Donny Jones sat in his first University of South Florida business ethics class, watching 19- and 20-year-olds raise their hands to discuss the meaning of life. One quoted Aristotle; another, Plato.
All Jones could think about was that day in the Humvee, when the ground blew up and the guy next to him died.
I'm in the wrong class, thought Jones, 33. I can't relate to this.
For someone who recently left the military, starting college after years in the service feels like another foreign battlefield — except without training or anybody to tell you what to do. That experience is the motivation behind another of Jones' classes this semester:
In this class, Jones is surrounded by people just like him, ages ranging from 22 to late 50s. They've all served in the military. They understand why Jones needs structure, and why he doesn't like to tell war stories.
And they never ask, "So, did you kill anybody?"
• • •
USF has more military students now than ever — about 1,600 at last count, double what the school had in 2008. Officials attribute a lot of that growth to the post-Sept. 11 GI Bill, which helps with tuition, housing and books. But if you ask Larry Braue, director of the Office of Veteran Services that was created last year, it also has a lot to do with USF.
It's one of the few schools in the country with a standalone veterans department. It's one of five universities that partner with the Pat Tillman veteran scholarship foundation, named for the NFL player who died while serving in Afghanistan. And, last year, USF was ranked No. 8 out of more than 4,000 schools in Military Times EDGE magazine's list of "Best for Vets."
But as welcoming as USF is to its veterans, Braue, with 27 years in the Army, noticed many were having trouble adjusting.
They used military lingo. They didn't branch out, didn't understand other students' carefree apathy. They didn't ask for help. They didn't want to look weak.
It may seem like it should be easy — a new life without anybody shouting or shooting at them, but Braue says the transition can be overwhelming.
"A lot of them just left combat … and then they get to class and some professor is droning on about Greek mythology," said Braue. "It can be frustrating."
Braue began his class last year to reach them in their language. He explained that college is like a mission. The target: a degree.
Veterans learn how to access government benefits, get involved on campus and search for a job. One week they write resumes, translating military accomplishments into marketable skills (leadership, attention to detail, tenacity). Another week, they practice interviews.
Braue has success stories — lots of the students make A's and graduate and get jobs.
And then there are the more dramatic examples, like a student so overwhelmed with stress that he told Braue he was thinking about ending his own life. A few semesters later, after plenty of extra attention, that student excelled in classes and earned a scholarship, Braue said.
He'll graduate in two years.
• • •
Jones, the soldier in the classroom, enlisted in the Army straight out of high school in 1997. His friends knew exactly what they wanted to do with their lives — doctor, lawyer, teacher. But this 17-year-old Brandon kid had no clue. The military, he thought, would help him figure it out.
"We left to go to Iraq in April 2003," Jones said. "And then … I'm sorry. I just don't know what to say."
Jones spent 13 months there, patrolling Kirkuk and Tikrit, north of Baghdad, raiding villages, looking for anybody connected to Saddam Hussein. He doesn't like to talk about it, but, of course, people ask.
They imagine war was like a video game, or like fight scenes on TV. "When you don't want to talk about it," Jones said, "they don't understand why."
That day in the Humvee, Jones and his unit had just picked up armor to protect the vehicle from roadside bombs. On the way back to base to install it, with the gear packed around Jones's seat, they hit one of those bombs.
Jones was shielded. The soldier next to him was not. He was killed. What if I was sitting in his seat, Jones still thinks, and he was sitting in mine?
And, now, he's on a campus with kids on skateboards and who have no idea. It feels weird.
Except when he's in the veterans' class.
• • •
Monday morning, 15 or so students sit at attention in their chairs.
They're facing computers, but no one sneaks away to Facebook. Nobody is texting. The lecturer asks a question, and somebody answers "Yes, sir."
Today, they're learning about USF's library and how to sign up for tutoring. Lots of people get help with their classes, the instructor says. It's no big deal.
They talk about a project coming up, where they'll plan their own student organizations and a test to determine career paths.
A man who spent eight years in the Coast Guard on search-and-rescue missions is hoping to get a job in information systems management. A Navy sailor who was medically discharged after a car accident says he wants to be a physical therapist.
Jones sits near the back, next to a guy in fatigues. It sounds strange, but at times he feels like putting his own gear back on.
He still wakes up every morning before 7, pulls the bed sheets tight and shaves his face. His wife calls him a drill sergeant.
As much as he loves her, she doesn't get it.
The people in this room do.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.