If you had asked me a week ago what I knew about the 16 student veterans at Dartmouth, I’d have blankly stared at you because I knew nothing about them. I didn’t know how many of them were on campus, nor was I aware of the many challenges they face.
Take Ryan Irving ’24, for example. Before coming to Dartmouth, he served as an artillery Marine and a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System section chief, and he’s been on deployments to both Japan and Afghanistan. One of 12 U.S. military veterans, he emphasized the uniqueness of a military experience.
“[Being in a] missile launcher, driving around California or Afghanistan, or going to Japan [are] experiences you get [in the military that] you can’t get anywhere else,” Irving said.
Another veteran, David Ward ’25, left the Navy to join Dartmouth almost three years ago. Ward used to be a hospital corpsman, trained to provide shipboard and combat casualty medical care. For him, life in the military bears a stark contrast to his day-to-day life as a civilian.
“In the military, you talk a different way … you communicate differently, you carry yourself in a different way,” Ward said.
Greg Beals ’26, an Army veteran, a firefighter in Manchester, N.H. and a full-time student, came to Dartmouth this fall, and his story is a bit more unusual, even for veteran standards. Unlike the vast majority of undergraduate students, Beals is in his 30s with a family and commutes to Dartmouth.
“I have a wife and I have a daughter who’s two years old,” Beals said. “I’m a full-time firefighter, [and] I commute from Manchester two or three times a week [which is] a two-and-a-half-hour round trip.”
As a Dartmouth student, Beals has a lot on his plate, and he often has to make difficult choices when prioritizing how to spend his time.
“It’s super hard to have a family because when I’m at home I’d much rather spend time with my family than be doing homework,” he said.
For these veterans, the transition post-military service can be a “culture shock,” according to Ward. Within a month after leaving the military, Ward found himself facing a new challenge: Navigating the rigorous academic world at Dartmouth and “learn[ing] how to be a regular person again.”
“It was very jarring for me at first,” he said. “I hadn’t really interacted with the civilian world since I got out of the military, so when I got to [Dartmouth], I felt like I had to learn how to speak normally again … and then also [learn] how to be a Dartmouth student.”
Ruby Benjamin ’26, who served for two years in the Israeli army as a field intelligence soldier, shared that after the military, she had to adjust to the “new freedom” of civilian life.
“Your day in the military is extremely regimented — you’re not making any decisions. They tell you when you wake up, they tell you what you do, they tell you what mission you’re doing,” Benjamin said.
The transition is often challenging for veterans not only because they need to adjust to the civilian world, but because they need to find a new community.
Leland Hemgren ’25, who served as an emergency medical technician before going into special operations, shared that living off campus with his partner his freshman year added to some of the isolation he felt.
“The vets that lived in the dorms were instantly thrown into the social network of campus,” he said. “For me, my freshman year, I felt totally disconnected.”
The age gap between veterans and most other students is another obstacle veterans face early in their academic career. Irving joked that even today, people still act like he’s “the oldest person in the world.”
“Even when I was 23 or 24, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, this guy’s old,’” he said.
And while the age gap doesn’t bother him anymore, it wasn’t easy for him in the beginning.
“I was very self-conscious about [my age] at the time,” Irving shared. “I would limit myself from talking to other students. I put up self-erected barriers on social interactions, [because] I’m different.”
Talking to these veterans, I noticed the word “different” come up again and again. Coming to Dartmouth, veterans worry they are different because of their age and their life experiences. But these life experiences can help add to the richness of background at Dartmouth. Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Veteran Students Morgan Ogreen knows better than anyone what “a unique perspective and experience” the veterans bring to campus.
“Working with the veterans has been one of the biggest honors of my career,” she said. “Anytime that I can be in their presence and listen to their … stories, I’m always in awe.”
Ogreen works to help “veterans transition into the education setting and help them figure out what they want to do after their service time.”
One of the resources that makes sure the veterans find support and a community on campus is the Student Veterans Association. Hemgren is the current president of the group.
“The primary goal of the Student Veterans Association is making sure that the student vets have a common community,” Hemgren said. “We’re involved in the process of orientation [for new veterans who have served both in the US and internationally], and then they’re automatically within the Student Veterans Association.”
Benjamin emphasized on the significance of knowing people who have the same military background and can relate to her experiences.
“I have a couple of alumni friends who were also in the Israeli army [and] did the same thing as me coming to Dartmouth,” she said. “Being in contact with them and seeking advice from them [has helped me transition].”
These resources have helped veterans navigate the ins and outs of the Dartmouth community, in which many non-veterans can be awed — and even intimidated — by a veteran’s knowledge and experiences. However, veterans can also gain a lot from hearing other students’ experiences, according to Hemgren.
“Everyone brings something unique to the table … we can still learn from a freshman,” Hemgren said. “It’s that whole experience in which this person can teach me something, even though I may be 8 years older.”
For Ward, these surface differences that seem to separate students often hide commonalities that every kid out of high school faces.
“Whether you’re starting school or [joining] the military, [you’re still] doing something new at 18, leaving home for the first time,” he said. “Everyone has to learn how to be a functioning adult in this world.”
Students curious about veterans’ experiences shouldn’t hesitate to ask, according to Beals.
“If anybody ever has any questions,” Beals said. “Don’t be afraid of offending a veteran — that’s pretty hard to do. Just feel free to ask, and I’m sure we’ll have a good answer for you.”