When you’ve been in a war zone, discovered improvised explosive devices and seen friends evacuated by medevac, it changes you. You expect danger. You are hyper-aware of your surroundings. You forge deep bonds of trust with your fellow soldiers.
For Daniel Driss, the transition from active combat duty on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan to undergraduate student at NAU could have been a bumpy road. He turned to NAU’s ROTC office in 2008, and then to the Office of Military and Veteran Affairs when it was established in 2010. In both he found a comfortable and familiar environment among people who understood what he had seen and where he had been.
“There is a place you can go on campus to talk to other veterans and integrate yourself into the community instead of just being on your own,” Driss said. “That’s absolutely huge. We’re a pretty tight-knit group.”
Andrew Griffin, director of the Office of Military and Veteran Affairs, has built a staff of veterans to welcome student veterans on campus and help them transition.
“There is an instant trust when veterans serve veterans,” he said. “Student veterans know our staff serves as their advocate both on and off campus. We encourage them to get involved, even if it is just meeting up with other student veterans in the center to play pool or socialize.”
More than 2 million Americans have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many are looking to colleges and universities as they leave active duty.
Driss enlisted in the Army at 17 years old as an infantryman and was deployed three times in eight years, serving two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He served his first tour in Tikrit, Iraq, in 2005, conducting raids, patrolling and attending tribal meetings.
“Tikrit was a mess,” he said. “We were probably discovering five IEDs a day and we usually had a suicide bomber every week. It put a lot of things in perspective. You learned really quick to do your job or you weren’t going to make it. I think it’s set me up for success for the rest of my life because it’s given me a strong work ethic and pride.”
During his second tour in Iraq, a 15-month deployment, Driss made sergeant. He grew accustomed to the sting of saying goodbye to friends, some during memorial services and others when they were discharged with life-altering injuries.
“The hardest was when people got hit,” he said. “We got ambushed and my training buddy got hit and he was medevaced out. He was really upset about having to leave us even though he was in a wheelchair, missing fingers and he’d just gotten out of surgery.”
After three years in active duty, Driss shifted into the reserves. He arrived on the Flagstaff campus in 2008, straight from Iraq. A week back in the States, he found himself alongside students fresh out of high school as they participated in Welcome Week activities.
Even as a student, he sought the structure he’d had in the military. He knew he was different from his classmates—he called the Hot Spot the chow hall, gave professors his attention in class as others texted and posted on Facebook, and longed to wear a uniform. He knew he’d find camaraderie among other soldiers, so he took a job working for ROTC and touring cadets on campus.
His third deployment, this time to Afghanistan, interrupted his studies but Driss continued his coursework online, focused on earning his degree.
Driss completed his studies and was awarded a bachelor’s degree in history from NAU last month. He said he is eager to transition back into active duty in the Army, this time as an officer in the infantry. He credits Griffin and his staff with providing a place on campus where he belonged.
“You can go talk to someone in their mid-20s with a couple of deployments under their belt,” Driss said. “You can instantly come in and have that rapport with the other veterans, that camaraderie is still there, even though you’ve never served along that person or ever met them until you walked into the veteran center.”