Veterans move from combat to classroom

Students millingMature students? That’s what my university called those of my classmates who came in after the first fresh wave of registrants for higher education. After that last regular high school year. After age 21. After maybe leaving school early and graduating from the school of hard knocks, or bouncing back from some disadvantage.

I found the people in the mature student category to be so wildly varied, yet they had in common the potential to enrich our class discussions with their experience and to enlarge our points of view.

So, what of the students who come to college, fresh from military service – perhaps post a deployment or four, or a retirement after a distinguished career – still relatively young in years and yet wizened in the ways of the world.

Welcome Rose Nerges, whose guest post shares one such special individual and the college context…in her words….

Warzone to Classroom

A few months ago I went to Columbia, South Carolina to celebrate my uncle’s retirement from the United States Army. Hundreds of people came to honor Col. John Nerges’ work as the deputy commander for nursing at Moncrief Army Community Hospital. It was an inspiring event.

Despite his success, he always remained humble.

388px-Walter_Reed_Army_Medical_Center_distinctive_unit_insigniaAfter 31 years of service to the United States, including two tours of duty in Iraq, he retired from the military life. Nerges said the most difficult part of his service was working at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C. treating wounded veterans.

Many people were curious as to what was next for Colonel Nerges.

A few months before his retirement, he was thinking about returning to college to study music. He had been playing the drums for a few years by then,  practicing paradiddles and other rudimentary exercises in his shed which he had converted into a studio space.

During the day, Nerges helped oversee the nursing department at a military hospital. By night, he was a novice drummer.

“So much of learning to play an instrument in the beginning is the continuing to practice even though you know you will inevitably suck for the first few years,” said Nerges.

At his retirement party, some of his employees organized a surprise visit from his favorite Jazz drummer, Quentin Baxter who agreed to come over and give him a personal lesson. I was happy to see all of this encouragement in this difficult transition of his life. It’s not easy for anyone to follow their heart, and make a leap of faith into the unknown.

As we discussed college, I told him about my own experiences studying at Columbia’s School of General Studies (G.S.). I couldn’t say enough wonderful things about my school.

The School of General Studies specifically seeks untraditional students, people like my uncle who bring incredible life experience to Academia. G.S. currently has 271 veterans enrolled in their student body. It is an interesting experience to say the least.

It sounds like an old bar joke, without the bar: One veteran, an academic, and 70 eighteen year olds, who just climbed out of their cribs, walk into a classroom.

One 18-year-old says, “Where’s my A?.”

The veteran says, “What will I learn today?”

The professor says, “Today we’re going to learn about war?”

It is an interesting dialogue to ponder: What does the veteran student have to say to an expert academic who has written tirelessly about war from the comforts of a library?

Nerges says, “If there was ever a man who needed to understand philosophy, it’s a soldier.”

A soldier that served in Iraq might be able to describe the Ziggurat of Ur in a Near Eastern History class, a place that most of us will only ever see in a text-book. In my Literature Humanities class, we had two veterans. When it came time to discuss the Iliad, the veterans brought perspective and life to this ages-old story about war.

I am secretly jealous of the 18-year-old kids who will get to sit next to my uncle in class this winter. He’s been accepted to the College of Charleston to study music.

This will no doubt be an interesting change in his life, going as he says, from “the big cheese with my own parking space to being a freshman on campus riding my bicycle.”

Nerges will attend a freshman orientation. He is interested in taking classes in literature, poetry, Italian and music.

I am sure he will be the only freshman in the student body trained in bio-chemical warfare, who has jumped out of airplanes, lived in the desert, and patched up wounded soldiers. His fellow students would be happy to know that someone in the room knows what to do in the event of a medical emergency.

I am excited for Nerges as he begins this transition in his life.

I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the veterans who have served and sacrificed for this country. I also wanted to honor programs like the School of General Studies that have brought a wonderful non traditional approach to education that brings such a great diversity to the classroom – actors, parents, comedians, Olympic athletes and veterans who’ve come together in the same classroom. Who’ve enriched so many students’ lives, including my own.

Rose NergesRose Nerges graduated Magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia University. Since then she has published numerous articles, including some for United Academics, and is currently working on a large-scale creative arts project and enjoying her travels.

MilSuccesNet salutes Col. John Nerges and wishes him great success in  following his bliss into music and the arts. Can we expect transitions from service to school to be similarly harmonious, for most? 

Next  up, Military Success Network looks at the experiences of some other service members who’ve separated from the military and chosen to hit the books!


  1. Nice write up Rose, last time I saw you, you were 4 and it was in NJ.

    • Transitions take place at all phases of life. Some are organic and programmed by nature, others are choices made by military men and women.

      Please stay tuned for more stories, and we hope more from our guest blogger, Rose.

  2. A veteran student at GS makes a short on Afghanistan.

  3. A great post and great advice. My husband had 2 college careers — one between times in service and one after retirement.

    • Helena Kaufman says:

      It’s a big change isn’t it?

      Thrilling and nerve wracking. I’ve always been a civilian, but when I returned to get a teaching certificate, I grabbed my daughter and together we jumped up and down as if we were on a tandem pogo stick when I opened the mail with my first set of marks. But there was plenty of nerves at registration time about going back to a ‘foreign culture’ to my daily business milieu.


  1. […] speed and ‘uber now’ as it was delivered via email after a chat on social media, after Rose Nerges posted a guest web blog entry on Military Success […]

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