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This article appeared in a July 2016 issue of the student newsletter.
Student Veteran Robert Davis Shares His Story
By Marielle McGregor
Student veteran Robert Davis is moving to Washington, D.C. He doesn't have a job lined up, or family in the area, but he feels called to serve his country.
“Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith,” explains Robert. “I don't know the how or the what exactly, but I do know the why. I want to make a difference for student veterans at the national level.”
The oldest of eight siblings, Robert Davis was born to lead. In his youth he became involved in volunteerism at his local church. By the time Robert was a teenager, he was working part time, assisting with the kindergarten choir, teaching vacation Bible school, coaching sports and participating in the Boy Scouts of America.
“I have always enjoyed working with kids because I am such a big kid myself,” explains Robert with a big grin. He has a youthful smile that immediately wins others over.
In spring 2004, Robert graduated from Naaman Forrest High School in Garland. He was one of 10 students in his graduating class to join the U.S. Navy. His mother was not surprised in the least. Their family history was full of past military service and Robert looked up to his father, a Navy man, and respected him. Robert also wasn't the best student in high school. The military would be a good fit.
After a summer working at Philmont Scout Ranch, a Boy Scout's mecca, Robert headed to boot camp. He would be there eight weeks, including Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. The Navy kept Robert so busy, he didn't find time to miss his family, except for a few fleeting moments late at night, right before he closed his eyes.
“Boot camp was definitely not what I expected it to be,” says Robert. “Honestly I expected it to be a lot harder. But really it was a lot of going to class, marching around and folding laundry. You had to be very precise. Really the whole point was building attention to detail and doing things because you are told to, and quickly.”
While Robert didn't come out of boot camp a Navy SEAL, he did put on some muscle. He had always been a skinny kid. Now he was beginning to look like a man. More than anything he was excited to see what was next. In his world, there was nothing but open seas ahead.
In 2006, a little over a year after joining the Navy, Robert was deployed to the Middle East. It would be the first of three deployments for Robert over the next three years. He packed his bags and followed orders.
“My first and last deployments were expected; it was the height of the Iraq war,” says Robert. “But the second, Peleliu, threw us all for a loop. Our captain wanted to be an admiral so he volunteered us for the Peleliu mission. We were 'volun-told' we were going to do this deployment.”
In summer 2007 Robert married his hometown sweetheart. Ten days later he was deployed with more than 1,200 sailors and 1,700 Marines to the southeast Pacific aboard the USS Peleliu, an amphibious assault carrier. Robert would be part of the Peleliu Pacific Partnership Mission.
“It was a multinational, multibranch, humanitarian deployment,” explains Robert. “We parked the ship off the coast of an island in the Philippines.”
The Peleliu mission focused on helping locals with medical and dental needs. The ship also served as a guard dog of sort, a way for the Marines to say loud and clear, “Hey, we're here. Don't do anything stupid.” Robert spent much of his time onloading and offloading smaller landing craft. Some days were especially long, and it is then Robert missed his family.
“My last two deployments I got home sick,” recalls Robert. “It was hard being gone and knowing I had a wife back home that I couldn't talk to often. Especially when things were rough and we had long days or projects to tackle, I just wanted to be home with my loved ones.”
After four years in the Navy and three deployments, Robert returned home to Texas. It was November 2008, and Robert's life became full of change.
“The short version of it is that within the next year and a half I had failed out of school, gotten a divorce and I was struggling all around,” says Robert. “I didn't have a sense of purpose. I didn't know who I was. There were a lot of financial struggles as well.”
While Robert had gone through the Transition Assistance Program before leaving the Navy, nothing prepared him for the financial crash of 2008. The Navy had assured Robert employers would be knocking on his door (figuratively), offering him and other veterans jobs paying $15 to $20 an hour. In reality it would take Robert three long years to secure a job making more than $10 per hour.
“I worked security, did landscaping, waited tables [and worked in] general contracting and construction,” notes Robert. “I sold my plasma twice a week just to have enough gas money to make it to work across town. It was hard. And not everyone goes through that, but it was my experience.”
Part of Robert's homecoming experience also included a failed attempt at college life. He began school in August 2009, the first semester the U.S. government offered veterans the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
“It was just a mess,” recalls Robert. “It was so bad that I had to drive down to Waco to pick up an emergency check from the VA because they didn't pay us and I was about to be evicted from my house. And I wasn't the only one suffering. It was a national problem that took years to get fixed before everything was settled and working as it was intended to. In the end I spent more time trying to figure out how to be out of the Navy, than I was actually in the Navy.”
Despite past tragedies and tears, Robert Davis was determined to succeed. In spring 2012 he decided to try college once again, this time at a Dallas Community College. He enrolled at North Lake College and quickly found a new home base.
“It felt good to be at North Lake,” says Robert. “I connected with other veterans. I felt like I had a community again. It's a very close-knit campus. I soon knew a lot of people on campus and enjoyed being known.”
After his freshman year at North Lake, Robert began working in the college's Office of Veterans Affairs. There he ran into Kate Connaughton, an old friend from high school who had also served in the Navy. Together the two teamed up to form a new student club on campus: the Student Veterans Association (SVA).
“We definitely had to strong-arm people at first to join,” laughs Robert. “It took us a full year to get to a point where we had random people showing up. And it took a lot of work. I got really involved with Student Government and Student Life so we could leverage those connections to reach more veterans on campus.”
Today the North Lake College Student Veterans Association is one of the most active student organizations on campus. They are best known for their annual “SOGO 5K" community race. Last year's 5K included 186 participants and raised close to $5,000.
“Student veterans are making an impact, not just in colleges but across the nation,” explains Robert. “So many veterans are returning and continuing to serve in the communities, states and nation. They are passionate and know how to work as a team. I was glad to be a part of something bigger.”
This spring (2016) was Robert Davis' final semester at North Lake College, and he wanted to make it count. He decided to write a policy paper on the need for colleges and universities to offer priority registration for student veterans, just as student athletes are allowed to register early.
“If student veterans don't get to register early enough, we can be delayed in getting our benefits,” begins Robert, “which can cause a lot of undue stress when dealing with family, work and school. A lot of student veterans end up dropping out because they can't get the classes they need to stay full-time [students] or don't receive their full stipend on time. Or they reach the end of their benefits and they haven't finished their degree. Sometimes there is one class they still need, but all the class sections are already full.”
Robert also voiced these concerns on Capitol Hill. As a 2016 VFW-SVA Legislative Fellow, Robert was flown to Washington, D.C., in March 2016 alongside nine other exemplary student veterans. Together they advocated for veterans issues and gained an inside look at the great machine that is Capitol Hill.
While visiting the Capitol, Robert's week was packed with meetings and networking. One moment, however, stands out. It is when Robert sat at the White House and listened to the words of Matthew Steiner, associate director of veteran and military affairs.
“Don't ever let anyone tell you you're four years behind your peers,” Steiner told the student veterans. “You're in the White House right now and they're not.”
At that moment, Robert's mind took a big mental gasp. It was the single most profound statement he had heard in D.C.! Steiner's words validated the fact that Robert was a real adult, doing real adult things, on an adult level — things far beyond what most adults accomplish. Suddenly he didn't feel behind in the game of life. He felt ahead.
“There is a misconception with student veterans that we are years behind our peers because we are starting college later, like me at 22," explains Robert. “[Steiner] reminded me of the truth.”
Returning home from Washington, Robert reflected on his time on the Hill. He was proud of his fellow veterans. There were literally hundreds of veteran-led organizations in D.C., each fighting for veteran rights. Maybe Robert could help them make a difference.
With his Associate of Arts from North Lake College and deep passion for student veterans, Robert Davis moved to Washington, D.C., on June 15, 2016. He believes our nation's capital is where he can do the most good for his fellow veterans. Robert plans to earn a bachelor's degree in economics, pursue a master's degree and ultimately run for public office.
“I read an article once that said 97 percent of politicians had no formal education in economics, and that blew my mind,” says Robert. “Politicians are the ones making the big decisions that drive our economy ... I'd like to think I can help influence this nation for the better at some point in time.”
Speaking of the future, Robert will tell you that he is very invested in where this nation goes. He will also tell you he is a veteran before he is a Republican or Democrat — military service trumps partisanship. Whatever he tells you, though, he is sure to tell you about the people who've made a difference in his life.
“Hillary Gallego deserves much of the credit for where I am today,” says Robert, referring to the SVA faculty advisor at North Lake College. “She pushed me to keep going and reaching bigger. I leaned on her a lot for support with SVA stuff — becoming involved in national student organizations and transitioning to a four-year school. We spent countless hours in her office going over possibilities and tackling challenges. I needed someone to talk to and talk things out with. And she was always willing to listen.”
Are you a veteran, a veteran's dependent or currently serving in the military? Dallas Community Colleges want to help you succeed in college and enjoy the full value of your active duty or veteran's educational benefits. Visit dcccd.edu/veterans.
To learn more about student veteran groups across the nation (including the seven colleges of DCCCD) explore studentveterans.org.
Already involved in a SVA group at your college campus? Consider applying for the 2016 SVA Leadership Institute, coming to Dallas this fall. The deadline to apply is August 31.