A big reason for enlisting in the military is the help veterans get in paying for college once their tours have ended. Yet those who do make the transition from military to college often find their new situation to be full of uncertainty — both bureaucratic and personal.
"Writing papers still sucks, even after four years in the Marines," says former Sergeant Graham Platner, now a 24-year-old freshman at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "But at the same time, it is a new experience, and for me, I gave up a lot to come here, so I'm going to enjoy it." (Check out Tim Kash's blog about spending time with Platner.)
Despite braving firefights and avoiding IEDs overseas, veterans often find they need help navigating the daily tasks of college life, from signing up for classes to finding a place to live.
"I didn't quite understand the lingo of school, because it's all credits and hours and all that sort of stuff," says Wade Spann, a former Marine who is now an international-affairs major at George Washington. "I had a girl sign up all my classes for me the first semester. She's like, 'Dude, you're taking these classes,' and I'm like, 'Thank you!' "
(Learn about other veterans' issues and sign the petition for BRAVE, the Bill of Rights for American Veterans, here.)
According to the Veterans Benefits Administration, there are currently 297,000 veterans enrolled in some sort of higher education, and they often find the people sitting next to them in class come from very different backgrounds and perspectives than their own.
"They're thinking, 'Oh my God, I have to write this huge paper.' They're freaking out about it," said Josh McCoy, a former Marine who was involuntarily called back into the military after his initial release. "I'm like, 'Well, OK, I'm going to have to stay up and write a paper.' It's not the end of the world. I've dealt with so much more than this before."
"I don't feel as though I have much common ground [with the other freshmen]," Platner said. "And I don't feel as though my fellow students feel they have much common ground with me. I'm older. I've been through a lot more. I'm not here for the social thing or to have fun: I'm here for the education."
If a school doesn't have an established system for dealing with veterans, the former enlisted men and women can also find it tricky to deal with the administration. Some schools require all freshmen to live on campus in dorms, a concept that doesn't appeal to veterans in their mid-20s who have already spent years in tight quarters.
To help navigate these tricky waters, veterans' organizations have begun popping up on campuses all over the country. Platner, Spann and McCoy are all members of the newly formed George Washington University Veterans, a group established earlier this semester to help foster communication between the former troops and their civilian classmates, as well as the university administration.
At their first public event earlier this month, the group held an "Ask a Vet" panel at the school's international-relations building. When a student asked about the transition from military to civilian life, the five panelists were eager to share their different perspectives.
"There were times when I kind of felt isolated," said Kevin Blanchard, who lost a leg as a combat engineer in the Marines Corps. "I felt like everything was kind of black, like I was in a hole, and I was constantly trying to dig out of it. But from three years ago to now, all of life looks different. The color of these lights, the smile on you guys' faces, it all looks a little bit different."
Spann, an international-affairs major, told the audience that two of his friends from his platoon killed themselves this past August.
"For them to go down that path, there was things we could have done to stop it," he said. "When you get out, you don't have that safety net you had in the Marine Corps, where I could turn to my buddy in the platoon and say, 'Hey, buddy, remember that ... ,' and sort of talk it through."
A note on the program for the event stated that the veterans reserved the right "not to answer a question that is offensive or inappropriate for this venue," reminding everyone that in an environment where free speech is encouraged, not everyone is going to be supportive. Yet the panelists seemed pleased with the questions they received at their first forum.
"These are our voters, and these are our future leaders of our country," said Brian Hawthorne, a former combat medic in the Army. "Even if this is their only exposure to the military, hopefully it's a positive one that they can think back before they vote or before they decide in Congress one day to send troops down range."
Platner said that in the few weeks he's been at George Washington, he's had no negative reactions to his participation in a controversial war. "Most people are either indifferent or they thank me," he said.
What question is most often asked by his fellow students? "There is the question," he said, referring to his classmates' curiosity about taking someone's life. His response? "I just say I'm not even going to go down that road."
The veterans will readily discuss their friends who did not make it back from war. They say it increases the drive they have to succeed as students. "I can't screw this up," Platner said. "I think there's an awesome responsibility resting on my shoulders while I'm here, because not a lot of guys have the opportunity to come do this. I lucked out."
"I want to be successful so I can change things," Spann said. "I want to be successful so they say, 'Hey, look at this guy.' I don't want the war to define me, as that's all I did in my life."
Don't miss "A Night for Vets: An MTV Concert for the BRAVE," presented by MTV's Choose or Lose campaign and CNN to support veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The show will feature performances by 50 Cent, Ludacris, Kanye West, Hinder, Saving Abel and more and airs Friday at 8 p.m. ET on MTV.