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Jim Kenyon: Another Dartmouth

On Monday night, I joined a group of Dartmouth twenty-somethings hanging out in a popular downtown Hanover watering hole. No, I wasn’t trying recapture my lost youth. This wasn’t a typical Dartmouth undergraduate crowd.

Many of the students gathered in the back room at Murphy’s were veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Guys in their mid to late 20s who had done just OK in high school and started college, but dropped out after losing interest or running out of money. They joined the military at a time when the U.S. was embroiled in two wars. After fulfilling their military commitments (and living to tell about it), they were ready to give college another try.

That’s where Jim Wright came in.

When he was president of Dartmouth, Wright quietly began visiting wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Wright was a Marine himself. The informal talks at the medical centers inspired Wright to help develop a program through the American Council on Education to encourage veterans to return to college.

Wright, who retired as president in 2009, pushed Dartmouth and other elite schools to think outside the box when reviewing the applications of veterans who had already “learned discipline and teamwork,” as he told The New York Times in 2007.

But gaining admission was only the first hurdle. For many veterans, even with the money they received through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Dartmouth’s price tag, which is now close to $60,000 a year, was unaffordable. To make it financially feasible, Dartmouth joined the federal Yellow Ribbon Program, agreeing to offer additional scholarships to veterans to help them cover the costs at private colleges.

Dartmouth is now reaping the benefits of Wright’s foresight. The 20 or so veterans currently enrolled as undergraduates bring maturity and a kind of diversity that an Ivy League school dripping with privilege can sorely use. These guys didn’t play Call of Duty on a screen; they lived it.

Michael Ballard is a 25-year-old Texan who spent 51/2 years in the Marines. He didn’t see combat, but spent more than his share of time in harm’s way. He served on security details that protected U.S. embassies in Uganda and Chad, where the threat of terrorist attacks was a constant.

“It changes you,” said Ballard, referring to his military experience. “You’re responsible for people other than yourself. I played sports in high school, so I was used to being part of a team. But nobody was getting shot at.”

At Dartmouth, Ballard has become friends with Chad Rairie, a 29-year-old Marine veteran from northern California. Rairie learned about Dartmouth’s commitment to veterans from his platoon leader during his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. First Lt. Andrew von Kuhn, who played football at Dartmouth before graduating in 2009, urged Rairie to return to school after the Marines. During a year at Collin College in Texas, Rairie earned a 3.5 GPA. As he had promised, von Kuhn wrote him a letter of recommendation to Dartmouth.

Like Ballard, who spent last year at Texas Tech, Rairie transferred to Dartmouth last fall. They live in the same dorm. A 29-and 25-year-old living in a college dorm with teenagers?

“It’s different,” said Rairie, exhibiting the tact that he learned from four years in the Marines. “Luckily, I have a single (room).”

Both men (it’s hard to think of them as college kids) have also joined fraternities.

“I was hesitant at first,” said Ballard, “but Dartmouth is kind of a bubble. Other veterans told me it was a way to connect with people.”

They’re also hoping that they can have a positive influence on their younger frat brothers.

“I’d like to see them act more gentlemanly,” said Rairie. “I want to show them that there are more important things to do than playing (beer) pong on a Friday night.”

Which brings me to Monday night at Murphy’s. Rairie organized the gathering, which featured a silent auction, to raise money to help out the mother of a fellow Marine who was killed in Afghanistan. Shane Martin, of Spring, Texas, served in the same 26-man platoon as Rairie. On July 29, 2010, the platoon was setting up a security checkpoint when the light armored vehicle that Martin was driving struck a roadside bomb. He was 23 years old.

Last year, Martin’s mother, Debora, who is divorced, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although she has medical insurance, a high deductible has “wiped out her savings,” said Rairie. Members of the platoon, now scattered around the country, “thought it was important to step in and do what we can,” he said. “She doesn’t have anyone to take care of her any more.”

The event at Murphy’s raised more than $2,500. Nigel Leeming, the owner of Murphy’s, has come to know Rairie and the other veterans who frequent his establishment.

“They bring a totally different perspective to Dartmouth,” he said. “They’ve lost that youthful chip on their shoulders. They don’t wear their experiences on their sleeves. For them, what they’ve been through is just life.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jim.kenyon@valley.net.