Non-traditional students are common in colleges across the United States. Some of these students have come from the military and are trying to receive their degrees to move on to the next chapter of their lives.
Over 1 million veterans are using their Government Issued bill to attend college after their service, but only 15 percent of these veterans are traditionally aged college students between the ages of 18 and 24, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Fort Lewis College is home to at least 150 of these non-traditional students working to continue their education, Paul Flores, president of the Veterans Club said.
Flores was wounded in combat while deployed to Iraq with the Army, he said.
He had anticipated staying in the military and making it a career, but that all changed when he was hit with debris from a grenade, he said.
“When I got out, I really had to decide what I wanted to do for myself, because all I really wanted to be was a paratrooper,” he said. “I expected to live the next 20 years of my life jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. But in a split second, everything can change.”
Flores moved back to the Pima reservation where he was from, and he became a council member for his tribe and was in charge of Veterans Affairs, law enforcement, and congressional liaison for two years, he said.
After committing to go to Georgetown University to study political science, Flores visited his cousin who attended FLC for spring break, he said. After seeing the campus, he immediately fell in love and changed his plans.
“The serenity, the calmness, the environment and outdoorsiness,” Flores said. “It helped me heal, not just physically but emotionally. It was a place for me to reflect on where I had been, where I was going and what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
Andrew Fillmore served in the Marine Corps as an infantryman, while Jake Yost served in the Navy as a hospital corpsman working for the Marine Corps.
Fillmore joined when he was 17, he said.
“My dad did 20 years in the Air Force, and I always wanted to be in the military. It was between the Army or the Marine Corps, and I wanted to be the best, so I joined the Marine Corps as infantry,” Fillmore said with a laugh. “I enjoyed the hell out of it.”
Yost spent three years between FLC and Metro State before deciding to join, he said.
“I joined because I needed direction and it sounded intriguing when they told me they would pay for my school and send me around the world and I thought ‘all right, cool’,” Yost said.
One of the biggest issues the three have faced in school as a non-traditional students has been how students address them and the questions they ask.
“We come with a stigma, and its hard because people think that they’re going to trigger us,” Flores said. “A lot of times it’s not really that. We’re just trying to move on with our lives and open a new chapter.”
Yost agreed that other students ask some uncomfortable questions about his military past.
“I’ve had one or two people come up and ask ‘Have you ever had to kill somebody?’,” Yost said.
Fillmore added that he had been asked a question like that in his history class.
“I was infantry, and I showed them my tattoo,” he said. “‘What do the red dots mean?’ Well, do you really want to know what they mean? Take a guess.”
Fillmore misses the community he left in the military and had a hard time transitioning to school where it is less structured and not as close, he said.
“The brotherhood I had in the Marine Corps was like nothing I’ve ever had anywhere else,” Fillmore said. “It was really hard coming from a group like that then bouncing around trying to figure out what I want to do. I was an infantryman. I can shoot a rifle pretty good, and I can not get shot pretty good. There’s not many jobs on the market like that.”
The Veterans Club on campus serves as this brotherhood for the vets at FLC, Flores said.
“The Veterans Club was the group that saved me from being lost,” Fillmore said. “Granted we’re all different branches, but it’s a brotherhood in a way. We all did the same thing, and we all have the same mindset.”
All three found the Veterans Club, and it served as a sanctuary for them, they said.
“The branches all intersect,” Flores said. “They may not be the exact same thing, but when the innuendo and the jokes start flying, it gets past none of us. Giving each other a hard time is how we decompress. In a high stress environment, humor is the best way to get past it and keep going. That’s how we know to get through stressful situations rather than being somber because, no matter what, you still have a job to do, and it isn’t going to stop.”