To hear him tell it, Drake Rivas’s decision to come to Saint Michael’s for college using his post-9/11 GI Bill benefits with hopes of training as a high school history teacher came with the same sort of easy-going, go-with-the-flow curiosity and adaptability that led him to several re-enlistments with the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan in his 10-year military career.
“Sounds good, why not?” was his thought process a few of those times, says Drake, who just feels at home among military people. His father was a Navy man, so Drake’s family had lived all over the U.S. in his youth before landing in Texas.
He tried community college after high school, “but it didn’t feel like the right time to go to school” for him, so he found a recruiter and joined the Army in 2004. After “basic” at Fort Knox and more training as a cavalry scout in the state of Washington -- “I told them I just wanted to do Army stuff” -- he was off to Iraq.
His platoon chiefly was assigned to clearing improvised explosive devices (IED’s) and doing reconnaissance, working with Iraqi security forces and civilian populations. Drake says he enjoyed experiencing a new culture and also appreciated the camaraderie and excitement of his tours, although the tougher times included losing comrades in arms to explosions or snipers. “We got shot at and there were firefights, but not all the time,” he says. “I was scared at times, of course, but now I look back fondly since I made very good friends who I’m still in touch with.”
Several times he returned to the U.S. only to re-enlist or sign up early to go back into overseas duty – in Iraq again, and later in Afghanistan where he was at a forward operating base run by allied troops, while also running convoy security and other duties. He says he came through with relatively few emotional scars, as near as he can tell, and is grateful for that.
After his most recent tour, Drake was assigned to Fort Drum in upstate New York at the end of 2014. “By this September, I had enough leave saved up so I could go to school upon my discharge and still get paid by the Army for a little bit,” he says. His platoon leader was from Vermont by chance, so Drake asked him about possibilities in the state (though he’d never been to Vermont before), including Saint Michael’s, since it was on an Army list of military-friendly schools.
“He said ‘you should check it out,’ so I did,” says Drake, who was able to transfer many credits from his previous learning experiences before and during the service, which allowed him to start well along toward his degree. “Ken O’Connell was very helpful, helping me register for classes, securing my books before I was able to get the funds from the Army – the little things that are really big things for someone transitioning,” he says of the College’s new director of veteran and military family services.
This semester, Drake is taking courses in education, philosophy, English and history. “The instructors are all helpful and understanding about me coming back into school,” says Drake, who also works part-time at Sears to pay some of his bills. “I would recommend St. Mike’s for guys who were in the Army like me – it’s a perfect opportunity, and they’re not going to feel overwhelmed. I was afraid I might not like it, but this campus is beautiful, the perfect size, and it’s great being right outside Burlington.”
He also has enjoyed attending some campus guest lectures in the evenings this semester, including one titled “Is War Necessary?” While he doesn’t always agree with his younger classmates, given their different perspectives and life experiences, “the students here also have been understanding, and I think it benefits them to have a different point of view from someone who’s seen different things, too. I understand we have different points of view, and that’s not a bad thing. I try to understand their viewpoint, and I feel they try to understand mine. That’s helpful for me.”