For some of our students, the military is a family tradition they wish to stay true to; some view it as a calling. For others it is a means to an end, whether that end is covering educational expenses or gaining the discipline they feel they lack in their life. Every story is different. Seven alumni were kind enough to share their experiences and impart a little advice to students who are considering this path.
Gunnery Sergeant Andrew Berryman, United States Marine Corps
Like many students who choose the military, GySgt Andrew Berryman (2003) wanted to serve because of a strong sense of responsibility to his country and a long family history of military service. “The stories I’d heard from my father as I was growing up really resonated with me,” said Berryman, “and I wanted to experience the comradery he described, travel as he had, and experience the world outside of Maine.”
While Berryman recognized that college could have fulfilled his desire to travel, the Marine Corps path was more attractive to him. He admits that there was a certain amount of naivety that played into his decision, but he wanted to see if he could live up to the unspoken challenge that the Marine Corps offered. Fifteen years later, he’s more than proved that he is. GySgt Berryman has spent his entire adult life in the service of his country, working in Explosive Ordnance Disposal. “If you’ve seen The Hurt Locker, it’s much like that minus all the Hollywood nonsense,” said Berryman. Berryman has had the opportunity to work with the head of the FBI explosive investigation team and met and escorted former president Obama during a 2013 vacation to Martha’s Vineyard as the explosives expert in his security detail.
There are a few reasons he keeps re-enlisting in the Marine Corps. “Day in and day out I am surrounded by incredibly professional, competent, intelligent men and women whom you know for a fact would lay down their lives for yours.” He also appreciates the merit-based nature of the work. “You get out of it exactly what you put into it, and you are judged and rewarded solely by your performance.”
The hardest part for Berryman is the constant moving. The Marine Corps tends to relocate its personnel every few years. It’s a challenge to have to repeatedly say good-bye and rebuild in a new community. “It can be a little hard putting down roots,” he said. “ but you take the good with the bad.”
He currently plans to re-enlist one more time which will take him to 22 years in the Corps. At that point, he plans to retire…unless he’s really enjoying his duties at the time.“ I never planned on making a career of it; I just keep having fun.”
Staff Sergeant Justin Grant, US Army (Ret.)
Staff Sergeant Justin Grant (2008) also chose to serve in the US Army because of a strong military tradition in his family. “ We have been a part of every conflict dating back to WW1,” said Grant.
Grant served as a special operations combat medic (SOCM) with the Ranger Regiment during Operation Iraqi Freedom and in Afghanistan. “Saving lives on the battlefield has been my sole purpose in the military,” said Grant. “When [soldiers] return to the unit after discharge from the hospital they normally have a long road ahead of them. Working with these guys on a daily basis, and seeing the progress they make is great.”
Grant says the most difficult part of his job is notifying a soldier’s spouse that their loved one has been critically wounded. “The first time I had to do that was one of the most difficult and heart-wrenching things I have ever experienced.” Grant has also frequently been in the position of being the only medic on the ground which comes with incredible pressure. “I had to be absolutely right in every decision I made. Someone’s life was literally in the balance and I had to make sure they got to go home to their family. You have to prepare for every situation and carry it all on your back.”
Grant retired from the Army last month due to a spinal cord injury. He plans to enjoy his retirement back home in central Maine and hopes to continue teaching medical courses through contracting companies while continuing his education.
Staff Sergeant Elizabeth Dionne, US Air Force
Elizabeth Dionne (2012) joined the Air Force because she wanted to serve as a role model for her family members. She researched extensively to find the best fit and decided she liked the way the Air Force took care of its personnel.
With 6 years on as of this June, her favorite aspects of the job are meeting people from other countries, seeing how they live, and having the opportunity to learn new languages. “I was deployed to Qatar from 2014 to 2015 and while I was there, I was in charge of a group of workers from all over the Middle East,” said SSG Dionne. “The week of Christmas, I got invited into the workers’ shack and they offered to share their breakfast with me, which was coffee and goat heart, and they were playing Christmas music on the radio. This was a group of Hindu and Muslim men and myself and we just ate and enjoyed each other’s company.”
The two things that she struggles with the most are having to be away from family so much and not always agreeing with some of the political aspects of her job. “ I feel any job is tough to get through when your morals don’t align with those of your leader’s,” she said, “ but I like to think that there are people within the military helping to keep a nice balance.”
Dionne says that she is in for the long haul. After her 20 years, she hopes to work with students with special needs.
Airman First Class Austin Foss, Maine Air National Guard
Airman First Class Austin Foss (2015) joined the Maine Air National Guard primarily for the 100% tuition assistance to Maine universities and the ability to continue his education while he serves. Additional benefits he has discovered include the people he’s met and the prospect of travel. “It’s fun to hear the different stories from others who have been in longer than I have,” said Foss, “the places that they have gone, what they saw and learned from being in those places. Depending on your outlook on the world, [this] can be very eye-opening.”
The greatest challenge he’s found so far is the high level of adaptability the National Guard requires. “It’s very easy to find yourself being thrown into something completely new whenever help is needed; you need to be quick to learn new things.”
Foss plans to finish his degree in electrical engineering during his time in service and then he hopes to work as a prosthetist, helping to design and advance the technology and capabilities of prosthetics.
Corporal Raven Parker, Maine Army National Guard
Raven Parker (2016) decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and join the Maine Army National Guard. Despite the family ties, the decision for Parker wasn’t so cut and dry. She was actually quite resistant to the idea at first, but she decided to take a look at the possibility of enlisting as a way to stay in Maine and complete college.
The biggest challenge for Parker was the isolation that came with boot camp. “Even if you’re used to not being around your family, it’s the lack of contact with them,” she said. “You wait weeks for letters so the communication is never where it should be.” Parker now works for recruiting and absolutely loves it. “ I get to bring more people into the force; I get to watch them before they leave for training and see the changes when they get back,” she said.
Cpl Parker was recently promoted to that rank on April 19th at Camp Chamberlain, in a special ceremony where her father, Bear Parker, was promoted to Master Sergeant. She plans to put in her full 20 years working full time for the National Guard.
Airman First Class James Clark
Jamie Clark (2016) chose to go into the US Air Force as a way to improve his physical and mental discipline while giving back to his country. He also saw it as a way to take the first step in his medical career. He feels that the Airforce provides people with the push they need to achieve their full potential, and holds them accountable to stay the course. “It also provides you with support,” said Clark, “and the people around you understand that we are all human and we have our bad days like anybody else.”
He enjoys being able to see the world and gain new perspectives through his exposure to whole new cultures and opinions.“You truly learn the value of acceptance and respect, which is rare nowadays.”
Like many of his peers, he struggles with distance from his family, whose support has been key in his success thus far. Trying to maintain contact in light of the overseas time differences is challenging even with modern communication technology. That distance, combined with the fact that colleagues are frequently leaving on their next assignment, can make the job feel very isolating at times.
Clark hopes to become a commissioned officer and get his PHD in physical therapy and biochemistry.
Private First Class Sierra Kaherl 2017
For Sierra Kaherl (2017) the decision was clear. As a part of a big military family, she knew as early as her sophomore year that she wanted to serve. It was also a way to “make my own way in life” as she puts it.
“I went and talked to every type of recruiter from all the branches,” said PFC Kaherl. “The Marine Corps fit me best, personally, because of the hard structure and challenge. I strive to be able to say that everything I have accomplished with my life, I have earned 100% and nothing was ever given/handed to me.” She adds that the Marines have given her a real sense of belonging and the feeling that “everyone has your back.” “I’ve only been in a year, but as a person, I have developed and changed so much in such an incredible way.”
Kaherl has found it difficult to be away from home and family. She also agrees with SSG Dionne that there is a struggle in finding a balance between following leadership and still maintaining your own beliefs.
Kaherl doesn’t currently see herself staying in beyond her 5 years of active service and 3 years as a reservist. “ I would like to get out and go to college to study neuroscience and mental health.”
Our alumni also had some important advice to share with anyone considering a military career.
“It’s far different than what Hollywood makes it out to be,” said Grant. “It is nothing like video games or movies. If that is your attraction to military service, you need to re-evaluate why you are considering joining.”
Dionne agrees,“The military is not for everyone and some of the people I’ve met along the way join for the wrong reasons.” She adds that she believes that the military benefits from diversity. “Without difference in belief and difference in opinions, the military would be missing what makes the country better and stronger.” She also encourages people to really look into the aspects of the military that aren’t war-related such as Operation Christmas Drop and disaster relief. “There is just so much good that we do.”
Grant cautions people to be sure about what they are getting into and to make sure they get any offers in writing. “The Army was the only branch who would put the exact job I wanted on paper and did so before I signed the contract,” said Grant. He saw a lot of peers join other branches of the military with a verbal assurance that they would be placed in their desired position and very few ended up doing what they had hoped. “If you’re going to make that big of a decision to join, make sure you are getting what you want.” He also adds that education, particularly in mathematics and English, is crucial for a successful career in the military.”If you think you can join the military and not use what you learn in high school and college, you are very wrong, said Grant. “Most people cannot join without at least a high school diploma. Education is very important in the military and you are almost forced to take college classes.” The good news? “The military will also pay for 100% of your college education while you are in.”
“Be open-minded and consider your options heavily,” said Berryman. “The military, and the Marine Corps, in particular, is an incredible tool to further your personal and professional development.” He adds that there are many opportunities beyond the GI Bill. “Travel. Explore. Network. Develop yourself.”
“If you ask 10 different people why they serve, you’re more than likely going to get 10 different answers,” said AFC Austin Foss. In the end, he says, there’s no wrong answer as long as they are dedicated. “I know that no matter what, they’ve made the same commitment that I have and I can rely on them.”
written by Mandi Favreau