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The Hard Path from Afghanistan to the Classroom
A month before I started my freshman year of high school, my father was killed in a cycling accident. Overnight my mother became a single parent and our sole breadwinner. She was forced to work twelve-hour days to maintain our standard of living and consequently I was often alone in an empty house.
Like most teenagers, I rebelled. With the loss of my father came a profound loss of discipline in my life. Combined with the sudden absence of my mother who was now compelled to work long hours, the tragedy had an important tertiary effect: I stopped attending classes. Eventually, to the distress of my mother, I left high school, opting to take the G.E.D. instead. College was the last thing on my mind, because college was for savvy, affluent students who studied for SATs and graduated on a normal schedule. It wasn’t for people like me.
At 17, I would have been the ideal candidate for an ‘absentee father’ case study: misguided anger, unabashed recklessness, unclear identity. I sought challenges but had no purpose. Luckily (or unluckily) for me there was a war.
I was an Army recruiter’s dream. With my mother’s anxious signature, I was in.
Throughout most of my seven years in the military I gave little thought to the outside world. When provided the discipline, direction, and the brutish encouragement of male authority figures, I began to excel, rapidly advancing through the ranks. I was given ever-greater responsibility — making sergeant in two years. After my first three-year contract expired I enthusiastically re-enlisted for another four.
I had found my identity. I was a soldier.
Five years later everything changed during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2010.
One of our missions was to facilitate the opening of schools in Kunduz Province. That April, in an effort to intimidate girls from attending, the Taliban attacked the schools with poison gas. It didn’t work. The girls continued to walk to class despite the threat.
As a teenager, I had taken for granted the opportunity to have an education not because an armed insurgency prevented me, but because of my own ambivalence. In Afghanistan, a country plagued with incessant violence, the decision to go to school was often one of life or death. For me, it was a luxury I had wasted. And I regretted it.
A switch had been flipped. For the rest of my deployment nothing could satisfy my thirst for knowledge. I began ordering books online and borrowing from fellow soldiers: politics, literature, science, mathematics — anything and everything. The inevitable downtime that accompanies the soldier’s profession proved ideal for reading. As my squad hovered around a laptop watching bootleg copies of “The Jersey Shore,” I found myself reducing fractions, reading Steinbeck and keeping up on the midterm congressional elections.
One night after a long political conversation with my company commander, he looked at me meaningfully and asked, “Why don’t you go to college?”
Hearing those words out loud was the catalyst I needed. Though the Army had been my home for seven years, and these men were my family, I had been quietly realizing that the path I was seeking was not one I could find in the military.
A year later, I was out. I moved to Chicago and enrolled in a local community college.
I walked into my first class convinced that what felt so inconceivable as a teenager would now be a breeze. I had matured in the military, instilled with discipline, commitment and leadership skills. I’d be the exemplary student. After all, I used to get shot at for a living. How hard could it be?
Turns out, really hard.
I had spent months preparing for the academic rigor, but what I could not have anticipated was the challenge of reintegrating into society. I never expected college to be more stressful than combat. But it was, only different: almost entirely self-inflicted. I was consumed by the fear that no matter what I did, I would never be able to relate to my classmates. I was older, had fought in two wars and been exposed to death. What could we possibly have in common?
I bore scores of prejudices from the military to my civilian life. They were part of my identity, making it impossible to connect with anyone, impossible to make friends, impossible to reintegrate.
It was difficult to adjust to the loss of camaraderie and trust that I took for granted in the military. The culture of an infantry platoon resembles that of a tribe, into which one is indoctrinated only by the mystery of violence and death. Outsiders uninitiated into this mystery are regarded with suspicion. In combat, I knew whom I could trust — the members of my tribe. For years I trained, ate, slept and fought with the same men. It forged an incredible bond and a sense of safety. Paradoxically, I felt more secure in Iraq and Afghanistan than anywhere else.
In an effort to find solace I joined my university’s Student Veterans of America chapter where I found a community of people who had gone through similar situations. I joined a writing group for veterans where I could put painful memories into a narrative that I could control. As productive as this was, however, I was still segregating myself from my civilian peers. That I still regarded them as “civilians” told how much I still viewed myself as an outsider. I had formed nearly no relationships with my fellow non-veteran classmates.
I hated the questions I feared they would ask: “So, why did you join the military?” To me, this was a ridiculous query. There was a war. Why didn’t you join?
Worse, the inevitable and voyeuristic question: “Did you ever kill anyone?”
I became more resentful, withdrawn. In terms of distance from my classmates, I felt as if I was from Mars.
My animosity turned into untenable opinions. Those who didn’t serve became “selfish” or “cowards,” unworthy of my respect. I thought: “Who were they to think they had something better to do while those, like me, were fighting and dying on their behalf.”
Then, my sophomore year, I met a girl in biology class who had been battling leukemia almost her entire life — and was now studying oncology nursing. Having spent most of her life inside a hospital, she wanted to provide comfort and empathy to others afflicted with the same disease. She didn’t seem to bear any resentment or animosity. I came to view her bravery with admiration. I wasn’t the only one who’d suffered.
Once again, like in Afghanistan, I felt ashamed of my actions. I realized that it was only my own self-prescribed prejudices that were holding me back. When I accepted others for who they were, when I began listening to their stories, I learned that everyone fights their own wars. Making friends became easier. As it turns out, reintegration is a two-way street.
After spending a year at that community college in suburban Chicago, I transferred as a junior to the American University of Paris. I’m now finishing my last semester there and, like most soon-to-be graduates, I find myself thoroughly occupied. I petition companies for unpaid internships, procrastinate on my thesis and remain in a constant state of near-panic at the prospect of moving back in with my mother.
I know that I made the right decision; the benefits of a four-year degree are backed by indisputable empirical evidence. But there’s more to college than just increasing the chances of professional success. The four years have also represented a long and important process by which I’ve re-entered civilian life. It was a place where my intellectual hunger could feast, and most importantly — I found my passion.
Sadly, too many of my fellow veterans are not taking advantage of this opportunity. Only about half of the eligible veterans use their Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits, which cover tuition, living expenses and even books. Moreover, a recent study showed that only half of those who do return to school are graduating – which means only a quarter of eligible veterans are earning college degrees. This golden opportunity is being wasted.
I don’t presume to know all the reasons student veterans decide to leave college, or never enroll in the first place. Some probably found lucrative employment as contractors overseas, or in the oil industry. Many have unique obstacles that “traditional” students typically do not, such as families or physical and mental trauma. But with unemployment rates among veterans aged 18 to 25 at 7 percent (national average is 5.1 percent) the issue is disconcerting.
I’ll spare readers the “If I can do it, anyone can” cliché. But, for many of my fellow veterans college may not just be a place for learning, but also for healing. It was for me.
Ryan Blum was a squad leader with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, deploying twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. He now studies International Affairs at the American University of Paris. He is also a member of Foreign Policy’s Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted which seeks to inject more of the enlisted perspective into policy discussions. Twitter: @ryanblum1