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'The bigger shock was getting out': Veterans overcoming obstacles, finding success at UNL
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VETERANS DAY

'The bigger shock was getting out': Veterans overcoming obstacles, finding success at UNL

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Years before he walked across the Bridgeport High School stage to accept his diploma, Jacob Post decided he would follow his oldest brother into the Marine Corps.

“It was kind of like a call I had to answer, to give thanks for a blessed life and uphold the family tradition,” said Post, who traces his military heritage back to the Union Army during the Civil War.

After graduating from Millard South High School and completing a few courses at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Marlana Stephens also decided to become a Marine.

“I was an athlete in high school, I thought it was the most challenging branch of the service, and I wanted to feel like I was a part of the team and be a part of something bigger than myself,” she said.

As Post's and Stephens’ high school friends were getting the traditional college experience, or entering the workforce, they had given their lives to the Corps.

Post circled the globe as an amphibious assault vehicle operator with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, deploying for training missions in Japan, Malaysia, Kuwait and Bahrain.

For his four years, Post and the 3rd Amphibious Assault Battalion, Alpha Company, 2nd Platoon, spent time in a dozen countries and worked alongside a handful of foreign militaries, conducting foot patrols in 130-degree temperatures in the Persian Gulf, or training the Korean military to sweep through urban environments building by building.

Stephens stayed stateside where she took part as a diesel mechanic in the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force, the U.S. Department of Defense’s experiment to put men and women into the same units in a mock deployment scenario.

It was a historic mission in the history of the American military and a way to show other women wishing to serve their country that they could also find a place in the Marines, she said.

But when their respective enlistments were up, both Post and Stephens found themselves in the same situations tens of thousands of other servicemen and women do every year — reckoning with what comes next.

The transition out

Post decided to return to his family’s ranch in the Panhandle when he separated from the Corps in 2015. The transition from Marine to civilian was far tougher than that of civilian to Marine, he said.

“It was a little bit of a change going from being a civilian high schooler into the service,” he said. “You get homesick and sometimes you say ‘I don’t want to be here,’ but you have friends — your battle buddies — there alongside you from Day 1 and that’s what gets you through.

“The bigger shock was getting out and coming back,” Post added.

If being a Marine means submitting the individual will to the objective of the platoon, leaving that structure can foster insecurity and feelings of being lost or alone, he said.

That was magnified when he enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a 23-year-old freshman, using Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to pay tuition and for books and living expenses.

Sitting in class with students four and five years his junior, Post said he often felt awkward, like an outsider, and sometimes ostracized as a non-traditional student, even among friends and family members from his hometown also enrolled at UNL.

“I didn’t know who to talk to, didn’t know how class worked or how to study, and it had been some time since I had been in a school setting,” he said.

Like many of his fellow Marines, he said he forgot how to ask for help.

For Stephens, who initially signed up to be a Marine reservist but ultimately spent much of her tenure on active duty, getting out of the Marines meant no longer trying to juggle two different lives.

“Going back and forth between active duty and the reserves, you never really feel like you’re making serious headway on anything,” she said. “When you’re not doing it, you’re missing what you experienced on active duty, but when you’re there you have to put your life on the back burner.”

At one point during her six and a half years in the Marines, Stephens said she enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Omaha as a second-semester freshmen only to leave the university after transferring to a Texas unit.

She started taking classes at Blinn College in Texas, a junior college, but ran into the same anxieties and frustration many veterans feel when trying to access the educational benefits afforded to service members.

“There’s a lot of different pieces to that puzzle and if you don’t match them up right away, things just don’t happen,” Stephens said. “They expect you to know it, and there just is not any point that military service members are told the details of those things.”

Eventually, Stephens moved back to Nebraska with her fiancé, also a Marine, both determined to finally finish that elusive degree at UNL.

'A one-stop shop'

Four years ago, at about the same time Post arrived as an unsure non-traditional student, UNL opened its Military and Veterans Success Center, a place for the roughly 1,500 “military-connected students” on a campus of 25,000 to ask questions and access services.

It’s a service more colleges and universities across the country are offering as the number of current and former military servicemen and women are seeking postsecondary education using federal benefits.

More than 5,800 students in Nebraska accessed $29.7 million through the Post-9/11 GI Bill and other Defense Department funds for higher education at public and private universities, community colleges and for-profit schools in 2017-18.

The number of students using military benefits is down from nearly 6,700 five years ago, however, while the funding accessed by students has remained relatively steady over time.

The vast majority of the military-connected students at UNL are the dependents of active duty or other military, but the center serves roughly 300 student veterans, 144 active duty military, 58 reservists and 68 members of the Nebraska National Guard.

Joe Brownell, an Air Force veteran now in his second year as director of the UNL center, said the “one-stop shop” seeks to aid service members as they transition back into civilian life, navigate the bureaucracy of the educational benefits, locate academic tutors, counselors and other support services they may need.

It also provides career counseling and works to educate faculty and staff on the challenges student veterans and other military-connected students face in pursuing their educational goals, Brownell said.

Post said when he finally made a connection at the center, his trajectory as a college student was changed for the better. He received life and career coaching, tips for better study habits, and — perhaps most meaningful — a place to connect with others who could understand his experiences.

And for the first time in a long time, Post said he learned to ask for help.

“In the Marines, every single day you have your best friends to your left and right all the time, but going from that to having nobody is like getting punched in the chest,” he said.

At the Military and Veterans Success Center, Post said he found a “like-minded environment for people to feel safe and welcome."

“Sure, we’re all different branches and lengths of service, but it’s one team, one fight that helps people come together," he said.

Brownell said once veterans find UNL’s Military and Veterans Success Center, they are able to plug into the services they need, but added it can be difficult for many to get to that point after years of being absorbed in the military ethos of helping themselves.

“Each individual is different, and they all have their own timeline,” Brownell said. “We don’t know exactly what they went through, but we do know each person is different in how they deal with that experience and how much support they got in the military before coming to us.”

Constant communication is key, he added. The center regularly sends out newsletters and social media blasts about programs and services.

“That’s my challenge, continuing to communicate with them so when they are ready to take advantage of services that they know we’re here,” Brownell said.

Stephens said following the anxiety-ridden experiences of trying to access benefits for service members while living in Texas, she was pleasantly surprised when an admissions counselor at UNL immediately directed her to the Military and Veterans Success Center.

Deb Quinn, a certified Department of Veterans Affairs official who works in the office, told Stephens exactly what she needed to do, how to do it and asked how the university could help further, she said.

“In the past, I didn’t have this office and things didn’t go well,” Stephens said. “But if I have people who are supposed to be dedicated solely to doing this, I might as well pick their brain and make sure I have all of my ducks in a row.”

Fulfilling the mission

As he eyes graduation next spring with a degree in child, youth and family studies and a minor in education, Post said his time in the military led him to be a successful college student.

At the age of 18, Post said he wasn’t ready for the rigors and freedom that come with being a college student. But as a 27-year-old college senior and Marine Corps veteran, Post says his experiences have helped shape his college career for the better and positioned him to succeed afterward.

He’s helped grow the Student Veteran Organization at UNL, become a before- and after-school supervisor at Kooser Elementary, and in a few weeks will participate in the annual Ruck March, a joint effort with student veterans at the University of Iowa to draw attention to veterans issues.

Post credits the services UNL has made available to veterans for helping him get to where he is today.

“There was a huge learning curve for me and for many other veterans, too,” he said. “You have to relearn how to learn after doing things a specific way for so long. You have to completely adapt to a whole other lifestyle.”

Stephens, who will graduate in December with a degree in environmental science, said being a veteran non-traditional student on a campus dominated by 18- to 22-year-olds can be jarring.

“Sometimes, it’s refreshing because you get tuned up on all of the slang and new things that are of interest,” she said. “At the same time, it’s difficult, too. You sit there and you’re an adult worried about bills and living off campus and all that stuff while somebody next to you is talking about prom last year.

“It’s not something to hold against anybody, but you just feel a little bit disconnected and like you’re playing catch up,” she added. On a study abroad trip over the summer, one student asked Stephens, 26, if she was a teacher.

No, she replied, a student just like them.

The veterans’ center on campus — which Stephens likened to a United Service Organization lounge in an airport — has given her a place to connect to others who have similar experiences, both in the service and on campus.

“You can get lost in a lot of the ‘woulda, coulda, shouldas,’ but at the end of the day, the experiences I had in the Marine Corps made me who I am today,” she said, “and I wouldn’t take that back for anything.”

Stories of honor: Nebraska veterans

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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