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Ode to My Captain and The New GI Bill

I’m glad we have a new GI Bill, one that pledges to pay educational expenses for military personnel.  While I dread April 15th and my tax bill as much as the next person, I’m genuinely happy that our government offers at least some recompense to the men and women who stand in harm’s way on behalf of the rest of us.

But sometimes it can be darned complicated to help returning soldiers find the right academic program.  While things have improved since the passage of the new GI Bill, the process of getting two of the goofiest bureaucracies on the planet (the military and academe) to communicate is no easy feat.

Last spring I received a panicky phone call from a Captain in the US Army.  He wanted to attend graduate school, and his commanding officers had given him only a few weeks to find an appropriate program and get admitted.

As I told him, I was really honored to be able to help him.  I have very little day-to-day contact with military men and women.  I have no family members in the military.  No neighbors whose kids are fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan.  No friends who are engaged in combat.  My Captain became my personal window on the conflict in Iraq.  We talked on the phone nearly every day (there was always some crazy problem to discuss regarding his graduate trajectory), and often our conversations lasted longer than either of us really had time for.  But we developed a bond of sorts.  I came to care about the guy.

My Captain had recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, where he had been a platoon commander in some dangerous situations.  During the course of our work together, he shared stories and photos of the bomb scenes where he had nearly lost his life.  Twice.  Once he approached a IED to within 8 feet when it exploded, knocking him flat–and unconscious–but miraculously unhurt.  Another time, he and his platoon turned a corner just as a car bomb exploded yards away.

Of course, My Captain is certainly not the only soldier to have experienced scary stuff, and he was one of the lucky ones who came back in one piece.  But the stories were much more personal and more vivid for me, and his first person accounts both fascinated and repulsed me.  Here was a guy who actually volunteered to do really terrifying thing on my behalf.  I learned something new every time we spoke.

Anyway, everything about his admissions process was both complicated and rushed.   My Captain was also working full time, and was unable to use the phone during the day.  So I  had to call dozens of grad schools on his behalf to see if we could get some exemptions and some waivers to get him admitted.  Several universities were unwilling to play ball, in part because until recently the military would pay such a meager portion of the tuition bill. But in the end, My Captain was accepted to a competitive graduate program.  He was thrilled.  He started his studies last September.

But, as I learned last week, it was about that time My Captain’s suffering really began.  No, he’s doing just fine in with his studies.  He’s got that bit under control.  He’s smart.  He’s organized.  He’s diligent.

Like so many of his battle-weary colleagues, however, My Captain is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.  His nightmares have intensified.  His feelings well up in him, and they affect his relationships with others.  He is having a harder time completing his school work, so had to take the summer off.  He may have even have to drop out of school in order to enter a special program to help him put his head and heart back together.

As he told me all this over the phone the other day, I was at a loss for what to say.

So I told My Captain that he is a very strong person.  Certainly he is strong to have withstood the tests of war.  But I told him that he is even stronger in his realization that he needs help.  We both talked about how it’s not really in a soldier’s vocabulary to ask for help.  So his ability to come up with the request for assistance is itself a testament to his strength as a person.

I am honored to have served My Captain.  It gives me great pain to know that he continues to suffer from war-related injuries–injuries that are not physical, but mental and emotional.  I cannot begin to understand what he is going through.

The funny thing is that all during our phone conversation the other day, he kept apologizing to me.  He thought that his inability to focus on his graduate studies was somehow a poor reflection on me!  He feels as though he has let me down.  Tears welled up in my eyes My Captain apologized.  Shouldn’t I be the one apologizing to him?

Yes, I’ve read about our current wars.  I studied untold numbers of wars as a graduate student of diplomatic history and international affairs.  I’ve gotten angry with our political leaders.  I’ve written papers and given lectures on conflict theory.  Intellectually, I know that war is ugly.

But now, through my personal and professional relationship with a client, my heart now feels its ugliness.   It is a vicarious feeling, of course.  I cannot begin to relate to horror and fear My Captain has experienced.  Still, as he apologized to me,  I felt his pain flow into my heart over the phone lines.  And I wept.

So what am I, as an educational consultant to do with this pain?  Of course, I will continue to be a resource to My Captain as he continues the healing process, his military career, and eventually returns to graduate school.

But I can do more.  I can militate for more educational support for our active military personnel, as well as for more psychological preparation and treatment for those who will experience the terrors and ghastliness of modern warfare.  Those who put themselves in harms way–who risk getting blown to bits–deserve a free education if they want one, as well as whatever support they need in order to heal.

Further, I will state my belief that our men and women in uniform deserve to have their tuition paid at whatever public or private institution in the US will accept them.   Currently the government limits tuition payments to the cost of a publicly-funded college or university.  I say that if the student can get into Harvard or Yale or Stanford, or if they’d rather attend Carleton or Chapman or Millsaps, then we owe it to these men and women to pursue an education anywhere they are qualified to attend.  Taxpayers made this sort of opportunity for the Greatest Generation after World War II.  Is not this generation also Great?

I am honored to have been able to assist My Captain in my own small way.  And I look forward to serving others who have served me so well.  It’s the least I can do.


Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant

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  1. “Currently the government limits tuition payments to the cost of a publicly-funded college or university. I say that if the student can get into Harvard or Yale or Stanford, or if they’d rather attend Carleton or Chapman or Millsaps, then we owe it to these men and women to pursue an education anywhere they are qualified to attend.”

    Totally agree! Well said.

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