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For Carrell, college has proved an excellent remedy for quieting his inner demons. "It's something to do and strive for," he says. "It keeps the stress level up. And if it isn't up, I'm bored and get complacent." A full course load at an elite college, combined with the constant logistical challenges of their crowded household, leaves much less time to think about the war. Moving forward at breakneck pace stops him from looking back. And that, he has found, is the trick to rebuilding a life. He's done well in college. Going back to school is supposed to be hard for veterans because they haven't been in a classroom in years and it's unfamiliar. "But I lived in unfamiliar territory for four years," says Carrell. It isn't a scary place to him. He isn't afraid to tell his professors they're going too fast, often to the relief of his classmates.
From Battlefield to Classroom
Having discovered the value of college, as a kind of therapy, as a vehicle for self-betterment, and as a relative bargain for veterans, Carrell began to wonder why more veterans weren't enrolled. That brought him to two realizations. One: veterans aren't made aware of all the funds and grants available to them to pursue higher education. Two: that this lack of information funnels many of them into menial jobs. When Carrell left the Army, he, like everybody else leaving the service, went through a week-long course that was supposed to prepare him to re-enter civilian life—how to find a job, mostly. But it's geared toward manual labor. Not once in that entire week did he hear the word college. "A lot of guys come out of the military and take the first job they can get, because they need a job, and they get stuck," Carrell says. "It dead-ends them." Outside of the military, where veterans' services counselors are perennially overworked, things aren't much better. "The Hudson Valley honestly sucks for veterans' education," Carrell says. "There's nothing for us. There's no push or support."
By Carrell's count, there are some 18,000 veterans in Dutchess County alone. At least 11,000 of those are eligible for the GI Bill—which will pay $19,000 yearly for four years—and the various tuition reimbursement, grant, and scholarships programs. Yet less than a quarter of them are in college or have been. That means tens of millions of dollars are going unused. So Carrell started talking to every veteran he happened to come across. Are you going to college? No? Why not? Do you know about all of these grants? "I just go up and tell 'em my story," Carrell says. "It motivates people to go, 'Shit, if this dumb redneck from Texas can do it, why can't I?'"
Soon enough, Carrell realized that his friend Josh Ridley, who is also a veteran at Vassar, was doing more or less the same thing. They had each helped some 15 veterans start the process of garnering the required paperwork to access all these funds—there is a prohibitive amount of red tape involved—and figured they might as well formalize their efforts into a real organization and call it Operation Veteran Admission. So they set up a website and got their 501(c)(3). They got on the radar of various local politicians, who now steer veterans to them, and joined their veterans' advisory commissions, made connections with local colleges—OVA only operates in the Hudson Valley at the moment.
Michael Finlay will be one of the first veterans to partake in Operation Veteran Admission, which will help him navigate the winding path through claiming his benefits and securing financial aid. Finlay spent five years as a nuclear machinist mate in the navy until he was honorably discharged in 2012. He, too, had planned on making a career of his service, slogging through the brutally demanding Navy Nuclear Power School, learning how to service and operate the nuclear reactors on submarines and airplane carriers. After two years of schooling, he began his first deployment by joining up with the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Persian Gulf. But when he finally started doing the work, he didn't much like it. Truthfully, he'd joined the Navy on something of a whim and now regretted it. He slipped into a deep depression.