I was drunk at a Korean karaoke bar in Bahrain when I decided I was going to leave the Navy. I made up my mind when between songs, I overheard someone who was about to take terminal leave say, “If you know you’re not going to stay in for twenty, leave sooner rather than later.”
It wasn’t a knee-jerk decision. I planned my exit from the Navy well in advance (and publicly on Task & Purpose). I wanted to go to the graduate school of my choice full-time on the timeline that I dictated. Like many others, I also wavered about when I’d leave. After deployment, I dropped my papers to resign my active duty commission and started grad school applications. I left active duty two years ago, and in May, I graduated from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Conventional wisdom about being a veteran in school focuses on benefits or jokes about being an older student. And most of it holds up, no matter the kind of program, whether you’re a first-time, first-generation college student, or getting a Ph.D. But here’s what nobody tells you:
Trauma has an incubation period
I didn’t realize how some of the worst days of my service had profoundly affected me until the second semester of my first year, when I started white-knuckling the desk in the back of the lecture hall in one of my classes. I didn’t serve in direct combat, and the kinds of missions I supported don’t make the news unless something goes horribly wrong. I felt like I didn’t deserve to feel the anxiety that lived in my bones. It took interviewing hundreds of women veterans for my thesis, including a handful who had a similar military experience to me decades earlier, to realize that we were struggling with some of the same issues and that was okay.
For many veterans, the college or graduate school application process is the first time they have to tell their story, and that often brings up a lot of challenging memories. Know this, and use it to grow stronger.
Take care of your health. Seriously.
The military broke most of us somehow—and for many, it takes a while before we notice. Get enrolled at the local VA for healthcare before your semester starts. I was able to do well in school because VA Boston helped me get healthy. You can choose not to use the VA, but it’s always better to have and not need than to need and not have.
Self-advocate: I was admittedly not great at this. All schools have a point of contact for disability accommodation, and your needs can look different. I hated asking for accommodations, but was always relieved they were in place when I needed them.
Self-advocacy is exhausting and choosing expediency may be the best thing for your self-care, even if it impacts your grades. Chronic pain is a rude roommate who does not care when you have midterms. At times, getting an extension so I could get through a flare was a godsend. At other times, I took B’s on some papers in my last semester that I could have gotten A’s on because I decided being done was better for my health and self-care.
Veterans in academia matter
Veterans use their experience to forge new research agendas. Pat Tillman Scholar Gretchen Klingler, who learned Iraqi Arabic in the Air Force, is currently conducting research with Iraqi women through her studies in anthropology at Ohio State. Another Tillman Scholar, Texas A&M medical student Andrew D. Fisher, left the Army and started a group to promote Stop the Bleed, which brings lessons learned about bleeding control from the battlefield to local communities. For my master’s thesis, I interviewed women veterans to understand why women veterans are less likely to self-identify in their communities—and learned that there’s hardly any qualitative research on women veterans.
As veterans, we often complain that the civilian world doesn’t know or care enough about us. If we are not part of the conversation, it will take place behind our backs or not at all. In academia, we can spearhead the research that informs the public and shapes policy.
You need fellow veterans more than you think
Marginalized veterans are often the first to self-select out of being part of the veteran community. Why would we continue to try to be part of an organization that mistreated us? As a veteran, I found my tribe. Particularly among Pat Tillman Scholars and fellow veteran classmates at Fletcher, I members of the military community who, like me, felt out of place on active duty.
That said, don’t just stay in the veterans bubble—seek social experiences that make you uncomfortable. I met some my best friends in graduate school in an a capella group, and through a recurring happy hour the veterans club had with former Peace Corps volunteers (we called it “War & Peace.”)
Where you go to school really matters
Going back to school directly after the military gave me the opportunity to reflect in a way that I would not have known I needed had I gone straight to work. My courses taught me a vocabulary that helped frame past experiences and gave me tools to accomplish more than I could have imagined. I had time to network, work a summer internship at a top company, and figure out what I didn’t want to do.
Don’t rush. If you’re on unsure footing on your path, take the time to conduct research and spend some time in community college. Seek support from Service to School, Warrior-Scholar Project, and Posse Foundation Veterans Program. Aim high, and you may end up somewhere that changes the trajectory of your life.
UPDATE: This article was updated to correct details about Gretchen Klingler. She operated as a translator in the Air Force but did not serve as a linguist. (Updated 8/27/2018; 2:39 pm EDT)