OSU honors military veterans by helping them earn a degree.
Story by Matt Elliott
Ten years ago, Nick Swaim was trying to stay alive in Iraq.
A participant in the March 2003 invasion, the Marine was part of an engineering battalion that ferried ammunition and supplies to other troops spearheading in to Iraq. He endured everything from falling mortar rounds to a violent sandstorm and attacks on his unit by Iraqi soldiers.
“The first tour, I almost died more,” Swaim says. “Every day, there’d be a firefight. Every day, you’d be trying to complete another mission. … The second tour was much more ‘I’ve got a real good chance of dying,’ but I didn’t.”
After participating in campaigns such as the pacification of the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in 2004, Swaim was discharged in 2005. He ran his own business for a while in Nashville, Tenn., and overcame a terrifying bout with post-traumatic stress disorder before returning to OSU in 2009 to get his education at age 27. He graduated in 2012 with a degree in physical education. With his OSU degree as his foot in the door, the next enemy he’ll take on is childhood obesity, something he hopes to fight by becoming a PE teacher.
A Land-Grant Mission
As a land-grant university, OSU has a strong link to the military. OSU is one of more than 70 land-grant universities established by the 1862 Morrill Act that initially required teaching military tactics. Military education at OSU was compulsory until 1965, when the Board of Regents for the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical Colleges ended the requirement.
These days, a big part of OSU’s military-related work lies in serving veterans or their dependents when they’re college students.
Much of that is in working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to get students their GI Bill benefits. OSU officials believe that since the Iraq War began in 2003, about 3,000 veterans or their dependents have used the benefits while attending the university. Such benefits were accessed around 900 times in 2013 alone.
When universities began seeing more veterans returning from service and seeking college educations, says Paula Barnes, an assistant registrar who leads OSU’s efforts to help vets use their benefits, many — including OSU — weren’t prepared to meet their needs. Universities didn’t understand how to work with vets, and the GI Bill hadn’t been updated to reflect modern higher education costs.
Things have improved, especially with the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Barnes says. Also, Oklahoma Regents have adopted policies making it easier for veterans to restart their educations once they return from service.
Those who work with students — largely staff with the registrar’s office and others — describe veterans as a group with a unique set of needs. Staffers working with OSU’s student vets develop a bond with them.
“They want to succeed,” says Barnes. “They want to get their degrees, and they want to continue to contribute to society.”
Veterans also come to OSU for special outreach courses, such as the Riata Center’s Veterans Entrepreneurship Program in the Spears School of Business. The program, for disabled vets looking to start or improve a business, has had about 170 students since it began in 2010. February’s class had 41 members.
“I like to think that now we as a university are on the forefront, being aggressive, and trying to do things that will help our veterans succeed on this campus,” Barnes says.
Not Just a Job
No one knows what student vets go through better than Ryan Moehle. A veteran himself, Moehle is a specialist for VA student services in the registrar’s office. He meets with veterans or their dependents to whom they’ve transferred their benefits, to help manage their benefits for an education.
“I love helping them because I know what that service member has been through or the sacrifice they’ve made, but it’s also a challenge, too,” Moehle says. “Not only do we have the sometimes onerous policies of the VA, but the sometimes difficult-to-work-through ones of OSU as well, and sometimes those create a scenario that’s difficult.”
Moehle, who grew up on a dairy farm outside Enid, Okla., joined the Army National Guard after high school to pay for college at OSU. He reported for basic training on Sept. 11, 2001. He became part of Oklahoma’s 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which last saw combat action during the Korean War.
Moehle did not expect to end up in a war. Combat wasn’t what guard members did. Their commitment took a few weekends a year. He started his classes the spring after basic training, double-majoring in agricultural economics and accounting.
To his shock, he was called up the following November in the midst of his classes, along with more than 650,000 other guard members from across the U.S. He missed stretches of classes for training. He was having trouble focusing when he was in class and was flunking two of them. He withdrew from school.
“I don’t think they’d seen a lot of people called up to combat,” Moehle says. “It’s nothing against the university. That point in my life was pretty stressful. A lot of things happened right at that time frame. School was taking a back burner to everything else. It was extremely hard to focus. … Nobody really understood what I was going through.”
He shipped off to Kuwait in January 2003 and, after the invasion, worked security for missile batteries before joining an engineering battalion north of Baghdad. The battalion ended up doing what he called “regular infantry jobs,” kicking down doors and arresting suspected insurgents during nighttime raids. No one was killed, he says, although a few were wounded.
“I have friends now who are struggling from things we did and saw,” he says.
Moehle returned to the U.S. in July 2003. His wife, Rachel, had moved with their 17-day-old son, Jake, to her parents’ place in Chandler, Okla. Before Iraq, he had planned to join his family’s dairy business once he graduated. But that business had failed.
His in-laws helped with expenses and babysitting while he and his wife went back to school. They got their degrees in 2006. Moehle graduated with a bachelor’s in leisure services management, and his wife earned a degree in early childhood education. Making ends meet was still tough. He had a part-time job working security at a dairy company. His wife was trying but couldn’t get a job teaching in Chandler. His deployment money bought them a house, and they scraped by with help from family.
“A lot of veterans have similar stories,” says Barnes, Moehle’s supervisor. “If they don’t have strong family support like Ryan did, it can be hard.”
Eventually, a job as an oil company wire-line operator allowed Moehle to make ends meet. He wanted to pursue his master’s, so he took a job in 2009 in OSU’s 4-H Club program. Two years later, Barnes hired him at the registrar’s office. Until he was hired, Barnes says, many student veterans thought the staff helping them with their benefits couldn’t relate to their experiences.
Moehle, who had three kids at home, had joined the Air National Guard for its technical education program. Shortly after his hiring with the registrar, he returned to Iraq for three months to lead a maintenance crew for jet fighters.
He finished a master’s in the spring. His thesis was on how veterans perform academically in college compared with other students. While he hasn’t found them to have better grades, they have other attributes that set them apart.
“They’re more responsible,” he says. “They know what benefits they have. And they come in here with an expectation that we know that, too.”
Focus Forged in the Crucible
Nick Swaim, 32, came to OSU in 1999 as an aerospace engineering major, but the Sand Springs, Okla., native’s education would be curtailed by a tragedy. During the spring 2000 semester, he was in a car wreck that killed his best friend.
“Once I healed up, I ended up going to the Marine Corps just to kind of get away. I’d always wanted to do it, anyway.”
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred while Swaim was in boot camp. At the end of boot camp, he slogged through a 50-mile hike, sleeping on the ground and fighting ambushes during the Crucible, which Marines must pass before they can graduate.
Swaim became a combat engineer, part of the groups that help with logistics, deliver supplies, find mines and build bridges. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, he was assigned to a support battalion that convoyed ammo and other materials to the troops.
“While you’re doing that, the fight is right in your backyard, because the Iraqis are trying to stop that push of ammunition,” he says.
During his 10-month tour, Swaim’s group got caught in the worst sandstorm the region had seen in decades. Visibility was only a few feet. They were setting up a camp in the middle of Iraq’s massive southeastern desert when they had to hunker down.
“That was the worst 24 hours of my life,” he says. “I thought we were going to drown in sand.”
The group was ordered to man a just-built sand berm with their heavy machine gun, keeping watch as the storm beat on them. Nobody could breathe. They put shirts over their faces. They had one bottle of water. Their goggles didn’t work and sand blew in around them, cutting their eyes to the point that they were bleeding.
“We didn’t have a meteorologist or the Internet, or anybody saying when this was going to end,” Swaim says. “It was just hell.”
There also was supposed to be a large force of Iraqi soldiers nearby and headed their way.
After about 25 hours, the storm slackened. A large group of men emerged from the desert. Swaim and the others got nervous, wondering if they were the Iraqi soldiers. They checked their weapons, concerned sand had clogged the works.
“We were about ready to start shooting them with our machine guns, and one of our guys that was furthest to the right, he goes, ‘Wait, wait, wait. … Let’s give them a minute.’ It ended up being a group of men shepherding their camels.”
Swaim’s second tour ended in 2004. He thought about re-enlisting, but chose to go back to school. He tried restarting school in California while he taught gymnastics. He later went to Nashville, where he started a tutoring franchise. He left that job in 2009 and returned to Oklahoma State.
He struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. “There were days I couldn’t get up. You get dreams and flashbacks,” he says. “You can’t breathe. You’re anxious. You feel like you’re going to die every second.”
He tried to fight it with exercise and medication. He drank too much. He says every now and then it comes back, but it’s not as bad as it used to be. He thinks time healed it.
“What really helped me was when I found out that the symptoms I had were not going to kill me,” Swaim says.
When the time came to start back at Oklahoma State, he was relieved. He was more focused. Classes were a cinch. He made friends.
“We had a good time,” Swaim says. “It was almost more fun than my first time I was in Stillwater.”
He graduated in 2012 and worked for about a year with the Tulsa Boys Home in a substance abuse treatment program. At press time, he was weighing job offers for PE teaching positions. He hopes to use his OSU degree to fight childhood obesity as part of another, bigger goal.
“All I’ve wanted has been three things,” Swaim says. “I’ve wanted to serve my country, my community and eventually, when I get married, my family.”
Climon Mock was home from Desert Storm, working at a railhead in Fort Hood, Texas. He had made it back without a scratch from the United States’ first major conflict since Vietnam.
Then, he took a wrong step while offloading a train and twisted his knee. The burning, knife-like pain was a blown out anterior-cruciate ligament. Surgery repaired the ACL, but the Montgomery, Ala., native had some choices to make.
The 10-year veteran sergeant could retire and get a sizeable severance package or stay and risk re-injury. He took early retirement.
Disabled, Mock had to make ends meet. He tried some direct-marketing ventures such as Amway but nothing panned out. He set up a party equipment rental business, Courtesy Rental Center, specializing in bounce houses. The business, run out of his home, pretty much only broke even.
Over the years, he tried his hand at other things. Nothing seemed to work out. He moved around, taught school for a while, endured a divorce, got his bachelor’s degree in business, sold a business and lost his second wife to breast cancer.
In 2011, he was living with his two sons in Lawton, Okla., using savings and substitute teaching to pay his bills and expenses. He again looked toward the equipment rental business, but could not find any openings. He decided to restart his equipment rental business and learned of OSU’s Veterans Entrepreneurship Program. He figured that could be the wings his business needed to get off the ground.
The program is an intense series of workshops, discussions and mentorship opportunities to help vets jumpstart their businesses. There’s a pre-course portion that includes developing business concepts through online discussions with classmates and entrepreneurship experts. That’s followed by an eight-day stay in Stillwater, featuring workshops in business ownership from professors and business leaders. The participants then get 10 months of support and mentorship from business leaders.
“Don’t look at what the other guys are doing. Don’t copy the other guys. Be innovative,” says Mock, recounting the courses’ lessons. During the 10-month mentorship, he received invaluable help from Tulsa-based management consultant Dick Rubin.
“It almost felt like it was his personal venture,” Mock says. “Any questions I asked, he made it like it was as if the money was coming out of his pocket.”
Since the course, Special Events Amusement has taken off. He has bought out most of his competitors. His self-service model is low cost, and his website is easily updated. With seven to 10 clients per week, he can afford an office and warehouse space. He hopes to expand his company and become a full-service event planning service with two locations in Oklahoma and Texas.
“I believe the greater the risk, the greater the return,” he says. “How I put that in perspective is one of the things
that I learned from the program. You’ve got to know what kind of venture you want to have.”