From Boots to Books: Stories of Service and Transition

A project by Adam Read-Brown and Lydia Tomkiw

With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 and the planned 2014 drawdown in Afghanistan, the number of returning veterans taking advantage of government education benefits has more than doubled since 2000.

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In 2008 Congress passed the Post 9/11 GI Bill to meet the specific needs of the men and women serving in the U.S.’s most recent wars. In the second year after it went into effect, enrollment increased more than sixfold. For this new generation of veterans, returning to civilian and academic life poses many challenges.

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LESLIE PAISLEYLeslie Side by SideLeslie Paisley joined the US Navy in 2005, a year after she graduated from college. “I wanted to do something meaningful that would allow me to constantly challenge myself outside of an office environment and in which I would be able to see the world,” she said. Her decision to join the Navy was in many ways “spontaneous.” Leslie had applied to the Peace Corps but after months of waiting for the process to go forward, she took a different path.

She has served around the world including Bahrain, Iraq, and Afghanistan. As a woman in the Navy, she gained a different perspective from her male colleagues while serving in Afghanistan. Due to cultural norms, she gained access to parts of homes that her male colleagues couldn’t. “As an American woman, I was treated almost as if I had a third gender in Afghanistan. In that Afghan men were curious about me and would talk to me, but didn’t find me as intimidating as American men even though I was wearing all the same attire,” she said. “And Afghan women were very curious about me but they could talk to me because I was another woman.” Leslie has served on commands with very few women and on others with several. “There are more women now than ever before,” she said. “I think the opportunities have never been better for women in the military.”

Leslie is currently a participant in a new Navy pilot program, the Career Intermission program, that seeks to strike a work-life balance by allowing participants to take up to three years off from service. “The military is a difficult to commitment to make sometimes in terms of being a friend, being a family member and having to explain long absences and being gone for memorable life events like weddings and funerals,” she said. The pilot program is trying to address these issues and has allowed Leslie to take two years off to pursue a degree. She has a four-year obligated period of service after graduating.

DAVID EISLERDavid Side by SideWhen David Eisler visited the West Point campus as a young teenager, he knew he wanted to join the military. Nearly a decade later, after graduating from college in 2007, he joined the Army. “I thought about my life 20 years from then and how I would feel if I didn’t join,” David said. “I joined so I wouldn’t regret not joining.” He served for five years with tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan working in both intelligence and field artillery fire support.

At every stage of his service, David encountered unpredictability. “Nothing that I expected actually ever happened. I had a certain viewpoint of what was going happen when I joined the military and then I got there and things were a lot different,” he said. While David valued his service, he chose to leave and pursue a graduate degree. He had studied physics as an undergraduate and considered going back into that field. But when he tried to go to a base in Kandahar to take the GRE, his helicopter flight was cancelled due to a sand storm. David was afraid that no school in hard sciences was going to take his application seriously without a GRE score, so that was when he changed directions and began looking at policy and security studies programs. He is currently studying International Security Policy.

David kept a blog while serving during his first deployment in Iraq. About six months ago, he began writing more Op-Ed pieces focusing on bridging the military civilian divide and he is also working on completing a memoir. A piece of his appeared in The New York Times At War blog, The Dangers of a Sensationalist Portrayal of Veterans. David thinks it’s hard to sift through a lot of the media portrayals of veterans. Through his Op-Ed for the Times, David was contacted by Brandon Willits, a co-founder of Words After War, a literary organization that provides a space for veterans and civilians to share their stories. David currently serves as the Policy Writing Fellow at Words After War. “You don’t hear about the people who came back readjusted just fine, got a job, got an education and continued on with their lives and serving well. That’s the majority of people,” he said.

image.pngNavy veteran Brandon Willits co-founded Words After War in 2013 after sensing a need to bridge the military civilian divide through robust literary programming. Having served five years in the Navy before becoming the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college, Brandon says, “I was interested in engaging people who I think want to engage in the topic.” Words After War provides a provides a space for veterans and civilians to share their stories in a communal setting. The events put on by the organization give civilians a chance to interact with veterans. “Every event we have done so far has been dominated by civilian audiences,” said David Eisler, policy writing fellow at Words After War. “I think that’s fantastic.”

In this audio piece, Brandon discusses the goals of the organization and David reads an excerpt from his memoir.

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