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    Illustration by Christina Morrow

Soldiers to Scholars: the quiet strength

in Campus Life by

They give their lives, limbs and peace of mind so that we can taste a measure of freedom. They spend time away from their families, and if overseas, see horrific things while in combat. The scars veterans have, whether seen or hidden, may be borne in silence.

Some soldiers return to school. There they face complications that most students would never think of. With this in mind, we are proud to present our new feature “Soldiers to Scholars.”

Rhys McMahon
Rhys McMahon, Veterans Club president
Alicia Graves / The Mainstream

Soldiers are often hailed as the heroes in a battle situation. But when the battle is done, the war is over, and it’s time to come home, they must discover who they are. Returning to civilian life is by no means easy for most.

When visitors enter the Student Center and approach the information desk, they may be greeted by a tall young man with a warm smile and arm tattoos. Rhys McMahon, as an ambassador for Diana Kelly at the front desk, happily greets, directs and assists those who call in or stop by. As the president of UCC’s Veterans Club, McMahon is a newcomer to the campus who began his schooling here in 2016.

However, McMahon’s journey didn’t begin here. He describes his life prior to attending UCC as “a whirlwind of experiences.” Born in California, raised in the Ohio state foster care system from the time he was two months old, McMahon is no stranger to struggles. He remained in the system until he enlisted in the U.S. Army. State-side, he was with the 101st Airborne Division for seven years. “My first deployment was from 2007 to 2009 in Iraq, a little south of Baghdad. In Afghanistan, I was part of the main surge that went in and took control of Kandahar, Afghanistan during 2010- 2011.”

As a combat engineer in Afghanistan, McMahon saw the battle of life and death take place right before his eyes. His voice shakes with emotion as he relates the events that still take a toll on him today. “It was a big operation that was there. My brigade alone lost 65 service members. I personally lost my team leader.”

Like many survivors of a traumatic event, McMahon suffers from survivors’ guilt, especially from the loss of his team leader. “I was actually the person who pronounced him dead in the combat zone,” said McMahon. As a result, McMahon was diagnosed with “fog of war,” a term used when a soldier has trouble remembering events during combat. “When I jumped into the room and I rolled him over, I knew right then that he was dead. I’m pretty sure he took the blast to the face, but I can’t remember it. My mind can’t comprehend it. He was my friend, my mentor and leader. I’ve had to overcome that everyday.”

Coming back state-side, the trauma continued. Now dealing with brain damage and PTSD, life is very different for McMahon. Mental health professionals say that post-traumatic stress disorder doesn’t simply vanish once soldiers return home. “Hearing kids cry would be a trigger. Those things that most people don’t realize veterans struggle with,” McMahon said. “It is very, very difficult. And we won’t talk about it unless it is to one another.”

After returning state-side in 2011, McMahon continued in the military service until he was honorably discharged in 2104. He attended Universal Technical Institute where he studied automotive technology as part of the Tech 1 program. Since the VA had yet to approve the Tech 2 program, he was placed in a program with all veterans. Being around the 11 other vets helped him feel more comfortable, and he graduated with a 4.0 GPA. “I was motivated,” McMahon said. “I was with friends, people who understood.”

McMahon, his fiancée Crystal and their almost two-year-old son Thomas then moved to Oregon in August 2016. Before starting school at UCC, McMahon was a stay-at-home dad, an experience he said “taught me patience.” His other son, nine-year-old Owen from a previous marriage, will be out to visit soon. McMahon describes his family as “my rock. It’s what keeps me grounded.” With a glowing smile, he says, “Being able to raise my son is a fantastic experience.”

Upon entering school again, McMahon found that the experiences here were different from his previous classes. “You can feel very hopeless as a veteran,” McMahon said. “I’ve wanted to quit on multiple occasions.” He related that he had to walk out of his Speech class a few days ago due to anxiety when on-the-spot speeches were announced.

Transitioning from being a stay-at-home dad hasn’t been easy. McMahon says that finding a purpose and helping others has kept him grounded and moving forward. He commends the atmosphere towards veterans here on campus. “The people who have helped me, Diana Kelly and other people here at campus, have really gone above and beyond to help me transition. If there is something I feel like I can’t do or I can’t control, I definitely have that resource that I can go to faculty or staff and say, ‘Hey, I don’t know what’s going on,’ and they will drop everything they are doing to help me cope.”

In addition, the veteran community has helped McMahon deal with personal issues. “They can relate, and we can also talk it out,” McMahon said.

An entry management major, McMahon feels that the military helped him find his niche in the business world. “I’m tired of working for people,” McMahon said. “The military helped me realize what a leader I was, not [just] leading people, but guiding and mentoring people.” McMahon has brought his leadership skills to UCC as the president of the Veterans Club. “Helping people is what I thrive on.”

In that spirit, he advises other campus veterans: “Get started. Utilize your resources. And don’t give up.” He recommends being active and “finding your niche, what motivates you.”