degree, not only to keep themselves educated while serving their country, but it helps them individually after their service to the country is over.”

For Matthews, his time in the Army never really ended. He was active duty for 3 1/2 years, but left active duty to try one year of the National Guard. He said he was out of active duty less than six months before he was called on to deploy.

Before that deployment, he had barely finished a semester at K-State. When he returned to Kansas, he was back for less than 12 months before he was deployed again. He has been back to K-State a total of three times, due to being called to service and a medical leave of absence.

When Matthews first started taking higher education classes, it was just a few here or there, essentially whenever he could take them. Matthews recalled a squad leader who encouraged him to get enrolled in classes long before K-State.

“I remember when one of my squad leaders busted into my room one day, and I was playing video games,” Matthews said. “He told me ‘Your a– needs to be in school. I don’t ever want to catch your a– in here playing video games.’ I owe him a lot of credit because of that.”

Some active duty soldiers take time away from their units to attend universities all over the nation, no matter where their stationing base is originally. Ryan said there are different programs soldiers can participate in to support their drive for higher education.

One is the Advanced Civil School program, which is fully funded through a particular branch of the Army. Some branches also offer Training With Industry, a program that allows soldiers to work with civilian industries.

Soldiers are also able to pick their degrees based on what they are interested in. Any soldier with a bachelor’s degree is considered an officer in the Army. It is practical for soldiers to pursue degrees in their Army careers, but they may pursue whatever type of degree they choose – as long as their chain of command is aware.

“The bottom line is that all soldiers have an opportunity to earn a degree or come close to it while being on active duty,” Ryan said. “The Army has education centers on all installments that offer help and guidelines to get soldiers enrolled. Even if a soldier does not earn a degree, the classes they take while on active duty can lessen the time they have to attend school as a civilian.”

Military-friendly campus
With Fort Riley less than 30 minutes from the K-State campus, the university has tried to incorporate military affiliated students and families into the collegiate experience as much as possible. For more than 60 years, K-State has partnered with Fort Riley, and continues to strengthen its ties to both Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley through partnerships.

According to a K-State news release from News and Editorial Services from Feb. 14, 2012, K-State was ranked a top military-friendly institution for soldiers and their families for a fifth consecutive year.

K-State President Kirk Schulz has even written it into his “K-State 2025” plan, as well. As a part of the K-State 2025 plan, more colleges and departments at K-State are beginning to partner with Fort Riley to continue to bridge the gap between military and civilian life and to build a level of understanding between military and non-military.

There are many resources for military affiliated students at K-State. Some of these services include an Office of Veteran’s Affairs, a designated counselor in the Office of Financial Assistance and a special merit based scholarship program for college-bound adolescents and spouses of Fort Riley soldiers.

Interacting with military personnel
For some civilians, it may seem intimidating to talk to someone who is in the armed forces. Oftentimes, students may not know if a student is active duty military, a reserve serviceman or woman or even a part of K-State’s Army ROTC program.

Brown said that if someone has questions for a military student, just ask. He said there are some students who don’t really know anything about the military, especially how it operates.

“For someone who is anti-military or anti-war or anything like that, I’m not going to be able to dissuade you,” Brown said. “That’s not my job as a soldier.”

Brown said his job as a soldier is to follow the orders of the officers appointed above him, including the president. He said a soldier does the mission whether or not people back home like it or dislike it.

On a campus like K-State’s, it is statistically true to say that one out of every 10 students are military affiliated. Furthermore, one out of every 10 students have experience with something affiliated with military life like a deployment, having to move every three to five years or can broadly explain what military life is like.

“If people have questions, I would be more than happy to let them know what I’ve experienced,” Brown said. “But, if you have a problem with what I do, that’s fine. There’s nothing I can really do about that. But if you want to know more about my experiences and what I’ve done, except for the classified stuff, I would be more than happy to sit and have that conversation.”

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