Now a student, Iraq veteran helps others transition to campus life
In Iraq, Jonathan Deras guarded a military base, checking vehicles before they entered. “There was a huge risk that a car would drive up and explode in our faces,” he recalls.
Fellow Marines in another unit on his base were killed in a helicopter crash. “Everyone came back from our unit,” he said, “which was very, very good.”
What got him through the stress, among other things, was the Marine esprit de corps. “You hang with your brothers. You get yourself entertained doing whatever. We would get a big piece of wood and play darts with knives,” the 24-year-old Novato, Calif. resident said.
For Deras, now attending the College of Marin, and many other veterans, transitioning from the military into both civilian and campus life isn’t easy. In response to the needs of student veterans, the college in September opened a veterans center with desks, computers, printers, a sofa and a television.
Deras, who is vice president of the Veterans Association Club on campus, is a staffer at the new center.
Making the switch. “When you’re in the military there’s a very structured environment — not just how you work, but how you dress, where you live and how you go through your life day to day,” said Jonathan Friedman, a spokesman for VA Palo Alto Health Care System. “When you get out into a non-military environment, that adjustment takes some time.”
When they become students, veterans are “trying to transition into the college community and the population at large,” said Arnulfo Cedillo, director of the college’s Student Affairs and Health Center, of the 100 vets at the college. “Most of them have spent some time overseas in stressful environments. These guys have been shot at. If someone drops a book in class, they’ll be startled.
“They are used to military terms like ‘Humvee.’ Now they have to learn new terms. We have a FAFSA, a financial aid document. They don’t know what a FAFSA is. There are courses they have to take to stay eligible for VA benefits. You have to take a minimum number of units and maintain a certain GPA. They are trying to do that while they adjust at the same time,” Cedillo said.
Deras decided to go to school on the GI Bill. He got out of the Marines in June 2010; school started at the College of Marin in August, just two months later.
“On the first day of school I went to every class I wanted and asked if the teacher would let me in, and I got into every one,” Deras said.
Despite his proactive approach, Deras struggled with the transition to school from military life. One challenge: he didn’t have a place of his own and was staying with family. Sleeping on the couch and trying to do homework in the living room made it hard to concentrate.
“I was so used to being a Marine and having a rifle in my hand. Going back to school, I was dealing with younger kids who had not had the same experiences. Being behind a desk made me feel like, ‘What am I doing here?’” Deras said.
A place for veterans. The new center can now help other veterans as they find their way on campus.
“It has been a great help just talking to other guys and girls who were in the military,” Deras said. “It’s great we have a place to call our own. We’re able to help vets with information they need to get started.”
Cedillo said, “We are trying to say, ‘This is a place for you. Come relax here, talk to your buddies here.’”
Dominican University also has services for veterans, including a Yellow Ribbon program and vocational rehabilitation. Currently, 18 students are using these services, according to Sarah Gardner, a spokeswoman.
Deras now has an apartment with two roommates, one of whom is also a former Marine. His job at the college’s Veterans Center is a paying gig through the Veterans Administration, and he also works as a security guard on the weekends.
The grueling schedule isn’t especially challenging to Deras after his experiences in Iraq and other countries. “My plan is to get a degree in criminal justice and go into law enforcement, at the police department or the FBI,” he said. Compared with surviving unscathed in Iraq, achieving the goal should be a snap.