Former Marines make move from the Corps to college
Former Marines and current Loyola students Daniel Serra (left) and Tyler Conlan take a break from class with Serra’s service dog, Eli.
By Drew Sottardi | Senior writer
Daniel Serra and Tyler Conlan are not your typical college students.
Sure, they go to classes, listen to lectures, and take final exams. They also grab an occasional bite to eat with classmates and go downtown for a night out.
But after talking with them for just a few minutes, it’s obvious that Serra and Conlan are a lot different than many of the undergraduate students at Loyola. Serra and Conlan, you see, are former Marines making the transition from military life to the civilian world.
And they’re making that transition at Loyola with about 200 other veterans—men and women who have served their country and now are moving into the next stages of their lives.
These are their stories.
Loyola senior Daniel Serra served four years of active duty in the Marines, including two tours in Iraq. He spent another four years in the reserves.
A lifelong dream
Daniel Serra has a simple message for people who may have a skewed view of veterans.
“We’re not all like Pat Tillman,” he said, referring to the former NFL star who joined the Army Rangers and was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. “We’re regular people, but some of us are dealing with some pretty serious issues.”
Serra would know. He has post-traumatic stress disorder and uses a service dog at home and on campus to help calm him down when he’s feeling stressed out.
“He helps me with my nightmares and comforts me,” he said.
This clearly isn’t what Serra, 30, had in mind when he dreamed of joining the military as a child. The son of a Brazilian father and an American mother, Serra grew up overseas and spent most of his childhood in South America and Europe. But he always pictured himself in a U.S. military uniform.
“I was fascinated by the military, ever since seeing movies like ‘Top Gun’ and ‘Heartbreak Ridge,’ ” Serra said. “I always wanted to join the military, and after 9/11 happened, it made all the more sense to join.”
So when he came to Milwaukee 10 years ago—some good friends of his lived there—Serra wasted no time moving forward with his lifelong dream. He walked into a Marine recruiting station a few days after coming to the United States and enlisted in the military within a year.
Serra would go on to serve four years of active duty, working as a supply clerk at the Marine base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., for a year and a half before shipping out to Iraq and fighting in Fallujah for Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was eventually transferred to a base in Okinawa, Japan, and after a little more than a year on friendly soil, he was sent back to Iraq.
Serra left active duty in 2008—at the height of the Great Recession.
“I was torn about leaving the Corps and leaving behind a steady paycheck,” he said. “It was definitely scary, but I was ready.”
He moved to Chicago, joined the reserves, and started thinking about his future. After attending Harold Washington College for a few semesters, Serra transferred to Loyola in the fall of 2011 and immediately dove into the role of full-time student.
“I take my grades and classroom time very seriously because of my time in the military,” said Serra, who is on track to graduate in May with a biology degree. “In the Marine Corps, there is never an excuse. Your work needs to be completed on time. I spent more than a year in Iraq, and my education is something I fought very hard for—literally—so I’m not going to squander it away.”
At Loyola, Serra helps run the Student Veterans Association and serves as an advocate for veterans’ issues on campus. He hopes his work will help new veterans make the same successful transition he’s made.
In the meantime, he’ll continue studying and working toward his degree. He’s even considering getting a master’s degree after he graduates. But if that doesn’t pan out, Serra should be just fine.
He recently met with recruiters from a large Silicon Valley company. He’s hopeful that he’ll get a second interview.
This is the second time at Loyola for former Marine Tyler Conlan (right, shown here in 2011 with actor Jon Gries at Camp Pendleton in California.)
A tradition of service
Tyler Conlan comes from a long line of Marines. So when the time came to join the military, the choice was obvious.
“My family has a tradition of Marine Corps service, going all the way back to before World War I,” he said. “A male member of my family has served in every war since that point. Even my grandmother was in the Marines.”
Conlan, 23, actually spent a year at Loyola before enlisting in the Corps. He came here in 2008 after graduating from high school in Michigan, only to realize he wasn’t quite ready to be a college student.
“It wasn’t for me at the time,” Conlan said. “I wasn’t mature enough to be in school. I was screwing around, getting bad grades.”
He decided then to do what generations of Conlans had done before him: join the Marines.
Conlan tested into the highly selective Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., where he spent more than a year in a full-immersion program to become fluent in Arabic—a language he had never spoken before enlisting. He then became a cryptologic linguist, complete with security clearance, and translated foreign communications.
But shortly after starting his new position, Conlan started having epileptic seizures. He went through a battery of tests—including being strapped to a hospital bed in a dark room with strobe lights going off inches from his face—to determine what was triggering his seizures. Blinking lights were ruled out, but illness, stress, and a lack of sleep were all found to bring about episodes.
Doctors declared Conlan physically unfit for active duty, and he received a medical discharge in 2012. His military career was over.
Conlan, who is able to manage his epilepsy with medication and proper rest, decided to give college another try. He enrolled at Loyola as a sophomore a few months after leaving the Marines, and he is seeking a double major in classical civilization and women’s and gender studies. He’s also taking courses to get a minor in entrepreneurship.
While the academic side of Conlan’s return to college has gone smoothly—“The student that I was before and the student that I am now are vastly different,” he said—the social side has been challenging at times.
“I do feel socially disconnected from the other students sometimes,” said Conlan, who lives off campus in a Rogers Park apartment. “There’s a huge gap between an 18-year-old and a 23-year-old. It’s tough. ... Believe me, my younger friends constantly remind me of my age.”
Conlan has joined a fraternity and is active in other organizations as well, including the Men’s Project, a leadership initiative run by the department of Student Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. He also helps run the Student Veterans Association at Loyola with Daniel Serra, his friend and fellow former Marine. Like Serra, he’s doing what he can to help other veterans ease back into the civilian world.
Conlan would like to someday become a university professor. But before he pursues a career in academia, he’d like to work for a nonprofit or join the Peace Corps—essentially trading one Corps for another.
“Service is incredibly important to me,” he said, “and since I can’t serve in the military any more, I’d like to find another way to help people.”
Advisor Brian Keiller and other staff members at Loyola are working to help military veterans get the services they need on campus.
An advocate for veterans
Brian Keiller is the director of Loyola’s First and Second Year Advising department, where he typically helps teenagers navigate their way through college. But about five years ago, a veteran came into his office looking for some assistance.
“He was about two weeks out of Afghanistan,” Keiller said, “basically still shaking the sand out of his boots. And here he was thrown into this completely different environment. He just needed to talk to someone.”
Keiller, 46, can relate to what these veterans are going through.
Although he never served in the U.S. military, Keiller did spend two years in the Territorial Army (Scotland’s equivalent of the National Guard), so he understands military culture. And he understands how important it is to help a fellow veteran.
“I saw it as an honor and a privilege that this veteran would share his experiences with me,” Keiller said. “I lent him an ear and realized that we didn’t have a lot of support services specifically for our veterans. So I’ve worked with others around Loyola to change that.”
Keiller teamed with several departments—from the Office of Student Financial Assistance to the Wellness Center, among others—to form a support network for Loyola’s veterans.
“I call it the Coalition of the Willing,” said Keiller, who also serves as the faculty advisor for the Students Veterans Association and the Armed Forces Club. “We have a group of dedicated people on campus working now to help veterans get what they need.”
The University is hoping to do even more, he said, including hiring a full-time employee who would work exclusively with veterans. That new hire also would be a veteran—and ideally someone who knows Loyola and its Jesuit values, Keiller said.
Keiller is keenly aware that many of the veterans he works with made huge sacrifices while serving in the military. So lending a helping hand to them is the least he can do.
“These men and women served us,” he said. “Now it’s our turn to serve them.”
Student reporter Jade Anderson contributed to this story.