Although I arrived on campus as a veteran of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I was nervous about my first day of school.
It had been more than five years since I had been in a classroom, and only a few months since I had exchanged my Army Combat Uniform for the shorts and flip-flops of the Florida summer, soaking up the final days of my terminal leave while preparing to attend Columbia University in the fall. The decision to leave active duty did not come easily or quickly, but after spending countless hours and sleepless nights weighing the pros and cons of continuing my service, I decided that it was the right thing for me to do.
Fear of the unknown can be a powerful deterrent. For many in uniform, it is the uncertainty of the civilian transition and the apprehension of giving up a level of predictability and stability that keeps them from leaving active duty to pursue other careers, goals and opportunities. That fear has been made worse in recent years by a difficult economy and a heavy reliance on student loans to finance increasingly expensive education costs.
This is why the true value of the GI Bill is not measured in dollars, but in peace of mind. Whatever worries and hesitations I may have had about leaving the military for the challenges of academia and the transition back into civilian life, I knew that there would be at least one element of support on the other side.
What I did not expect, though, was a certain level of guilt associated with receiving these benefits. While I freely admit that I would probably not have left the military for graduate school were it not for the GI Bill and the generous Yellow Ribbon Program, I often wonder if what I’ve done to earn these benefits was truly enough, or even why those from other equally honorable professions are not eligible to receive them or something comparable. I think that sometimes my generation of veterans can be too prone to taking these opportunities for granted. We wear the all-volunteer force badge too proudly, often forgetting what it is that we volunteered to do in the first place.
As a result, not only has the GI Bill alleviated much of the financial burden of attending graduate school, it has caused me to reflect and evaluate what it means to be a veteran. I’ve come to see the GI Bill not as a reward for the service I’ve already done, but rather as an investment for the service I hope to continue in the future.David Eisler is a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Previously, he was a captain in the U.S. Army and served in Germany, Iraq and Afghanistan.