Transition from battlefield to classroom proves difficult

Vets come to college in droves, but some struggle to leave the military behind

By Leigh Giangreco

Before 9 a.m. on a Monday, an alarm’s jarring sound might be the most raucous noise a college
student hears.

But compared to explosions on the front lines of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, an iPhone’s buzz
seems sedate.

“It was a tough change of pace, just getting in the classroom and shifting from the tactical to collegiate mindset,” says T.M. Gibbons-Neff, a 25-year-old sophomore at Georgetown University and head of the school’s Student Veterans Association.

AU senior Joel Hammond serves drinks to patrons at American University's Davenport Coffee Lounge. Photo by Leigh Giangreco

Photo by Leigh Giangreco
AU senior Joel Hammond serves drinks to patrons at American University’s Davenport Coffee Lounge.

After the dangers of deployment or the precision of a tightly run ship on the homefront, the college experience may pale in comparison for some vets.

“Being on deployment, you’re in a ‘kill or be killed,’ mindset, and then you come into the college environment,” Gibbons-Neff said.

When two fellow soldiers in her unit were hit and killed by improvised explosive devices in Iraq, then 19-year-old Victoria Pridemore didn’t react after the blast. It wasn’t a time to grieve. She was focused on the task
at hand.

“To be honest, at the time it didn’t affect me as much as it did coming home, because there you have a job to do,” said Pridemore, 29. “But I came home and came straight to college and you don’t have a mission to focus on.”

‘I never moved on from the military’

Pridemore started college at the University of Virginia at Wise in January 2005. Since Congress passed the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2008, vets have flooded colleges and universities across the country.

Like many of these vets, Pridemore went into the Army in pursuit of an education. But during her quick transition, she thought of those she lost.

“I wondered whether I made the right decision, even though [college] was my plan all along,” Pridemore said.

It wasn’t long until she reverted to military life again. She returned to Iraq in 2006 for a year and then attended Virginia Tech, finishing college in only six semesters.

Even as a civilian, Pridemore now works in veterans services at Virginia Tech.

“Part of me feels like I never moved on from the military,” she said.

While soldiers work toward a college degree, disengaging from the military mindset once they arrive on campus can prove difficult. Twenty-three-year-old Ryden Ishida, a student at American University studying international relations, spent four years of his life as a sergeant marketing in the Army.

“In Iraq, I was putting out products, there were billboards, television commercials and radio scripts, all these tangible things. They were things like ‘anti-terrorism’ and ‘anti-corruption’ and they were effective,” Ishida said. “Like, how am I effective writing a term paper on communism?”

In Iraq, Ishida worked full time six days a week and took college courses.

Ryden Ishida (right) relaxes on American University's quad with his friend, AU senior Leah Fantle. Photo by Leigh Giangreco

Photo by Leigh Giangreco
Ryden Ishida (right) relaxes on American University’s quad with his friend, AU senior Leah Fantle.

“I was tired, but it was a good tired,” he said, slumping back in a chair outside the Davenport coffee lounge at AU and staring out at the quad. “Now I’m tired because I want everything to be over so that I can go back to work. I feel like I’m checking a box.”

Ishida is thinking about returning to active duty in Afghanistan. But he thought twice after his friend was shot in the back by a translator there. Still, he feels the pull of the Army. He hasn’t felt at home as he did when he was stationed in Ft. Bragg, N.C.

“Here I feel like an outsider,” Ishida said. “My license plate is still North Carolina. My insurance, most of my good friends live there.”

‘I do feel like an outsider’

Even the political climate of D.C. and AU doesn’t agree with Ishida. A libertarian at heart, he has learned to refrain from expressing his opinions in classes dominated by his younger, more liberal-minded coeds.

“We’ll get into debates in my U.S. foreign policy class and I don’t even say anything because I’m in such a different mindset than most of these people,” Ishida said.

Ishida and his fellow veterans, separated by both their age and experience, are often divided from their civilian classmates.

“It’s crazy how fast you have to mature in the military,” said Joel Hammond, 27, a senior at American who served as a firefighter for the Air Force in Iraq in 2009. Hammond towers over the counter of the Davenport, but his face is hidden under a baseball cap as he hands patrons their coffee. They can’t imagine that he once responded to a call at 3 a.m. after a 6-month-old Iraqi child had been shot in the head.

Part of the maturity gap between civilian students and himself is age alone, Hammond said, but the psychological maturity comes from his military training.

“It’s about being accountable to your unit, showing up on time, no excuses, following orders to a T without question,” Hammond said.

Theresa Hilsdon, a Navy vet and senior at Georgetown University, eats pho at “Froggy Bottom” after volunteering at the Veterans’ Day of Service at George Washington University. Photo by Leigh Giangreco

Photo by Leigh Giangreco
Theresa Hilsdon, a Navy vet and senior at Georgetown University, eats pho at “Froggy Bottom” after volunteering at the Veterans’ Day of Service at George Washington University.

Heidi Wolff, 30, sometimes feels like a mother with other students at George Washington University.

“I do feel like an outsider, the kids, or people, there are the same age of my little sister that I adopted,” Wolff said. “I’m the nurturing type. I’ll say things to them like ‘put on a jacket.’”

Wolff, a Navy veteran and daughter of a Vietnam vet, longed to return to school and left the Navy at the right moment in September 2008. The GI Bill soon kicked in and she said she now studies at George Washington University debt-free. Her transition from 15-hour days serving aboard the USS Carl Vinson to the loose schedule of a college student wasn’t difficult.

“Maybe it’s hard for some people to be their own keeper,” Wolff said. “For me, it seems like a
simple thing.”

As veterans ease into the collegiate lifestyle, though, they shed their uniforms. Gibbons-Neff said that he has adapted to school through “practice and repetition.” He’s helping other veterans assimilate too, organizing events on campus to connect civilians and veterans.

Under the shade of blossoming trees on Healy Lawn at Georgetown, veterans and civilians lined up to sign in for a 5-kilometer race that Gibbons-Neff organized. With a mix of Navy, Marine and “Hoya Saxa” T-shirts, the line blurs between civilian and soldier.

For Gibbons-Neff, he sees little difference between himself and other students.

“I’m just a guy who had a different past before school.”

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This project, produced by journalism students at American University, explores the experiences of young veterans as they transition from soldiers to citizens.

Word Clouds From Veteran Survey

What did you miss the most about home?
What did you miss2

Why did you enlist?
Why did you enlist in the military.

From soldier to civilian - what problems did you face?
Challenge of transitioning to civilian life

What difficulties did you face upon returning to college?
Difficulties on returning to college

Word Cloud From Non-Veteran Survey

What challenges do vets face coming home? Non-vets

Top 5 questions veterans told ‘Half the Battle’ they hate being asked:

- Did you kill anyone?
- Do you have PTSD?
- Did you see anybody die?

- Did you get shot at?

- Was it hot?

SOC Logo long