Veteran Students Overcome Non-traditional Challenges

Dateline: student newspaper

By: Ashley Eilers

File Under: students, veteran

College students are typically divided into two broad groups based on age: traditional and non-traditional. Then there are students like Eric Breitholle. Technically, Breitholle fits into the non-traditional student category, but “non-traditional” only begins to describe his journey to the Mount.  The retired army infantryman fought on the front lines of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan before coming home and pursuing a degree in religious studies.

Mission: Higher education

As the war in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down, veterans are returning home and embracing a new role: student. Breitholle spent 13 years in the army and deployed six times to the Middle East and South Africa before retiring last year. And he’s not alone.  According to Lynn Taber, the Mount’s VA Certifying Official, 70 veterans are currently enrolled at the Mount, and that number has stayed about the same despite a large number of veterans graduating last year.

“Our graduation rate for veterans is around 92 percent,” says Taber. “A lot of veterans come here because of the size and personal attention they receive—they’ve done their research.”

The Mount is considered a “military-friendly school,” as judged by G.I. Jobs, an informative publication for military veterans re-entering civilian life. One reason for the ranking is the Veterans in Communities club (VIC), which provides support and recognition to veterans on campus and in the surrounding communities, and is open to all students, faculty and staff. 

Extenuating circumstances

Classes are often not the only thing student veterans are juggling—Breitholle is raising two sons while also dealing with numerous injuries he sustained over six deployments—two to Afghanistan, three to Iraq and one to South Africa.

During one deployment to Iraq in 2005, Breitholle’s Humvee hit an IED. It left him with shrapnel in his arm and leg, but he recovered quickly—he says as result of his “stubborn” nature. He redeployed the following year. He was shot in Afghanistan in 2006.

Then there’s the knee brace he wears, which is not specifically tied to those injuries. The cartilage in his knee and back is almost non-existent—common “wear and tear” for veterans like Breitholle who jumped out of planes for various missions over the years.  

Besides physical injuries, Breitholle still works to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a traumatic brain injury (TBI), both of which create extra challenges in the classroom.

“It’s harder for guys like me to read a book, learn it, comprehend it and then put it on paper in an essay,” Breitholle says.  

Breitholle says his professors are understanding of these obstacles, whether it be related to assignments or accommodating his schedule filled with VA appointments that can last all day. He says he feels comfortable talking to his professors and others about his challenges now, but it hasn’t always been that way.

Of the transition back to civilian life, Breitholle says, “I was terrified.”  

“There are so many questions and uncertainty coming back. Then there are all these trigger points for PTSD,” he says.

A new normal

Though he has improved since coming home, Breitholle says there are still things he can’t talk about. He drives fast and avoids potholes at all costs—that’s where insurgents would hide IEDs. He still scans rooftops, always sits where he can see an exit and has a knack for seeing things most people would overlook. 

“I’m always looking at people’s hands,” he says. He’s looking for weapons, or anything that could be concealed. He was shot in Afghanistan by a woman who picked up a weapon from the ground.

 “I’m always watchful and I always will be.”

Life experiences

Breitholle’s and other veterans’ experiences set them apart from most traditional students, giving them unique insights to share in classes and discussions. 

“Professors seem to embrace them (veterans) in the classroom,” Taber says. “They’re generally goal-oriented and really want to succeed, maybe because of their military training.”

For Breitholle, the goal is to get his religious studies degree and work with a friend on a non-profit organization called Cincinnati Dream Center. He’s been to Haiti on a mission trip and wants to work to “spread the good word of Christianity.”

That goal starts in the classroom, where he does his best to add to class discussions and keep up with assignments, despite the challenges along the way.

“I’m no better than anyone else,” he says. “My life is just different. Everybody‘s different.”