From Iraq To Ivy League
By: Kristopher Goldsmith
This post was originally published on Forbes.
I did not begin dreaming of going to college until I was nineteen years old, carrying an M-4 rifle, patrolling the war-torn streets of Sadr City, Baghdad. It was 2005, just two years after I had graduated from Mepham High School on Long Island. That’s where I was as the towers fell on 9/11, and my childhood dream of serving in uniform became a calling I couldn’t ignore.
As my friends were getting ready for midterms, I was attending a ceremony for a medic who had been shot in the neck. While they were enjoying their spring break, wading through the crystal clear waters of tropical beaches, I was wading through sewage and trash-filled streets in Iraq.
I didn’t regret serving in the military, but the things I experienced left me worse for wear. For every advantage that I had gained, such as leadership experience and maturity beyond my years, I developed handicaps like post-traumatic stress disorder and migraine headaches.
My out-of-control PTSD had lead to a suicide attempt while I was on active duty. Rather than being treated for my symptoms, I was booted out of the Army and sent back to resume my civilian life without the means to go to college and move my life forward. I was discharged with “bad-paper” — paperwork that left me ineligible for the GI Bill.
I spent half a decade struggling to get better, back at home living in my childhood bedroom as an adult. Fortunately, a great team of medical and mental health professionals took care of me and taught me how to manage my symptoms and move towards recovery.
Through my military service, I learned the true meaning of sacrifice, and gained a greater appreciation for life. In my recovery, I learned to look forward again—to not let anything prevent me from accomplishing my goals.
I wanted to better myself and to continue serving my country.
I eventually gained the confidence to pursue an education at Nassau Community College, not far from my home. It was pretty intimidating at first. After being out of school for so long, I needed to take a few refresher courses before I could begin earning credits. The idea of taking out loans was unnerving, especially considering the trouble I had seen millions of Americans go through during the financial crisis. Thankfully as a disabled veteran, I qualified for the VA’s vocational rehabilitation program, so I got a little help going to school.
Once I got there, I found out that NCC had a budding chapter of Student Veterans of America on its campus, and hundreds of warrior-scholars starting anew just like me. There I found community and a new sense of purpose as I became the president of Student Veterans of Nassau.
The small class-sizes of my community college helped me to build relationships with faculty and administrators, which was the key to my finding a way to serve again. I found a mentor named Chuck Cutolo, a former senior congressional staffer, who I told about the way that I had left the Army. He, in turn, steered me toward a career in advocacy, teaching me how to lobby the government to improve policies that leave people behind.
While I had left the Army without eligibility for the GI Bill, there were many veterans who left the military under similar conditions but even worse off. According to the Government Accountability Office, tens of thousands of veterans from the post-9/11 generation alone had been diagnosed with illnesses like PTSD, and despite their diagnoses, had been separated from the military without access to critical benefits like the VA healthcare that I was able to use to begin my recovery.
NCC’s chapter of Student Veterans of America rallied around the cause of helping veterans with bad-paper discharges, and a few of us headed to Washington armed with the skills we had acquired thanks to our close relationships at the college. Within months we had passed our first bill, one that requires that qualified mental health professionals serve on the panels charged with reviewing bad-paper discharges of veterans with PTSD.
My mentor was an alumnus of Columbia University, and he insisted that I apply. Could I, a veteran who never dreamed of going to college, really make it into an Ivy League university? He reminded me that, despite starting from behind with remedial classes, I was now a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society with nearly a 4.0 GPA. When I got my acceptance letter to Columbia University’s School of General Studies, I was in shock. It took a little while for me to recognize it, but I had earned it—and my community college had been my launching pad. It wasn’t just about the classes at NCC, it was about the opportunities I had as a student leader, the connections I made, and the experiences that lead me to discover a new passion.
Today, I’m working for Vietnam Veterans of America on policies related to improving the lives of servicemembers, veterans, and their families. I’ve also started a nonprofit called High Ground Veterans Advocacy with a few other student veterans so that we can teach them how to become advocates and work with the government to ensure that our nation fulfils its promise to vets. I get to work hand-in-hand with tremendous organizations like Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors on projects like the Forever GI Bill.
While I may not qualify for the GI Bill because of the way I left the Army, I recognize that I’ve had a lot of advantages in life. I believe that anyone who works hard ought to be able to have an affordable education so that they can pursue the life that they want to live.
Growing up, I never dreamed of going to college. But thanks to the start that I got at NCC, I can say I’m living beyond my dreams. Every American ought to have that chance. I think that’s something worth fighting for.
“You shouldn’t have to go to war to afford to go to school; and if you’ve served our country, you should have access to affordable and accessible higher education.” COURTESY OF KRISTOFER GOLDSMITH
After all that I’ve been through, I’ve come to believe two things: you shouldn’t have to go to war to afford to go to school; and if you’ve served our country, you should have access to affordable and accessible higher education.
Those are the driving reasons that I’m fighting to see the College Promise benefit every hard-working student in the United States. The College Promise is about creating opportunities for individuals without tying them down to crushing debt. It’s about ensuring that the American economy continues to thrive for the youngest generation and those in the future. It will ensure that, no matter the situation that they’re born into, any American can accomplish anything they set their mind to.
I’m asking you to remember the veterans who have served your country. Help the College Promise reach every state in our nation, so that every American is empowered to obtain the American Dream. To learn more about College Promise programs or how to start a program in your community, log onto: www.collegepromise.org.