The Nonprofit Helping Veterans Get Into The Country’s Top Colleges

Bryan Box, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, is now a biological sciences major at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
AP Photo/Alaska Dispatch News, Marc Lester

As an enlisted soldier in the 3rd Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, Spc. Sang Ra never dreamed that he would soon be attending a college in the Ivy League.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Ra enlisted in the Army out of a sense of patriotic duty and served as a ceremonial casket bearer for fallen service members. A self-professed “poor test taker,” he had never met anyone who attended a prestigious college, but his unit executive officer recognized his potential and referred him to the nonprofit organization, Service to School. Service to School, which was founded in June 2011, provides free admissions assistance and coaching to veterans applying to college through the post-9/11 G.I. Bill. Counselors at Service to School opened Ra’s eyes to the opportunities that awaited him. He didn’t have to resign himself to attending a small community college or online school; with Service to School’s help, his military experience could make him a competitive applicant for the best colleges in the country.

“First, Service to School listened to my story and analyzed my experiences, skills, and academics. They then gave me an outline of what is required for the application process; everything from transcripts to personal statements,” Ra told Task & Purpose in an interview. “They gave me a mission, and I executed. Without Service to School, I would be in a very different situation right now.”

Sang Ra (second from left) is a former enlisted soldier who now attends Columbia University in New York City after receiving admissions help from Service to School.Photo courtesy of Spc. Sang Ra

Service to School was founded by a group of veterans who realized that transitioning from service member to student successfully requires more than simply learning how the G.I Bill benefits work. While traditional high school student applicants benefit from a massive culture of college admissions counseling, including test preparation, essay advice, and interview coaching, similar advice is not as easily available for the thousands of servicemen and women transitioning out of the military each year. This puts veterans at a strategic disadvantage. As a result, very few veterans are admitted to the nation’s best schools. According to an annual survey of highly-selective colleges conducted by Bunker Hill Community College Professor Wick Sloan, only 596 out of 158,000 undergraduate students were military veterans. Instead, more and more veterans find themselves sucked into predatory for-profit colleges, earning degrees of dubious quality. Many veterans don’t even realize they could aspire to anything better.

In the summer of 2014, after months of working with Service to School counselors, Ra was accepted to Columbia University in New York City, as well as American University, George Washington University, and Amherst College.

This month, Service to School released a free, comprehensive guide to applying to college as a military veteran. The guide, written by military veterans who graduated from top schools such as Stanford and Yale, contains essay-writing advice from a Stanford creative writing professor, admissions process advice from a Yale admissions officer, and tips from a former University of Chicago law school dean of admissions, as well as well-known professional admissions consultant Anna Ivey, a co-founder of Service to School.

Service to School pairs veteran applicants with a mentor who is an active student veteran attending the schools they are targeting. This enables veterans working with the organization to get a better perspective on whether they would be a good fit for a particular school, and learn more about the school’s culture and admissions process from someone who has actually gone through it. Now at Columbia, Sang Ra hopes to expand this network on his new campus to help more veterans follow in his footsteps. This peer-to-peer mentoring has enabled the program to expand and successfully place more than 200 veterans in their target schools.

“Service to School provided me with more than just guidance. They gave me direction,” Ra said. Through the program, Ra was connected with Zach McDonald, Service to School’s director of undergraduate operations. McDonald worked with Ra “patiently and methodically” to help him develop and refine his application essays. “Then I applied, and here I am. Without Service to School, I would have missed this golden opportunity.”

Ra was among the first enlisted veterans whom Service to School’s nascent program has helped, but the nonprofit has since assisted veterans gain admission to other top schools, such as Wesleyan and Stanford universities. The program has also helped many former officers and other veterans who already have their bachelor’s degrees to successfully apply to top graduate schools.

Separating from the military can be a challenging adjustment for many veterans because it requires adaptation to a whole new set of expectations and challenges. But veterans are highly motivated and persistent in pursuing their educational goals. Ultimately, organizations such as Service to School can help level the playing field and provide the support needed by thousands of veterans around the country to find success after the military.

Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra

Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.

However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:

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Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects.

The skepticism of Pentagon bureaucracy and Washington political operators is on full display throughout the movie. When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."

The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

Protesters and militia fighters gather to condemn air strikes on bases belonging to Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces), outside the main gate of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019. (Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani)

With ISIS trying to reorganize itself into an insurgency, most attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq are being carried out by Shiite militias, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

"In the time that I have been in Iraq, we've taken a couple of casualties from ISIS fighting on the ground, but most of the attacks have come from those Shia militia groups, who are launching rockets at our bases and frankly just trying to kill someone to make a point," Grynkewich said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

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U.S. Army Soldiers, assigned to the East Africa Response Force (EARF), 101st Airborne Division, board a C-130J Super Hercules, assigned to the 75th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, on January 5, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez)

The Defense Department has remained relatively tight-lipped regarding the brazen Jan. 5 raid on a military base at Manda Bay, Kenya, but a new report from the New York Times provides a riveting account filled with new details about how the hours-long gunfight played out.

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Roughly a dozen U.S. troops showing concussion-related symptoms are being medically evacuated from Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, a defense official told Task & Purpose on Tuesday.

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