Having twice served in Afghanistan, where his platoon faced some of the most intense fighting of any American soldiers, U.S. Army sergeant Misha Pemble-Belkin felt a bit of a “culture shock” earlier this month when he first took a seat in a Yale classroom.
His combat team’s firefights with Taliban insurgents in eastern Afghanistan in 2007 — and the deaths of two members of his small unit — were captured in the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Restrepo” by Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington, as well as in Junger’s bestselling book “War.” Described by one film reviewer as “the conscience” of the documentary, Pemble-Belkin received major media attention for his part in the film.
During his stay on the Yale campus, however, Pemble-Belkin had to leap out of the role of soldier and into that of student as he participated in the newly inaugurated Warrior-Scholar Project, which helps war veterans and non-commissioned officers who are leaving the service make the transition to college life.
The project was started by Yale alumni and a current student in the University’s Eli Whitney Program; the pilot program took place on campus the first week of June.
The only thing you’re thinking about overseas is survival — trying to make it home,” says Pemble-Belkin. “I’m still trying to re-integrate back into society, and being here I had to get my mindset back into education. It’s a different world.”
The nine service members who participated in the Warrior-Scholar Project ranged from a young Marine Corps corporal who completed four years of military service to a Navy SEAL with nearly 30 years of service. During their time on campus, they took part in classes and workshops designed to help them read and write critically, and to teach them how to study. They lived together in Saybrook College, and shared in discussions about college life over meals in the Pierson College dining hall. Other activities included a pick-up game of flag football with members of Yale’s football team.
“Veterans face a unique set of challenges that aren’t faced by traditional freshmen,” says Jesse Reising ’11, one of the co-founders of the Warrior-Scholar Project. “They likely have not used academic skills since high school and have to adjust to a very different social and cultural environment. Unfortunately, these challenges often lead to veterans dropping out of college before earning their degree.”
An alternate way to serve
Reising, who had started officer training for the Marine Corps while an undergraduate, had his own hopes for military service squashed during his senior year, when a serious nerve injury disqualified him.
“I decided the next best thing would be to serve those who are now serving in my place,” says Reising.
His Yale classmate Nick Rugoff introduced Reising to Christopher Howell, who served nine years in the Australian army and is now an undergraduate in the University’s Eli Whitney Program. The three soon banded to create the non-profit Operation Opportunity, which aims to ensure educational opportunity for veterans and the children of fallen service members. Reising, who recently spent some time in Afghanistan as a consultant on engineering projects and is now president of Operation Opportunity, chose the Warrior-Scholar Project as the organization’s first initiative.
From combat to the classroom
Prior to coming to Yale, Howell had spent nine years in the Australian Army, most of them as a commando in Special Operations Command. He served in Afghanistan in 2006 with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, and subsequently was assigned to the Tactical Assault Group (East), Australia’s domestic counterterrorism and hostage rescue unit. He had always wanted to attend college, but was anxious about his chances of success.
“I had done poorly in high school,” says Howell. “But when I decided to leave the military in 2008, my brother, David, a Ph.D. student at Sydney University, told me that I needed to learn how to be a student.”
To help his brother make the transition from the battlefield to the classroom, David Howell designed an intensive curriculum that taught Christopher how to read for academic courses, how to write clearly and persuasively, and how to study most effectively. He gave his brother writing assignments and introduced him to his school friends. Christopher says his brother’s “crash course” was key to his doing well during his year of study at the University of Sydney, after which he entered Yale’s Eli Whitney Program for non-traditional students.
“I never would have been able to achieve acceptance in the Yale program without the preparation my brother gave me,” says Howell, executive director of the Warrior-Scholar Project. “He helped me to think beyond my experience in the service, so that when I got to Yale, I could hit the ground running.”
Nevertheless, Howell says, there were challenges besides academics.
“The transition can be tough for veterans because you are coming from a very specific subculture, and making those cultural adjustments while trying to learn in the classroom can be overwhelming,” he says. “You’ve been in an environment where there is an intense camaraderie and are inserted into a community where most of the other students have not experienced war and death,” he says. “Your peers are mostly 18- to 22-year-olds, adding to the difference and isolation you might feel.”
Unlocking minds, and learning what to expect
Broadly utilizing the curriculum David Howell designed for his brother, the pilot Warrior-Scholar Project offered classes and workshops led by some of Yale’s most noted professors, including historians John Gaddis and Donald Kagan, humanities professor Norma Thompson, international studies lecturer Charles Hill, and Yale Writing Center staff Alfred Guy and Karin Gosselink (who devised the writing curriculum for the project), among others. David and Christopher Howell and recent Yale College graduate Cliff Foreman also directed classroom and workshop sessions.
Reading and writing assignments focused on the topics of globalization, democracy, and tribalism — subjects, says Howell, that “touch upon issues the participants have experienced or can relate to, but that reach beyond the personal.” The warrior-scholars spent hours each afternoon working on and perfecting written essays with support from their tutors.
“It was great to see the participants huddled in the library one night as David taught them a reading technique we call ‘Ninja reading,’ which is kind of like speed-reading to identify structure and the main ideas,” says Howell. “It was like seeing something unlock in their minds, and everyone was remarking about how awesome it was for them. To see former soldiers excited about their reading assignment was just fantastic.”
The warrior-scholars also took part in dinner discussions about the undergraduate admissions process (with Jeffrey Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions); applying military experiences to college (with William Whobrey, assistant dean of Yale College); and the challenges they may face as students (with psychiatry professor Dr. William Sledge). All of the Yale faculty and staff members involved in the program volunteered their time.
Curtis Langer, who served in the Air Force for four years and will soon attend Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin, says he learned more in his one week in the Warrior-Scholar Project than he did during all four years of high school.
“It was extremely challenging,” he says, “but my week really prepared me for college.”
Dave Carrell, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, plans to take classes at Central Texas Community College. He participated in the Warrior-Scholar Project, he says, because he “didn’t want to play catch up” when he begins his studies there. He has served in the military for 12 years.
“I want to be on par with the other students,” says Carrell, who is interested in a career in clinical psychology.
Pemble-Belkin also hopes to get a degree in psychology, with the goal of counseling military personnel who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’m still in the military, but I want to start on an associate’s degree,” says Pemble-Belkin, who was most recently stationed in Hawaii. “My wife would like me to get away from fighting. I’ve seen some pretty intense fighting, and have seen a lot of guys go through problems because of their war experiences. I’d like to be able to help them.”
Steve Lewis, a veteran of the U.S. Army who served in the first Gulf War, said he enjoyed taking part in a lively discussion about globalization in a class taught by Kagan, who showed his students how to be discerning readers.
“Some of our teachers said that we were covering more in a week than they sometimes cover in a semester with their undergraduates,” says Lewis, who intends to pursue a degree in literature and history at Youngstown State University in Ohio. “Everyone in our group realizes how fortunate we are to be here, learning from instructors who are top scholars in their fields. To sit down with people like Donald Kagan — that was amazing.”
An expression of gratitude
Kagan says he was equally impressed with those he instructed.
“These veterans are remarkable people who have valuable skills and talents and remarkable life experiences, as well as extraordinary character and maturity,” he states. “Their time in college should help prepare them to make great contributions in civilian life — even their achievements in the military will help them contribute significantly to their institutions of higher education.”
Hill concurs that Warrior-Scholar Project participants will be assets at whatever college or university they attend.
“All nine were really smart, intellectually disciplined, hard workers with admirable ambitions,” he states. “In an important sense, they already have served their country in the armed services and now they aim to serve it in other ways in their follow-on careers. They asked tough questions and the classroom interchanges were electric. We could advise them about the new terrain they will enter when they arrive at college, but they taught us as much as we taught them.”
Likewise, Thompson says one of the reasons she volunteered her time for the Warrior-Scholar Project was because of the positive experience of having Howell in her humanities seminar last term.
“Chris Howell affected the class dynamic in a profound and energizing way,” Thompson recalls. “I don’t think it was a coincidence that by the end of the term, all of the seminar participants spoke of the deep trust and mutual admiration that had developed among them. So I already knew that academics could learn a lot from war veterans.”
Sledge, who served in the United States Air Force in the mid-1970s and has studied the experience of prisoners-of-war, says he felt honored to be engaged with the first group of Operation Opportunity’s warrior-scholars.
“Their service to our country cannot be overestimated. … I wanted to make sure they understood that there are people throughout our society who understand that and want to be helpful as they strive to create a new life.”
Gaddis also emphasized their sacrifice and its recognition on campus.
“That’s been true throughout Yale’s history, but it’s important for us to be reminded of it from time to time,” he says. “The warrior-scholars did that while here. It was a privilege to have had them here, and I hope very much that the program can continue.”
Reaching more veterans
Reising, Howell and other Warrior-Scholar Project staff are now raising funds to continue the program and are assessing the pilot session at Yale. Extending the program by another two weeks to allow for an even more comprehensive “academic boot camp” is one possibility they are considering.
Onyeka Udeinya, who will soon complete her four years of service in the Air Force and already holds an associate’s degree, says that many more people should have the opportunity to take part.
“A crash-course on how to survive in college was really helpful for me,” says Udeinya, who is considering a career as a physician’s assistant. “In the military, we are used to having information presented to us in pretty black-and-white terms. Here at Yale, we learned how to question what we read, how to deconstruct a text and think about what it means. We were addressed as people who are extremely intelligent and talented, and that was really encouraging, because one can feel almost defeated in a college setting.
“Everybody who taught us has been awesome,” she continues. “I still keep in touch with the people in my squad, and I’m going to recommend the program to everybody in it.”