Veteran of Afghanistan misses Marines but, ‘I like the quiet a lot’

West York, Pa. — On Aug. 20, Darnell Rias walked into the classroom at the former mail processing center turned community college and began his new life as a college student.

It was 9:30 a.m., a math class, algebra.

He was pretty anxious about it. It had been little more than three years since he had graduated from West York Area High School and had set foot in a classroom.

Three years that seem to have passed in a moment.

He had entered the Marine Corps upon graduation — something he always wanted to do, to be one of the best — and after basic training at Parris Island and infantry drills in the Mojave, he was deployed to Afghanistan. Four months later, he was wounded, his back broken and his brain concussed when he drove over an IED while on patrol.

Darnell Rias, left, chops lettuce for tacos as his mother, Athena Rias, browns meat at Athena’s home in West York, Pa., on the last night Rias would be living there. DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS – KATE PENN

Surgery and recovery and physical therapy followed. He still deals with the aftermath, exercising to maintain some flexibility in his back. He gets crippling headaches from his brain trauma. He suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, acutely aware of his surroundings almost to the point of suspicion.

It may have been only three years, but it could have been a lifetime.

So he was pretty keyed up when he entered the classroom at 9:30 a.m. that summer morning. He was focused. He paid close attention. He took copious notes.

He was ready. 

Rias is taking a full load of classes this semester. In addition to math, he has courses in reading and writing and a college success class, an introductory course for new students. That class includes instruction on time management, taking notes, organizing work.

It’s been pretty useful, Rias said. But at the same time, he said, his Marine Corps training prepared him for it. He’s more disciplined now than when he was in high school. Back then, he said, he’d procrastinate and put off work until the last minute. Now, he said, he does homework as soon as it’s assigned, and sometimes hands it in early. He does bonus work and tries to get extra credit.

Darnell Rias takes a short rest on his mattress while moving out of his mother’s house in West York, Pa., to his first apartment in West Manchester Township, Pa. Rias said it was important for him to get an apartment. “Something I can call my own and I can take care of.” DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS – KATE PENN

“In high school, I didn’t take it very seriously,” he said. “I knew I was joining the Marine Corps and wasn’t going to go to college, at least not right away. Now, I understand how important it is.” 

(See a slideshow of Rias in his new apartment and in school.)

He has a daily routine during the week. His classes run Monday through Thursday. He usually goes to his early class and then goes to the gym during his break. Then, after lunch, he heads back to school. After classes end for the day, he returns to his West Manchester Township apartment and does his homework and studies and prepares for the next day.

Work always comes before play, he said.

Right now, he’s working on his basic courses, a mere freshman. He plans to study biology and become a physical therapist, a profession he was exposed to while recovering from his broken back.

So far, he said, it hasn’t been too bad. He does struggle sometimes with his schoolwork.

Darnell Rias looks out the back door of an apartment he was considering renting at Colony Park in York, Pa. DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS – KATE PENN

“It’s harder for me to comprehend things,” he said. “I notice I have to read a problem multiple times before I start doing it just so it can sink in. And I notice I need to study at least twice as long just to retain some basic information before a test.”

Compared to Afghanistan, though, it’s a piece of cake.

“It was a little hard getting back into a routine after a couple of years, but it’s good to have a routine. It’s good to have something to do,” he said.

“I just do different things during the day now. Instead of putting on camis and going to work I just put on regular clothes and go to school.” 

He thought, maybe, he’d be the old man in his classes, seeing that he is 22 years old and a veteran. It hasn’t been that way. He’s going to the York Campus of Harrisburg Area Community College and there are a lot of older students there, people returning to school after their jobs had been shot out from under them. 

Long-time friend Stephen Smith, left, helps Darnell Rias take apart a chair on moving day in his mother’s West York, Pa. Rias had to make two trips to IKEA in Maryland for basic furnishings for his new apartment. DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS – KATE PENN

He has had some good luck. The Veterans Administration — often maligned for its bureaucracy — has been pretty good, he said. He did have a lot of paperwork to deal with to get his G.I. Bill and get everything arranged for college. He had to submit the application twice. But once it came through, it was fine.

He also deals with the VA’s health care system, getting treatment for his headaches and his PTSD. He has been able to schedule his appointments so they don’t conflict with school.

The doctors have given him different medications to combat his migraine-level headaches, but so far, he said, they don’t seem to have made much difference. When he feels one coming on, the best treatment is still to lie down and rest until it passes. 

He has also moved into his own place. He grew up in a house with his mother, sister and brother. And in the Marine Corps, he lived in barracks, often two, three or four guys to a dorm-style room. In Afghanistan, he lived with the men in his unit.

Now, for the first time, he lives alone, having moved from his mother’s West York home to an apartment complex a few miles down the road this summer.

Darnell Rias studies before class at HACC’s York Campus. “I knew that if I wanted to succeed not only would I have to continue physical therapy but I would also have to get back into school.” DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS – KATE PENN

He likes it.

“It’s nice and quiet,” he said. “It helps with my PTSD.” 

Even now, almost two years since he was wounded, he misses the Marine Corps.

“I still think, ‘What would I be doing if I was still in the Marine Corps?’” he said.

He’d probably be at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, waiting for his next deployment, hanging with his boys.

“Some things I miss about it,” he said.

He misses his fellow Marines and being part of the brotherhood. He misses being one of the best, being part of something that has, in his words, “high standards.”

Some things, though, he doesn’t miss.

“I like having my own place,” he said. “I like the quiet a lot.”

Daily Record/Sunday News photographer Kate Penn contributed to this story. 
Contact Mike Argento at mike@ydr.com or 717-771-2046. 

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About Lee Ann Colacioppo

I am the Senior Editor/News at the Denver Post. I have been at The Post sincd 1999 in a variety of positions, including city editor and investigations editor. I previously worked at The Des Moines Register, Greenville, S.C., News and Kingsport, Tenn., Times-News. I'am a Denver native and graduate of Drake University in Des Moines. View all posts by Lee Ann Colacioppo →
  • Liz R. Picco

    I wish you the very best in all of your endeavors! THANK YOU for your service. Bless you!

  • Pingback: Look, the YDR staff photo blog » Archive » Independence

  • LT

    God bless you always! Thank you very much for everything.

  • Peter Matelyan

    Thank- you for your service and I wish you the very best. Pete Matelyan Long Beach , Ca

  • Manny / El Monte, CA

    You’re are Our Hero ! ! ! Good Luck to you and our biggest thanks for everything you’ve done for us and our country.

  • Dave

    THanks brother hope you feel better!

  • Genosguy

    I was a terrible high school student, unmotivated. In the Navy I was top of every class I went to. I said=”I’m not as dumb as I thought was”. After spending time in the Naval Hospital and completing my tour. I got married. Best thing a guy can do. I took engineering classes. I only made it into college because my wife tutored me and effectively taught me enough math to succeed. I had a number of Engineering jobs that were interesting and paid well. Now I’m retired and living comfortably. I know from where this young man came, I was there too at another time. I’m proud of him. Don’t lose your focus, you cannot imagine how good life can become. I couldn’t. Thank you for your service—you’ve made me safe, there is no greater gift.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000352069408 John Clark

    I left Vietnam and the Army in 1969. Still today 2012 I miss the camaraderie of my fellow soldiers and the always being busy doing a mission that meant something. I was in a Chinook company and we were essential for the well being of the troops.

  • SM

    Why don’t we show the bit where he has post dramatic stress, nightmares on a daily basis, emotional outbursts that 99% of the veterans suffer from? Why must we paint a rosey picture, lie and hide from REALITY?