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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Eagle

Students balance military service and education

ROTC programs and military recruiters attract students to sign up for armed services

More than five percent of U.S. university graduates in 2004 were either veterans, on active duty or in the reserves of the U.S. military, according to statistics from the Department of Education.

These students' experiences - from combat zones to training exercises - set them apart from their university peers in the life skills they have, the adjustment to college they make and in the way they view the world.

Among AU students are combat veterans from Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan, as well as ROTC members and reservists that balance writing papers with jumping out of airplanes during weekend trainings.

"I have drills - they're called Battle Assemblies now - one weekend a month," said Jennifer Baker, a 22-year-old civil affairs specialist in the Army reserve.

Besides making airplane jumps, training topics include general physical fitness, driving military vehicles, using weaponry, completing medical tasks and learning languages, according to Baker. The weekend sessions are great for both personal and professional development, but they make it hard to get schoolwork done, she said.

Baker put her academic career at AU on hold to serve in Afghanistan from September 2004 to July 2005. Some students begin their full-time military commitments after graduating, while others come to AU already having years of military experience.

The reactions students in the military receive from AU's politically active and diverse campus has been mixed.

"Some people get that shocked, 'you monster,' sort of look, but that's the minority," said 26-year-old Minneapolis native Ryan Else, a junior in the School of International Service. "Most just want to know what it was like or just don't care."

Else, who said a couple people have even thanked him for serving, is an infantry sergeant in the Army National Guard and a veteran of military operations in Kosovo.

As of March 3, 272 Americans had died in military operations focused on Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense. Several of those casualties came just last month, and the U.S.-led coalition forces suffered another casualty on March 4.

"I feel it's going to become our generation's Korean War," Baker said. "Forgotten."

Following the examples of her grandfather and uncle, veterans of World War II and the Vietnam War, respectively, Baker enlisted her senior year of high school.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 gave the military the same access to high school students that college and job recruiters receive. Schools must also give the military students' contact information unless parents request otherwise.

Military recruiters often "focus on the positive sides ... of military service that the students don't get exposed to 24/7 on TV," Lt. Col. Dan Daoust said on the "News Hour with Jim Lehrer."

"I joined because I wanted to serve my country and have a more exciting experience than college," Else said.

While service men and women are eligible for scholarships, loan repayments and other compensation for higher education, ROTC leader Maj. Martin Klein said his program is not about incentives.

"78 percent of those in the Army ROTC will find themselves in Iraq or Afghanistan," Klein said. "We are very straightforward in presenting these facts and realities."

AU has 35 students participating in Klein's Army ROTC program based at Georgetown University. Participants in the Army ROTC graduate as military officers. Enrollment in Klein's battalion has decreased, he told The Washington Post, but those who do enlist are more dedicated.

Of the 68,000 officers on active duty, 56 percent are ROTC graduates, according to Army statistics.

"It's not a place for selfishness, or just using it to pay your tuition," Baker said of enlisting in the military. "I had to shed that, 'I'm only here for the college money' attitude quickly."

The benefits of being in the service may go beyond a monthly stipend or a scholarship, augmenting student life both inside and outside the classroom.

Students coming from the military have many life skills that traditional students do not, according to Tiffany Sanchez, director of new student programs at AU.

"They have already dealt with separation from family, money and time management, and living in a diverse community," she said.

As an SIS student, Else said his background helps him "keep perspective on how the theories of international relations really affect people's lives." At the same time, having to be a leader under pressure of his diverse Army unit changed Else's outlook on life, he said.

"I've worked with a lot of great soldiers of very differing personalities," he said. "I've seen how destructive an inflexible mind can be."

As Else and Baker continue as AU students, the military presence in Iraq continues - a fact that has Else said has him concerned. The unit he served with in Kosovo is entering Iraq this month.

"Getting involved in the war in Iraq was a bad move to begin with," he said, "but now we must see it through to an acceptable end."

ROTC leader Klein echoed Else's concern.

"No one is more opposed to war than a military officer," Klein said. "We are the ones who have to send the cadets into a war zone."

Eagle Contributing Writers Ally Desrochers and Rachel Pleatman contributed to this article.

Editor's note: For more on students who balance college with military service, read the accompanying profile of Jennifer Baker by Elyse Franko.

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