A Million Strong: Helping Them Through

Ann McClure's picture
Monday, February 4, 2013

The class was humanities, the book under discussion Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Suddenly an alarm blared and 20 students, some calm and some not, filed out of the makeshift classroom. Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan was under rocket attack, again.
The students, most of them uniformed troops, repaired to a cramped bunker where a few continued discussing the book. There, they waited for an hour until the all-clear sounded. Class was over. “We’ve been through so many of those that you grow callous to it,” Chief Warrant Officer Justin Hutchinson recalled via Skype. “For most of us, it was like a cigarette break.”
The incident typifies the untypical world of higher education for active-duty troops and veterans. This year, more than one million service members, veterans and their families will take college courses financed with federal tax dollars. Their experiences will be more complicated than those of their fresh-faced civilian peers.
As often as not, they float in and out of college like nomads, juggling deployments, families and jobs. If they are in service, they take classes at night or on weekends, studying between combat patrols and 12-hour duty schedules. If they are veterans, they are probably in their late 20s or early 30s and relearning the rules of civilian life after years of martial discipline. Some have physical injuries or mental health issues that can strain their ability to study. And with 15 years to use their post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits, many will take their time graduating.

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