Today, as I prepare to graduate from college, I decided to sit down and reflect on the journey I took to get here. I want to share my story with you in the hopes that you find inspiration.
When it came time for me to transition out of the Army I was like any other soldier — nervous and a bit lost. I had no job lined up and no place to move to after ETSing. My now ex-wife had decided that working in Iraq as a contractor was her calling, so she left it up to me to raise our two children. I had no idea that it would be the last we’d see of her for nearly four years.
There are few things scarier than moving across the country to establish a home, finding a job and raising a 7-year-old girl and 5-year-old boy as a single parent. But that’s exactly how it happened.
My sister, a freshman in college at the time, talked to me about attending the University of Missouri and using the GI Bill. It sounded like a great plan because I had no other options. I moved to Columbia, Mo., in 2008 and began the long journey to earning a bachelor’s degree.
Yellow Brick Road
Let me let you in on a little secret: There is no easy road to getting an education as a single parent. In the first year I got divorced after 10 years of marriage. It wasn’t easy to keep myself and the kids going, but I refused to let it beat us. I knew that if I quit this one thing, I might never be the parent my children needed me to be. So, at 28 years old, I was a freshman in college while my son went to kindergarten and my daughter went to 2nd grade. We were all in this together.
My second year went pretty smoothly. I penny-pinched child support and G.I. Bill money and kept us afloat in a small duplex. We never went without food, but we never had extra money either. I started to realize that not only was I without companionship, my children were forgetting what it was like to have a mother. Lucky for me I met the woman of my dreams, who happened to live six hours away.
After many long days and nights driving back and forth to see her, I decided to take a chance on the relationship, and on my education. I knew I couldn’t leave Missouri for fear of losing certain aspects of my G.I. Bill, so I got as close to her as possible while still attending a smaller state university. It was a gamble worth taking. During my junior year of college, I married my best friend and my children gained a mother. Oh yeah, and the worst tornado in American history hit the town I was living in — Joplin.
Life’s a Garden. You Dig it; You Make it Work For You
A disaster in every sense of the word, the world we lived in was turned upside down. While the tornado missed our apartment, it wiped out houses for miles. Fortunately for me, I had just completed finals and my junior year was finished. Unfortunately for us, our lease was up a week after the twister came and we had nowhere to go. We did the only thing we could; we borrowed some money and moved back to Columbia.
Transferring from one college to another and then back again isn’t an easy thing to do. You can lose a lot of the work you’ve done because some schools just don’t count classes from others. I fell into this trap. I returned to the University of Missouri, an entire semester behind again.
Just Keep Swimming
This would be the craziest year of college yet. In August 2011, I had run out of money and needed to find a real job. After applying to job after job in town, I landed with a company called Veterans United Home Loans. They were keen on hiring veterans, and it seemed like a great place to work. I worked my way from part-time employee to a senior writing position, all within a year’s time.
My senior year wasn’t only about work. In 2012, I became a father for the third time, I bought a house using my VA Benefits (thanks Veterans United!), worked and/or went to school seven days a week and still found time to coach my son’s 4th grade football team.
I’ve Made It
The reason I’m telling you this is because I believe, without a doubt, that you, too, can overcome any obstacles if you truly want to succeed. Life, as we all know, is a hard road paved with difficult decisions. I want you to know I’m no different than you. I’ve failed many times. I’ve made wrong decisions. I struggled with marriage and parenting and even school. I fought (and still do) post-traumatic stress. But I’ve never quit, because that’s not the Army way.
Today, Dec. 15, 2012, more than 15 years after graduating high school, I will walk across the stage of the Hearnes Center at the University of Missouri and become a college graduate. And as I cross those 80-feet of wooden walkway I will take with me the three things that helped me get there:
• I will wear my Army boots. They serve as a reminder that without my service and dedication to the nation I would have never had the opportunities that I do right now.
• I will carry a picture of my wife and children. Without their tireless support I would have never had the drive to be better than I was.
• Finally, I will carry something that can’t be seen. Pride. Pride in myself for accomplishing a goal I once thought was impossible. Pride in knowing that nothing could keep me getting my education. And pride in the fact that I can look my children in the eye and say, “I know you can do it, because I did.”
I want to say thank you to all the service men and women who sacrificed something to get me here. Thank you to all the Veterans United Network followers who read my work and push me to be better, because without you, I wouldn’t be living my dream.
Photo courtesy TheFriendlyFiend