Here’s something any of you considering the going back to school route should read. It may sound a little like an old man shaking his fist and yelling, get off my lawn! or Back in my day, but it’s not. And even if it was, it would still be true. Mad Duo
The Severest School
by Frank Allen, Breach-Bang-Clear guest contributor
I enlisted in the Army after being rejected from college; my high school grades were terrible. I was embarrassed, yet secretly relieved to not be going to college. I wanted to do pretty much anything other than go back to school. But in boot camp, one of the first pieces of paperwork I was told to fill out would give the Army permission to dock my pay so I could buy into the GI Bill.
Wrong, I thought. I considered denying it. I thought of all the great things 17-year-old dumbass me could do with that extra $1200. My drill sergeants pressured us to just go along, and as usual during that time, I did.
We’re an oddity compared to previous generations, because so few serve these days. When we slip our DD-214s into a manila folder, ink still warm from the printer, and view that military base through the rearview mirror one last time, we return to a land that’s just a little strange. Our war has not been everybody’s war. Many of us enlisted because we wanted to be over there, in the action, when we were still here. We never felt like we belonged here as much as we belonged there. Once we were fighting and maybe making a difference, we hoped to make it back home.
Frank upon his return to his HUMINT team in Afghanistan after mid-tour leave, 2009
But “home” ended up being not quite like we remembered. As much as I hadn’t belonged before, my time overseas meant I belonged even less. While we made our bunks and climbed obstacle courses and assimilated to good military order and discipline, our high school classmates began fitting in here, at home.
Once separated from the service, we felt this intensely during our first job search. The Army taught me I could do anything, but being home showed me I was qualified for nothing.
“Do you have any experience?”
Boy, do I. I’ve already experienced as much or more than I’d expected I would in my whole life. But my would-be boss viewed that experience with an eye of suspicion. How crazy did the war make this one, I imagine them wondering. A veteran’s experience is publicly exalted, but how many privately strike through our names because they suspect we’re damaged?
A leader over there, but unqualified back here. Is that why hiring veterans is considered charitable, because they’re a burden on their company? They look pitifully on us, who stood, answered the call and gave when so many found something else, anything else, to do.
Oh yeah, absolutely. Months and months, rigorous, multi-disciplined, academically challenging, with high attrition, and totally irrelevant to my potential civilian employer’s needs. Particularly for this young enlisted combat arms veteran, the transition to the civilian workforce was a miserable experience that repeatedly hit me over the head with a single echoing message:
I can never be, here, who I was over there.
I felt plenty sorry for myself, but there was more to it than just that. It just seemed wrong, like the world was upside down. I could accept that my service may not have qualified me for some roles, but I could not accept that my service had set me back or was somehow disqualifying. I’d shown before that I could do what others couldn’t or wouldn’t, I’d proven that I was more qualified to do the work, to make decisions.
Thucydides said, “We must remember that one man is much the same as another, and that he is best who is trained in the severest school.”
Hadn’t we attended the severest school? How could I get back that competitive edge, where my underlying advantage would shine through once again?
By embracing their severest school: college.
If the Army taught me nothing else, it taught me to show up at the right place, at the right time, neatly groomed, ready to pay attention and, critically, to do the work. In the Army I learned how to call in medevacs complete with ten-digit coordinates, assess and treat battlefield casualties, use natural point of aim to hit rifle targets hundreds of yards away with my eyes literally closed. And I learned follow-through. My first semester in college I realized: there is not one damn thing taught at any college or university on this planet that any veteran cannot learn.
Frank as a humvee driver on a convoy escort team, Iraq 2005
When our college classmates show up to class in pajamas, with no breakfast and no PT in weeks, we’re neatly dressed, freshly showered, well fed, sitting up front with pen on paper taking notes. When they blow off a paper or forgot we had a quiz or showed up without a pen, we’re pulling ours out of our requisite camouflage backpack. And while they constantly play catchup we jog at a steady pace, with more off time than ever in our adult life.
I stayed well lubricated by local bars, well sexed by local coeds, and had a chance to just stop and think to myself. In college, we beat them at their own game in the arena that matters most in the civilian job market. All my previous “disadvantages” – that I was older, that I was a blank slate, that I concerned myself with intangible virtues of personal conduct that no one else cared about – sent me soaring through college. When a course I needed filled up, the professors bent over backwards to “force” me in, a dependably on-task student who sat in the front row, took notes, and asked questions.
The strangers in this strange land want us to go to school and succeed, too. They pay for us to do so through the GI Bill, one of the single greatest investments this nation has ever made. In uniform, we were the very best stake this country could make, and now out of uniform, it’s ready to train us again for much the same reason – because we’re the ones who get it done. The same men and women who humbled al Qaeda, who bring justice to tyrants and aid to those who need it most, are the ones who will lead this nation through the dark and into the light. This nation appreciates what we did, and the GI Bill is how they welcome us home today.
This past weekend, I donned the ceremonial cap and gown of a college graduate. With it came a hood with colors signifying a master’s degree from the business school. A red, white, and blue honors cord identified me as a US military veteran, and there were many such red, white, and blue cords around me. We were lauded as we walked to our seats. Speeches were given and fireworks launched as we cheered and were applauded. My wife and I now carefully consider solicitations of employment from companies large and small.
I’ve been home from my last deployment for nearly eight years now and out of uniform nearly three years, and there were bands and the embrace of loved ones back then. But it was this weekend that I was welcomed home by the nation I served, this weekend that I earned my way into the society that had felt so strange before. I’d feared that the severest school had made me so different I’d never be happy as a civilian again, that I would have to let go of the identity the military gave me in order to succeed at home.
But I didn’t have to stop being the Soldier I had been for years. I just had to graduate.
– Frank Allen
Mad Duo, Breach-Bang& CLEAR!
Emergency: Activate firefly, deploy green (or brown) star cluster, get your wank sock out of your ruck and stand by ’til we come get you.
About the Author: Frank Allen, seen here on a mission in Afghanistan, served as a tanker in the 2nd Infantry Division before leaving active duty and joining the Texas Army National Guard. As a Guardsman he served on a convoy escort team in Iraq and on a HUMINT team in Afghanistan. After his second deployment he eventually got out of the military, was awarded a Bachelor’s degree in history from Texas A&M University, and recently received his Master’s of Business Administration from the University of Texas. Frank was one of Mad Duo Chris Hernandez’s soldiers for almost a decade, but has mostly recovered his sanity. He lives with his wife and son Audie (yep, named for Audie Murphy) in the Dallas area.