Lonely Men on Campus: Student Veterans Struggle to Fit In

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After months or years in far-off war zones, former soldiers are facing a new kind of isolation at college.

vets-wide.jpgAlex Horton

Josh Martell doesn't look like the popular kid anymore. His thick neck protrudes from a muscular body that once led the Preble Hornets of Green Bay to consecutive all-conference football titles. Tattoos now crawl up and down his arms; a collection of luck-themed designs pay tribute to a Las Vegas jaunt, where he won over $3,000 on a single bet at the blackjack table. The winning hand is etched on his right forearm opposite the "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign on his left.

It might have been luck that saved Martell during a patrol in Baquba, Iraq, a lush, rural insurgent paradise nestled in a river valley 40 miles northeast of Baghdad. A bomb targeting foot soldiers detonated near him during the bloody summer of 2007, when American casualties reached an all-time high. He was knocked unconscious from the blast but didn't suffer injuries beyond a concussion. Lucky.

"Who would want to be my friend?"

Martell spent just over three years in the Army, including a 15-month tour in Iraq as an infantryman. Now 27, he has since left the military, and his second daughter was born earlier this year. He juggles his welding job and family with a full load of courses at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he majors in communications.

He doesn't talk about his encounter with a jury-rigged bomb -- or any war stories for that matter -- with his classmates. Most of them were worrying about prom dates and acne while Josh trudged through open sewers, took sniper fire, and saw his fellow soldiers mangled and killed. He definitely doesn't mention the time four roadside bombs detonated next to his Stryker assault vehicle in rapid succession, where each explosion felt closer to the one that would tear open the steel underbelly like a sardine can and vaporize the men inside.

Universities have long been a place where young people develop a purpose in life. But for older students with wartime experience, those lessons have already been learned.

But it's not just the discussion of war he omits from other students. He has quarantined himself almost entirely. He shows up for class, takes notes, and leaves, most of the time without communicating with students or professors. In the first three months of his first semester at UW-GB, he never said more than a few words to anyone. "I'm almost 10 years older than everyone. I'm not a college kid partying on the weekends. Who would want to be my friend?" he told me over the phone as his own kids played in the living room.

His reclusive behavior on campus betrays the man who was once my roommate in a dilapidated Korean War-era barracks at Ft. Lewis, since renamed Joint Base Lewis-McCord, a verdant mega base that sprawls along Interstate 5 near Tacoma, Washington. His backstory seemed to be assembled from cliché high school movie plots: the big man on campus, the Type-A jock all the girls gravitated towards. Since then, the King of Preble High has transformed into an introvert, and his story is remarkably similar to those of other war veterans I spoke to for this story.

The challenge of societal reintegration after war has mystified soldiers throughout recorded history. The saying "War changes people" is a profound understatement of the issue. It also displaces the sense of belonging to any number of groups, from peers to the countrymen who stayed behind. When Odysseus returned home after 20 tumultuous years of battle and incredible journeys, a sense of unfamiliarity overtook him: "But now brilliant Odysseus awoke from sleep in his own fatherland, and he did not know it, having been long away."

The foreign shore of Homer's tale has become the college campus. Tens of thousands of troops rotate out of the service every year, and many head straight to school, thanks to federal education benefits for veterans. More than 700,000 veterans and family members have used the Post-9/11 GI Bill since its inception in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The benefit pays in-state tuition and fees, a living stipend, and cash for textbooks.

An unknown but likely majority of these students today have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. But for veterans who may have been out of school for years -- or are fresh out of the military -- universities are the cleavage between two groups: their own peers, who went to college or found jobs after high school, and their new classmates, who are often many years younger and increasingly isolated from military culture.

"Dare to be different"

Some veterans choose to blend in, but that's impossible for Jason Mendieta. At 6'2" and 300 pounds, he looks more like a misplaced bouncer than an undergrad student at Redlands University, a private school an hour's drive east from Los Angeles. His thick black hair and Nicaraguan descent challenge the stereotypical image of a combat soldier as a redneck with a southern drawl. Even his wartime injuries won't give him away. Jason, 28, earned a Purple Heart during his first tour after shrapnel from an explosion burrowed into the left side of his body. The scars aren't visible anymore, and neither are the tiny bits of shrapnel still embedded in his skin.

The grueling physical punishment of house-to-house guerilla warfare prepared him for a slot on the Redlands football team as an offensive lineman. Athletes and commentators have been known to make crude associations between football and war; enormous men shove each other in the trenches; the quarterback leads the air attack; defensive blitzes are a nod to Hitler's 1939 offensive. The vernacular even bleeds into merchandising. Ads for Nike's Pro Combat gear line show sinewy players under custom pads as if they were the chainmail of our day. Mendieta -- a professional of actual combat -- sees more subtle associations between the military and football.

"Football held it together for me. There was a lot of teamwork, a lot of camaraderie," he said. "It was really helpful." The discipline of the sport helped Mendieta stay focused on his studies in the field of international relations. School was new and exciting as he absorbed economics and posted about realist theory on his Facebook page. But Mendieta's savings from his two deployments dried up, and he needed an income to support himself through school. He hung up his cleats to work the night shift at UPS, a decision Mendieta says his privileged classmates likely won't face during their studies.

No longer part of the close-knit team, Mendieta's only social outlet melted away, and with it, interest and motivation in his schoolwork. He now struggles to maintain a crowded schedule on an average of four hours of sleep a night. Like Martell, Mendieta hasn't made any lasting friends. He stays on campus long enough to attend class, then he promptly leaves, walking past banners and posters carrying the school slogan: "Dare to be Different."

Universities have long been a place where young people develop an identity, or a purpose in life. Students load up on debt as they find out who they are and what they can achieve. But for older students with wartime experience, those lessons have already been learned amid a procession of struggle and sacrifice that's impossible to reproduce in a classroom. A personality molded in the crucible of war doesn't easily bend to the institutional tenets that universities push in glossy brochures. That leaves student veterans not only detached from other classmates, but from the schools their classmates take pride in attending.

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Alex Horton served for 15 months as an infantryman in Iraq.

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