May 14, 2015
We called it Combat Outpost 569, a bare patrol base in Iraq’s Anbar Province, but it was really home for my Marine infantry unit. The outpost had what you’d expect: stockpiles of ammunition, food rations and torn magazines from back home.
One thing stuck out, though: a math book to practice algebra between missions.
I was eager to begin a new life as a student after four years and three deployments. My buddies and I spoke eagerly about plans for our education at COP 569, and how school would be a welcome change after spending our early twenties at war.
I enrolled at Santa Monica College in spring 2008 and signed up for 18 units. Linda Sinclair, the veterans counselor on staff, warned me that I might overburden myself, and that it might be wise to consider a lighter course load while I readjusted to civilian life.
I laughed off her warnings and assured her that a hard-charging Marine like me could easily handle a few college classes.
Within a week, Ms. Sinclair’s words were echoing in my ear. I found myself overwhelmed by the throngs of students moving about the campus. I also found myself irrationally angry at my fellow students for perceived disrespect, like talking in class, arriving late.
I skipped classes, with these slights as an excuse to avoid fellow students. By the time the semester ended, I had failed one course and withdrawn from two others. I found myself in Ms. Sinclair’s office at the end of the semester sobbing and disappointed in myself.
Ms. Sinclair reassured me that I could correct my path. She also connected me with resources, like the post-deployment program at the local VA. But I failed to follow up.
Within a year, I was divorced and unemployed. I struggled to reconcile the fact that as a Marine, I had led patrols and was given great responsibility, but I could not even finish a full semester. The dream born at COP 569 would have to wait a while longer.
I began to realize that I had never made a connection to the campus or to any of my fellow students. I would arrive on campus with my earbuds in my ears for the sole purpose of avoiding contact or conversation with other students. I didn’t know other students well enough to study with them or ask for help if I missed class. I let my discomfort prevent me from utilizing all of the resources that were available to me.
Luckily I found a way to focus on success. Five years ago, I started work at the Hollywood Veteran Center, where I served fellow veterans by guiding them to resources. More importantly, I was a peer who would listen and understand their challenges.
I met a veteran and social worker named Jim Zenner. Mr. Zenner encouraged me to return to my studies so that I could better serve my fellow veterans when it was my turn to be the strength of others.
Mr. Zenner put me on a glide path by stressing three components to my education.
First, he suggested I connect with other students in a meaningful way. I built bonds and friendships with student veterans, and after a while, I looked forward to school knowing that I would get some good “smoking and joking” time with my vet buddies after class. We’d often talk for hours about how far we’ve come, and how far we’d go, just like at COP 569. But I also made an effort to befriend nonveterans so I could be comfortable with anyone I sat next to in class.
Second, there are resources for the taking, Mr. Zenner explained, that I could utilize when I needed help. I took advantage of the office of student services and the disability resource center, which helped me focus on my studies.
Lastly, I had to work on myself. Luckily I had my newborn son to motivate me. He taught me that life happens even when you’re in school, so not achieving perfection in everything was not the end of the world.
With these tools in hand, I was ready to move on to a four-year school, and Arizona State University accepted me the following January to finish my degree. I signed up for a huge course load and felt confident I had the tools to finish the objective. The resources available helped strengthen my studies, and I found refuge with other student veterans when it got challenging.
When I began practicing self-care, connected to resources and my classmates, life got easier. Negative self-talk became transformed into quiet affirmations whispered during exams. Withdrawals and failing grades turned into As.
I worked through seven years of doubt and hardship, and it paid off–I graduated this week with honors with a degree in public policy.
Now I plan to attend graduate school and earn my master’s degree in public administration. And I can make it happen now that I have a plan that works.
I don’t know if Combat Outpost 569 is still around, but education and successful lives after the war are no longer a distant dream. We’re living it now.
Marlowe Dickerson is a Marine Corps veteran and a 2015 Alpha Class Fellow. He serves at Volunteers of America in Los Angeles, where he provides veterans, service members and their families with resources and support necessary for successful reintegration to civilian life.
Interested in serving again, and putting your education to practical use through a Mission Continues Fellowship? Learn more here.