Editor's note: Community Impact Newspaper talked with veterans who made the transition from active duty to student life at Texas State University. Their interviews are condensed below, along with further excerpts from the interview with Jude Prather, Hays County Veterans Services officer. To share your experience, comment on this story or contact Editor Annie Drabicky at firstname.lastname@example.org or 610-1751.
Devon Jachade was a firefighter in the Air Force from 2001–04, then became a contract firefighter for the Army. He was stationed in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Thailand and Kuwait before returning to Texas in 2009.
Jachade took a few classes during his active duty, but said the difference between those courses and more traditional ones was one of the difficulties he faced when he decided to get his degree.
"It's a totally different atmosphere because it's kind of geared toward the military lifestyle. When you come back here and you're around traditional students, it's hard. That was probably the biggest challenge, that along with relatability—other students not being able to understand, not being able to talk about what I'd done or what I'd seen," Jachade said.
He began his classes at San Antonio College, a community college, before transferring to Texas State University, where he recently entered the graduate program in the social work department.
"I transferred from San Antonio College to Texas State, and that was a night-and-day transition. It's just a completely different environment," he said. "In fact, I think it was harder coming here [to Texas State] because you're around the typical 18-year-old right out of high school. A lot of the people at community colleges are older and taking online courses or just taking continuing ed to get a certificate."
Jachade said he chose to get his degree in social work to maintain contact with and to help other veterans. He said the military lifestyle eventually began to make him seek a change in his life.
"It just kind of wore on me, and I was tired of seeing the things I saw. I wanted a change, but I still wanted to be around the military environment, so I chose the social work route in hopes or working with veterans and active military one day," he said.
In particular, one incident in Afghanistan helped solidify his decision.
"I was in Afghanistan for three months at the beginning of '06. We took mortars and RPGs every day. One came close. A friend of mine, they were hit … people got hit. It was bad," he said.
He left Afghanistan after that and worked in Thailand and then Kuwait. It was while he was in Kuwait that he was contacted by his high school girlfriend, Jennifer Rodriguez. The two began communicating regularly and Jachade twice made the 28-hour trip to Tempe, Ariz., to visit her.
The two married in December 2010 and have a 2-year-old son. Jachade said Jennifer's support was key to him finishing his bachelor's degree at Texas State.
"She was the one that always, she stayed in my ear with the education thing. There were about three or four times I talked with my wife and I debated just quitting [and] going back to the fire department. I had this career and it was decent," he said. "Completely changing career fields was a tough choice. In hindsight, I'm glad I did it. Everyone says that. I wanted my son to see me finish. Not that he would remember it, but when he was older he'd hear that story, 'Oh, Dad quit college.'"
Jachade said that in addition to the difficulty relating to some students, he found the general nature of an undergraduate degree challenging.
"The military, they go off this KISS model, and it's basically just: one thing, you learn it and you do it well. A university or higher ed isn't that way. They want you to be knowledgeable across the board. I just wanted to learn my job and move on," he said. "With social work, a large part of [the curriculum] is the diversity and the cultural component, and I'm thinking, 'Come on, I've been around the world and you're teaching me about different customs?' That was hard."
Jachade said his time at Texas State has been smooth, but he did face some challenges with instructors at SAC.
"It was in biology and I submitted something late, I think it was a couple hours late, and he said something about time management and 'when you get into the real world…' I just blew a fuse, thinking, 'Don't talk to me about time management,'" he said. "I have to say, here at Texas State, I've never had a glitch. It's been a smooth ride the whole time. I know it may not be that way for others, but personally I've had a great experience."
Domitilo Ponce was an infantry machine gunner for the Marine Corps in Iraq. After returning home in 2003, he began taking classes at Austin Community College.
Ponce, then 23, had joined the Marine Corps in 1999 and had no prior college experience.
"I went there [ACC] for about a year and a half, and the transitional issues started coming up. It started affecting my grades, I got put on academic probation, dropped out and spent about two to three years transitioning, dealing with the issues, recovering and things like that," Ponce said.
He said the main issues that made it difficult to concentrate were his stress level and his hypervigilance.
"The material was easy because in the Marine Corps, we have a lot of course-type training. We would get evaluated—tests and exams—[and] we were already self-disciplined and we're used to structure. We are able to function independently, knowing when assignments were due, deadlines. All that was real easy.
"What was difficult was dealing with my hypervigilance and my expectations of adults. And then after a while, my mind would start thinking about being over there in Iraq," he said. "Around 2009, I was able to get stable enough to where I could return back to school, finish my associate's [degree] and at the same time transfer to Texas State."
Ponce said his family was instrumental in helping him return to school.
"They were the main ones that got me connected to the VA, and they also provided for me during rough times—material resource, connecting resource," he said. "I've [been] fortunate that all the professors from ACC to Texas State were very accommodating, they were very aware. And I did utilize the Students with Disabilities Office at ACC. They gave them [professors] the heads up on that. That helped me take my tests and other sensitive requirements in a quieter room, a place where I didn't feel rushed or my hypervigilance didn't mess with my focus."
Ponce finished his bachelor's degree in social work from Texas State University in May and has now completed the first semester of his master's degree in social work. He said his ultimate goal is to work for an organization such as the Veterans Affairs Office to help formulate treatments for veterans.
His advice for other veterans considering a return to college is to find and maintain a support system.
"Maintain a peer network, whether it be with the old unit, or find a veterans social group on campus, because it is pretty difficult trying to blend back in with so many different ways seeing things, and [so many] opinionated individuals," he said. "Finding a veterans social group was helpful in helping me integrate into the school system to where I felt like I belonged there, like I wasn't an outcast or an outsider."
San Marcos City Councilman Jude Prather was honorably discharged from the Army in 2005.
"And then three years later, I was involuntarily reactivated, basically got drafted back in. I went with the Pacific Island Territories Reserve Battalion," he said. "We got called up as part of the surge in Iraq, but when we were done, that last mission in Kuwait, it was about five days from taking off the helmet to I'm home in San Marcos.
Prather said he didn't expect the return to school and home to be difficult for him.
"I thought I had a good head on my shoulders. I had a good job before. [I had] a college-educated, supportive wife, saved nearly all my money when I was down there. So when I came back, I thought, 'I'm going to do fairly well,'" he said. "But several months before coming home, while you're still there and you're applying for jobs and you're not hearing anything, that starts to become a concern."
Prather described assisting a veteran recently at the Hays County Veterans Services Office who had been part of the 3/5 Marine Corps Battalion. In summer 2011 in Afghanistan, the battalion saw several dozen of its members killed in action and more than 200 wounded.
“When I saw that on his discharge papers, I knew this guy was kind of in the thick of it in Afghanistan,” Prather said. “He kind of summed it up as, ‘Man, several months ago, you’re in combat, and combat involves killing. Next week, I’m going to school for the first day.’”
“Really wrap your mind around that,” he said. “Most people don’t know people who have killed people. That’s just not a very natural thing. And when you have to come home and live this… “
“When you walk around H-E-B, no one’s knowing that you’re thinking about that time when you were in that firefight. But that’s what you’re thinking. It’s really hard to wrap your head around it,” he said. “It is just a different lifestyle."
Prather said that different lifestyle could be difficult to return to on a personal level, too.
"You come home, your wife’s a soft rose, you know? You can’t bark at her like she’s a soldier," he said. "Because your wife's not like your battle buddies, where things are much more harsh and coarse. Literally, things you touch while you're over there are always hard and metal.
"I thought I [was] pretty-level headed, and it's just now turned around to where I have a stable career … two years ago, it could have been a totally different story," he said.
He said that having been enrolled in college before his active duty made the return to college seem more possible.
"It helped [that] I took two history courses while I was over in Iraq, studying with a glow stick on the hood of my Humvee before missions, as my battle buddies would flick cigarettes and water bottles at me, going, 'Nerd alert.' I was like, 'Guys, guys, I got a final coming up.'
"Coming back home and going, 'I took a class on a damn Humvee hood. I can do it here,'" he said.
Prather said his advice for new student veterans is to try to maintain perspective.
"What I try to teach a lot of the veterans is, you can have the 'woe-is-me' [attitude], or you can say, 'I went and faced probably the most difficult circumstances, and I've come back stronger for it,'" he said.