Veterans return to college with a lot to adjust to
After leaving the armed forces, they must find their niche as students.
Published: Friday, January 7, 2011 at 3:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 7, 2011 at 3:51 p.m.
Gunshots echo through a backyard on the corner of Archer Road and Southwest 13th Street as Santa Fe College student Joshua Friedman picks his target and fires.
The former Marine meets his mark. The old surfboard nestled in a clearing 20 feet below his back porch is splattered with blue paint ball pellets. His friend Jenny looks on with an amused smile, describing the paint ball playground as Friedman's "man cave."
From 2000 to 2009, Friedman did not have much time to play games. He was a CH53-E airframer, responsible for working as a mechanic on the largest helicopter in the military.
In Iraq, he wielded an M-16, not a paint ball gun, during his night watch duties on base. After being discharged from the Marines in 2005, he spent 34 months in Iraq and Kuwait working as an aircraft mechanic for an independent company that repairs military aircraft.
But one of his biggest fears awaited him upon his return home. More than 10 years after his graduation from high school, it was time for Friedman, the 29-year-old surfer boy from Vero Beach, to attend college.
"I was more scared of college than I was of the Marine Corps, and that's the truth," Friedman said.
Instead of packing his bags and heading to a dormitory, Friedman sat on a bus for four hours watching "Bride of Chucky" as he headed to Marine Corps boot camp.
Santa Fe College student Kyle Meiborg, 23, chose a similar path. He was sick of school work, so he headed to boot camp two days after high school graduation. As a Navy corpsman, he cared for injured Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tamsen Pintler, 31, works with Meiborg at the Santa Fe College Veterans Affairs office. She could not afford college and did not want to take out loans, so she joined the Army to help fund her education. She worked as a sergeant and served as a combat lifesaver and generator mechanic.
A different kind of student
During the fall semester, about 1,100 veterans were studying at the University of Florida and Santa Fe College after returning from their military service, said John Gebhardt, a veterans advocate who supervises the veterans affairs offices on both campuses. Another 1,100 total are enrolled at both schools for the spring semester.
These veterans are a different breed of college student. They come to college to work, not to party. Their dedication and motivation set them apart from their classmates. Some are first-generation college students and may fear college because they do not know what to expect, Gebhardt said.
Friedman's adjustment to college classes has not been as tough as he anticipated, especially given his "wild-child" tendencies growing up.
The young Friedman was not afraid to join his friend Todd Jenkins in wearing camouflage and shooting a BB gun at the orange pickers near his house.
In high school, he said he did what he needed to pass, but he wanted to have fun. He was scared of college because he felt he was not ready for the academic challenge.
"I had never truly tested myself academically, so the word ‘study' was big, bold and scary," Friedman said.
After his time in the service, he knew going to his college classes and showing up on time would be easy, but he was scared to think about the extent of his academic abilities after such a long break from school.
He's had to put some extra effort into his studies, but he's found that his professors like him. When he missed his pre-Algebra class, the professor sent an e-mail asking if he was OK.
But the fighter in Friedman yearns to "take a break" and return to Iraq, where the 12½-hour days made time fly by.
"You're part of a working machine," Friedman said. "Everything is so simple and locked in. You can do it with your eyes closed. You know what you gotta do every day. You wake up the same time. You do the same thing. I mean, it's a system."
Now, it's up to Friedman to structure his day-to-day activities, and he still holds on to some of his military habits. He eats breakfast standing up, just as he did when he was constantly on the go in Iraq. He likes his room tidy, and his Mac desktop continues to count down the hours in military time.
Qualities to succeed
Gebhardt said student veterans like Friedman are equipped with qualities such as discipline and determination that prove valuable in the academic setting. They know when to put pressure on themselves to succeed and when to relax.
Unlike some of their classmates who may be strolling along on the five-year plan, Gebhardt said veterans are accustomed to long hours and eager to speed through school, especially if they are older than their fellow students.
Pintler came back to school at the age of 24 with a world view shaped by her experiences in Germany, Bosnia and Iraq. While classmates continued to cling to the political views of their families and struggled to figure out what they wanted to do with their lives, she prepared to return to the workforce.
"Coming back from not only being in the military but also from war, you realize all of the advantages we have here in the United States, and so you're career-oriented and driven and you want to go through school as soon as you can to get back to a job," Pintler said.
As she pursued her undergraduate nursing degree at Santa Fe College, Pintler sat through lectures in which students criticized the military or the role of women in the military. She remembers one lecture in her English class when a discussion of a military poem led one student to comment that only male servicemen served on the front lines.
Pintler had the chance to explain to the student that this was not the case. She had the same roles and responsibilities as the male soldiers she worked with.
At the start of the Iraq war, as the temperature climbed to more than 100 degrees, Pintler slipped on a chemical suit, a chemical mask and rubber boots. She hopped behind the driver's seat of a five-ton truck and prepared for a 36-hour non-stop drive from Kuwait to Iraq.
She recalls crossing the border of Iraq and seeing warning signs urging her not to enter. She remembers seeing the skeletons of vehicles that had been driving ahead of her truck in the convoy. They lay broken down, stripped of wiring, tires and windshields.
After arriving in Iraq, Pintler did a job that most women do not do: She worked as a generator mechanic and helped provide electricity for her entire camp.
She also conducted searches of Iraqi citizens and their vehicles to ensure they were not carrying weapons or hiding bombs, and she worked to protect the perimeter of her camp.
"You do a multitude of things that are outside your comfort zone," Pintler said. "If they need an extra body on patrol, you're going to go on patrol."
Taking it slow
Given the wide range of job responsibilities and the hectic pace of military life, Gebhardt said he has to remind some veterans to take it easy.
His staff encourages veterans to take at least 15 hours a semester and go to school year-round to reap the full benefits of their GI Bills, but for some veterans, this is not enough.
"We actually have to slow veterans down at times … that 22 hours a semester is not a good idea," Gebhardt said.
He remembers one student veteran at Santa Fe who was wounded in the head while serving in Iraq. Although he had never attended college, he finished 60 hours at Santa Fe in three semesters and earned straight As.
At UF, he maintained his perfect GPA throughout his three semesters and one summer session.
While his disability did not slow this veteran down, other disabled veterans may require additional services or assistance.
Gebhardt said about 60 percent of veterans at UF and Santa Fe suffer from service-related disabilities, which can be anything from post-traumatic stress disorder to hearing problems and back problems.
"If you jump out of a perfectly good airplane enough times, even with a good parachute, something's going to hurt," Gebhardt said.
The veterans affairs offices at UF and SFC refer students with disabilities to the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville.
The office also can help students register with the disability resource offices at UF or Santa Fe if they are taking medication for memory problems caused by traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, Gebhardt said.
According to Gebhardt and the student veterans working in the Santa Fe College Veterans Affairs office, the office functions as a support system, where experienced students work one-on-one with new students to help them adjust to the university lifestyle.
When Friedman returned to the U.S., his minor hearing disability was not a big concern. He has had bigger problems to face.
After he finished his job as an aircraft mechanic in December 2009, Friedman took a surfing vacation to Hawaii, but he did not make it home in time to see his grandpa before he died in February.
Always one to keep moving, Friedman got off to a new start on March 6 when he and his friend Todd Jenkins moved to their house with the orange and blue shutters in Gainesville. The days of shooting BB guns at orange pickers were over, but the friendship between these two best friends remained strong.
It was Friedman's friendship with Jenkins that helped inspire him to join the Marines. Jenkins was 2½ years older and acted as the leader of their neighborhood group of friends. Growing up with him meant growing up tough. When Friedman broke his finger, he hid it from his mom and went to school every day for a week until she noticed.
"We were just a different kind of kids, man," Friedman said. "We grew up tough and hard."
The desire to impress Jenkins sparked a competitive fire within Friedman, a fire that did not fade when he decided to embrace the physical and mental challenges of the Marines.
New challenges awaited Friedman and Jenkins upon their arrival to Gainesville. Jenkins planned to study engineering at UF, while Friedman enrolled in the criminal justice program at Santa Fe.
Although time had passed since Jenkins had led the group of neighborhood boys, he was still someone to look up to, and people still trusted him for his valuable advice. At 6-foot-5, he was hard to miss, and he was as tough as ever.
On a day in late April 2010, Friedman decided to head to the gym, and Jenkins wanted to come along. But Friedman advised against it. Jenkins had been coughing and walking around the house looking pale and feverish. He needed rest, not a workout, but his high pain tolerance would not allow for that.
Jenkins decided to come to the gym regardless, and Friedman said this caused his immune system to become even weaker than it was. Friedman describes Jenkins as "too tough for his own good."
On April 29, a day and a half after heading to the gym, Jenkins died. Although Friedman said he is unsure of the cause of death, he speculates that the weakened immune system and complications from the medication Jenkins was taking for knee problems could have been contributing factors.
Dealing with death
Death was an enemy that Kyle Meiborg, a Navy corpsman, constantly fought while working with one of the first groups of American forces in the southern Helmand Province of Afghanistan.
In about one week, his staff sergeant was shot in the arm, his friend was struck by an IED and he was injured in an IED blast.
On the day he was injured, Meiborg was traveling with his squad through the land northeast of his base at Koshtay. Ahead of him, a mother walked with her four children. Meiborg watched as an IED set off by the Taliban knocked down his friend 10 feet ahead of him. The blast knocked off Meiborg's helmet and injured his back. As he and his friend lay on the ground, the Taliban started firing shots from three different locations. His friend rolled into a nearby trench. Meiborg's staff sergeant, who was fighting despite his recent injury, pulled him into the trench as the mother's screams sounded. Three of her four children had died in the blast, and the shots were too hard and fast for Meiborg and the other servicemen to help her.
Meiborg's back was strained by the blast, and a medical helicopter took him to Camp Leatherneck, where he was x-rayed. However, medical personnel did not find any serious problems with his back and said the pain may have been caused by a muscle sprain.
They moved Meiborg in and out of the hospital quickly to make way for more seriously injured patients.
Meiborg's injury occurred in early December 2009. In December 2010, he was back in the U.S. wrapping up his first semester as a political science major at Santa Fe College. Like Friedman, he struggled to slow down and adjust to the laid-back pace of college life. He had trouble remembering math, but the teacher of his world geography class often asked him to speak about the geography of the Middle East. Meiborg, who said he is tired of getting shot at, does not want to return to fighting on the ground. He hopes to fly F-18s.
For now, he's doing a work-study program at the SFC veterans affairs office. Pintler also works there as a veteran peer counselor as she completes her nursing school at Rasmussen College in Ocala.
Meiborg, Pintler and their fellow veterans at the office answer phone calls and talk about benefit plans. A few months or a few years ago, they were identifying bodies, searching for bombs under cars and scanning the roads in Iraq for explosive devices as small as IV tubes.
Five Santa Fe College and UF students have been killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and six who are currently enrolled at the two schools have earned Purple Hearts after being shot or injured during combat, Gebhardt said. About 20 Santa Fe and UF veterans have earned Purple Hearts since Sept. 11, 2001.
Friedman remembers sitting on the flight deck of a naval ship when it was docked in Jordan. He was listening to the punk band Pennywise and thinking about surfing in Florida.
When he went below deck to do his laundry, he heard a loud crash and felt the whole ship shake. An alarm sounded. A rocket-propelled grenade had flown right over where he had been sitting on the flight deck and hit a nearby warehouse.
Back in Gainesville, Friedman sits on the leather chair in his living room where surfboards hang on the ceiling and the reggae punk sound of Sublime plays in the background. Like other veterans, he focuses on academics. His voicemail tells callers that he is in class or studying, and he wants to attend law school.
Ever a part of the military machine, Friedman continues to move forward despite the losses and the challenges he's faced. Unlike some of his younger classmates, he does not care what other people think of him or his military habits. After all he's been through, he's learned not to be self-conscious.
He's learned to face his fears and prepare for the next challenge that awaits him. His future is like the old surfboard nestled in the clearing below his back porch. It's a target he can reach with a little bit of practice and a lot of military discipline. If he aims straight, he'll meet his mark.