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Younger veterans discuss war experience, transition to home life
UNG group offers support, place for student vets to relax on campus
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University of North Georgia students who are also veterans of the U.S. military gather inside the school’s student veteran lounge at the Gainesville campus. From left are Ryan McDonald, Austin Reed, Daren Thompson, Jamieson McWaters and Aaron McKeithan.

Voices: Veterans

Video coverage of an event featuring local veterans will be available on gainesvilletimes.com on Veterans Day.

Aaron McKeithan joined the Marine Corps basically on a whim, but he later learned in a very poignant way why his military service matters.

The Dahlonega man was giving a tour of the Navy ship USS Somerset, named after the Pennsylvania county where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on 9/11, when he met up with victims’ families.

“I have never seen anyone so proud of our military than these people,” said the 23-year-old. “To me, that’s what hit home as to why we’re doing this. We might not understand why we’re in certain places, but there is a reason.”

As you consider Veterans Day and other patriotic holidays, thoughts may naturally turn to the “greatest generation” of warriors who battled Japan or Germany or troops trudging through jungles in Vietnam.

Today’s volunteer forces, though, have gone through much in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where sweltering climates, mountainous terrain and roadside bombs are the new challenges.

Five men who served during the tense years following 9/11 came together last week at the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus to share a few thoughts of their service, how they came to join the military and adjustment to civilian life.

Their reasons to enlist may have not been based necessarily on patriotism — McKeithan said he was “having a bad day” when he entered a recruiter’s office — but their experiences led them that way.

Daren Thompson, 35, who heads Student Veterans of North Georgia, said that two years after high school, he was “working jobs here and there” with friends.

“We wanted something else, something more,” he said. “We went to a (Navy) recruiter, and in four months, we were in boot camp together.”

Thompson would go on to serve from 2001 to 2006 aboard the USS John F. Kennedy.

Ryan McDonald, who served in the Marines from 2006 to 2011, had gotten into trouble with the law when a recruiter walked into the courtroom and told a judge, “We’ll take him.”

“Two weeks later, I was in boot camp. I never talked to a recruiter,” said the 28-year-old Clayton native.

“I wouldn’t change a thing, though. I wouldn’t have met these guys,” McDonald said, looking around the table in the Student Veteran Lounge.

When McDonald deployed to Iraq, America was starting to reduce its role in the war.

“We were deconstructing barriers and roadblocks,” he said. “I was complacent there — there wasn’t that much going on.”

He later was sent to Afghanistan, and “that was a big reality check for me.”

Within the first two weeks, he was out looking for homemade bombs, a chief weapon of insurgent groups.

“There was a lot of tension there,” McDonald said. “You had no clue where they were at.”

However, the experience “brought our unit together in that we were looking out for each other,” he said. “One good thing that came out of my service was the camaraderie.”

Returning home was a special experience for the men.

Thompson said his one of his fondest memories was “fleet week,” when sailors returning to ports in New York City and Boston were welcomed with open arms.

“We’d go on town and people buy us meals, and we’d take tours,” he said.

Austin Reed, who left the Army in April after nearly four years, said homebound troops also are greeted in Bangor, Maine, where “hundreds of (people) were out there cheering you on, giving you food and talking to you.”

McDonald also spoke about that experience.

“Most of the people standing on the walkways while you’re walking by there weren’t civilians,” he said. “They were ...  Vietnam vets giving us the welcome they didn’t receive. That meant more to me than anything — you could tell they care very much.”

Returning to civilian life, however, has been anything but easy for the young veterans, they said.

“It was kind of weird,” said Jamieson McWaters, 27, who was in the Air Force from 2009 to 2013. “Your life is on fast-forward and then it’s like you hit it on pause.”

McDonald agreed.

“You’re going at this pace, this speed, and you’re always answering to someone,” he said. “So, when you come out (of the service), you feel like you have no direction. I’m just waiting for someone to tell me to do something.”

Thompson said he went back to work, “but I kind of felt lost coming out of (the service).”

“College helped a lot because that threw some of the structure and order back into my daily routine,” he said.

The veterans lounge has helped ease the transition and gives them a place to relax. On the day of this interview, one of the veterans had crashed on the couch, fast asleep.

“It’s kind of difficult to relate to traditional students,” Thompson said. “We’re a bit older (than them), with families, and we don’t really talk about the same things. In here, we do.”

Veterans Day is special for the group.

For the younger set, at least, it’s about respecting those who served before them.

“Every chance I get, I like to thank older vets, shake their hand and get their story,” Thompson said.

Reed said he remembers his squad leaders pointing to past battles.

“They’d say, ‘No matter how you’re hating life, you could be in the Battle of the Bulge (in World War II) or Hamburger Hill (in Vietnam), so count your blessings,’” he said.

McDonald said: “I’ve never been to Okinawa, but I’ve been in some thick stuff in South Carolina and North Carolina, and I can only imagine what they went through, especially Vietnam.”

The weapons may be better and smarter and the battlefields may look different, but there are ties that bind younger and older generations of veterans — the major one being attacks on U.S. soil.

The older set has Pearl Harbor and the younger, 9/11.

“It seems that’s what it takes for Americans to come together and respect our military’s actions,” McDonald said. “Between Pearl Harbor and 9/11, no one really disliked the military, but nothing was really being said about it either.”

“I believe America respects the military more (today),” Thompson said, “primarily because the attack on 9/11 was a lot more personal to America and they see these young men and women volunteering to go over and fight these wars.”

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