Longhorn veterans share what it’s like to go from the military to civilian life at UT
By Danielle Lopez | Photos by Dennis Darling
A little over a year ago, I sat with a former Marine sniper in the lobby of the LBJ School, passing time between panels at the first-ever Vietnam War Summit. A Longhorn, he was relaying to me the reasons for his enlistment in 1969, explaining that every man in his family, from his grandfather to his father to his five brothers, had served. “Every generation has its war,” he told me. For his, it was modern history’s most gruesome battles in the jungles of Vietnam; for others, it was the fight against the Nazi regime on German soil; and for those of the current generation, it was the the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, after 9/11.
But, the sniper said, one of the most difficult parts about being a homeward-bound soldier, for any generation, is the return to civilian life. Though he struggled with PTSD and developed a drug problem upon returning home, he eventually made his way to UT and completed a fine arts degree under the GI Bill, originally created in 1944. It was a move that much of his generation made when they returned from Vietnam — roughly two-thirds of soldiers got their degrees following the war.
Today, returning to school for veterans can be especially difficult. Student veterans are more likely to be older than their peers, have families and jobs (a 2016 survey by Student Veterans of America showed that 80 percent are over the age of 25 and 46 percent have children), and have service-related disabilities. According to the National Veteran Education Success Tracker, there were around 850,000 veterans using the GI Bill in 2009. And according to Student Veterans of America, Texas — with its oft-praised Hazlewood Act, a state-specific benefit that provides qualified veterans, spouses, and dependent children with up to 150 hours of tuition exemption — ranks as the №1 state where veterans go for higher education.
To get a sense of what student veteran life is like at UT Austin today — where roughly 500 student veterans are currently enrolled — the Alcalde spoke with four alumni and current students about their experiences.
If MBA student and active duty military officer Michael Sarraille could set 100,000 veterans up for success after their discharge, he still wouldn’t feel his job is done. “We always say in the military, ‘nobody gets left behind,’” says Sarraille, who’s spent the last two years at UT creating the VETTED Foundation, a transition program meant to identify and prepare top military talent for industry placement. “I just can’t, in good conscience, leave my brothers and sisters behind. It’s absolutely true in the battlefield, and, at home, it should hold true as well.”
Sarraille, who joined the military nearly 20 years ago, is a hard figure to miss. Sitting across from me in the Student Union dressed in a red cap, blue button-down shirt, jeans, and boots, he’s well over 6 feet tall and looks like what you might picture the archetypal military man to look like. Though he’s originally from California, he says he’s considered himself a “born-again Texan” since his days as an undergraduate at Texas A&M. He initially joined the military in an effort to claim his independence. But, his reasons for staying changed with every mission. “There was no way I was going to leave the guys to my left and my right,” he says. “I absolutely loved the guys I worked with. They were intelligent, they were warrior athletes, courageous, loyal.”
Now, Sarraille — who finds himself balancing life as a UT student, a father of two kids, a soldier, and the founder of VETTED — does what he can to honor the teammates who inspired him. On June 29, Sarraille stood beside Chancellor Admiral William McRaven, Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp, and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, JD ’03, Life Member, at the Texas State Capitol where the three dignitaries declared their support for the program.
VETTED, which accepted its first applicants in August 2017, will make Texas the first state to implement a veteran transition program to help veterans find work. Sarraille and a group of researchers found that there are a number of systemic challenges that today’s veterans face, which led to more than 70 percent of post-9/11 vets reporting difficulties landing employment. He says there are three main challenges veterans today face: translating their skill sets, developing hard skills applicable to the corporate world, and erasing mental health stigmas.
“Both sides are trying to do their best to solve these problems,” Sarraille says. “It’s not ignorance on either side, but the divide between the veteran population and the corporate world has become so wide. We are less than 1 percent of the overall population in the United States. If I’m a manager who’s never served in the military, it’s very hard to contextualize what we do.”
By the summer of 2018, VETTED intends to be working with 50 veterans. From there, Sarraille hopes it will spread to other states and will acquire VA certifications, eventually serving the whole nation. “VETTED is trying to just create an economic driver out of veterans,” he says. “It’s not a competition of civilians versus veterans. We’re all Americans at the end of the day whether you served or not. We just want to re-elevate our brand in the eyes of our fellow citizens.”
When I ring the doorbell of the house tucked away in the suburbs of Round Rock, Texas, a dog inside starts barking and a woman with short, wavy hair and tattoos down her right arm swings the door wide open. “Hello!” Mary Jennings Hegar, BA ’99, MBA ’16, says, shaking my hand. “Come in, come in, don’t touch the dog — he’ll get excited and pee — make yourself at home. Coffee?”
I find myself sitting at the kitchen counter, warm mug in hand, in the home of the former Air Force pilot who once sued the United States Secretary of Defense — and won.
It was 2012 when Hegar — now a mother of five in her early 40s who’s an executive coach and consultant — became a champion for women in the military by leading a lawsuit that forced the Department of Defense to repeal a policy that prevented women from taking ground combat positions. In April 2017, Hegar published Shoot Like A Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan, a memoir detailing her experiences in the military and the subsequent lawsuit. The book has also been commissioned to be adapted into a film (with Angelina Jolie in talks to play Hegar). “There are thousands of women in ground combat, and have been since the Revolutionary War,” she says. “The policy didn’t keep women out of combat. What it did was keep them from being commanders.”
Hegar got her start in the Air Force in 2000, just after graduating from UT. A self-described adrenaline junkie, she’d been part of UT AFROTC. Although she was working toward a degree in sociology, Hegar says she was really majoring in the military.
From there, Hegar enlisted in the Air Force, spending five years in Japan as an aircraft maintenance officer. After 9/11, she became a pilot and spent the next seven years — including three tours in Afghanistan — flying search-and-rescue missions. Then in 2009, her plane was shot down by the Taliban, leaving her with injuries that earned her a Purple Heart and led to her retirement in 2012. Her ideal next move would have been to become a special tactics officer, because while she couldn’t fly anymore, she knew how to speak and think like a pilot and had experience with air combat. But policy wouldn’t allow it. “I would have been perfect for that job,” she says. “But I couldn’t apply for it because I’m a woman.”
After pursuing the lawsuit, she came back to UT to earn her MBA. Though her return home was marked by an intense battle with PTSD — which she still struggles with today — she managed to finish the program in three years.
After nearly an hour passes and my owl-shaped coffee mug is empty, we start wrapping up our conversation. She’s airplaning spoonfuls of baby food to her six-month old son, Daniel, as her assistant walks in, ready to discuss updates on the impending film. These days, she runs her own business, teaches UT’s executive MBA program media relations training, mentors AFROTC cadets, and is in the midst of an ongoing campaign to be one of Texas’ 36 U.S. representatives for Round Rock. And she’s still monitoring integration of the new policy she helped enact.
“There are people who are still trying to throw up arbitrary barriers to female soldiers doing these things despite the fact that these women are meeting the standards,” she says. “They’re graduating from the infantry and the Ranger schools with high marks at the tops of their class because, a lot of times, the women who get to that point have to be the cream of the crop by nature of the discrimination they face on the way there. They are the people who you couldn’t stop.”
On campus, people often mistake Eldon Tarver for a professor. It might be the slicked-back white hair, or maybe the wrinkles that frame his eyes when he smiles, or the fact that he opts for collared shirts over student organization tees. It’s likely because at 76 years old, Tarver isn’t what people expect.
He’s a student.
When I sit with him in the lobby of the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center, he sports a shirt with the Longhorn emblem over the left breast. He tells me how happy he is to be able to be here, to have access to buildings like this one. It’s been a long time coming. Since he started his undergraduate degree at UT in 1960, he’s joined the Air Force, come back to school, and dropped out again. He always thought he’d return once more to finish his degree, but life kept getting in the way.
When Tarver started working toward his business degree 57 years ago, he spent much of his time playing intramural basketball at Gregory Gym and often found himself on academic probation. Not wanting to be drafted and sent to Vietnam during the war, he joined the Air Force in 1962, where he worked as a radio operator stationed primarily in Tripoli, Libya. While he says he was fortunate not to have seen any combat, he did lose three good friends to the Vietnam War.
The military matured him, and after he got out in 1966, he went back to UT to finish his business degree. On August 1, 1966, Tarver picked up his registration materials for the fall semester from the main building before grabbing lunch and heading to his job for the day. He had made it off campus just before Charles Whitman began shooting passers-by from the top of the Tower. Tarver later found out that one of his business professors had been shot.
Though Tarver was a good student, by 1968, he was married and had two kids. Finishing his degree became increasingly difficult while maintaining a full-time job as a nursing home administrator. With 12 hours left to complete his degree, he dropped out, telling himself he’d come back after he made more money.
It wasn’t until he retired after 40 years working in health care management that he found the chance to return. His nephew told him about the Hazlewood Act. When he and his wife moved to Austin, he thought it was the perfect opportunity to complete his degree. Already retired, he wasn’t completing his degree for career advancement; it had become a personal goal. “I would be the first male in my family that I’m aware of to get a degree,” Tarver says. “I had chances to go back to other schools, but I just felt like if I couldn’t graduate from UT, I didn’t see any reason.”
Now on class days, he takes an hourlong bus ride to campus. One of his biggest challenges at first was acclimating to a revamped campus full of unfamiliar buildings. He also had to learn how to navigate online resources for his classes like Canvas, a system many professors use to distribute and collect assignments. The student and faculty population has grown as a whole, too. While he once had smaller classes, now they range from 50 to 200 students. Having garnered experience as a working professional, he’s been able to contribute real-world knowledge to his business classes.
But he’s yet to find a student or professor older than him. He knows that as an adult, finding the chance to transition back into school can be difficult. Tarver says finding the discipline to juggle classes again and saying “I’m going to have to change my lifestyle for a period of time,” is a challenge.
Though Tarver doesn’t fit the mold of the typical college student, since coming back to UT, he’s surprised himself with the work he’s done. When he started out, he set a goal of getting C’s in all of his classes. In his first semester, he earned two B’s and only one C. “The average student might not be satisfied with those grades, but that was very memorable for me,” Tarver says. With 12 hours to go, he plans to graduate in May 2018. He hopes his story inspires others. “It might encourage somebody else that is like me thinking about [coming back] for many years,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, if that old guy can do it, I can do it.’” — Marisa Charpentier
“There were some really fun times with some good people and there were some really hard times with some good people,” Jeff Moe, MA ’11, MS ’13, says, about what he remembers most from the seven years he served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moe is a tall, slender man in his early 40s, with blue eyes and glasses that make the California native seem bookish.
We’re in his office on the fourth floor of the Student Services Building, sitting on the couches where he meets daily with students. Moe has been UT’s resident Veteran Affairs Counselor since 2013, just two years after Student Veteran Services — an on-campus program that offers resources to student veterans — was created. He started in the position after having graduated from UT with a masters in social work. After working a brief stint as a minister before joining the Army, Moe wanted to work in a profession where he could help people. “I had this desire to feel like I was part of something significant,” he says. “I think that’s what drew me into the military. I think it’s what draws me into what I’m doing now.”
When school is in session, Moe meets with roughly 20 students a week. Aside from offering counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, sleep problems, and anxiety, Moe also helps student veterans with their U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care enrollment, disability documentation for accommodations, and coordinating medical and mental health care at local VA facilities.
Moe says he often takes from his own experience as a UT student veteran to connect with each of his students. Already equipped with an undergrad degree from Vanguard University of Southern California, Moe decided to return to college while he was still in the Army. Through the post-9/11 GI Bill, Moe was able to get both his master’s degrees from UT fully paid. He knows what it’s like to feel isolated on campus, overwhelmed by the loneliness that comes with leaving the team you served with. And he can relate to being older than most everyone around him, making professors feel more like peers.
“At first, coming back was a little bit of a shock to the system,” Moe says. “It just took longer to work your way into people’s lives. It was a different culture, different way of speaking, different sense of humor.”
But, Moe says, he eventually found his way and made his own place on campus. Part of his role working with Student Veteran Services is making sure student veterans feel welcome on campus. From orientation to VITAL (Veterans Integration To Academic Leadership) to educating faculty on veteran issues, Moe is constantly working to dispel stereotypes of veterans, like the idea that every veteran struggling with PTSD “is a ticking time bomb,” as one USA Today headline he read once put it. Just a few days before we meet, I sat in on the UT School of Social Work’s annual State of the Veteran Family Symposium where he spoke about veterans in higher education, discussing the struggles of first generation college student veterans, enrollment barriers that veterans face, and mental health stigmas.
“The military is interesting because it’s this culmination of really good experiences with sometimes really horrible ones,” Moe says. “You just see people push through those things from my perspective. It’s really an honor to work with them. It’s really amazing to watch and see people work through their problems and thrive.”