Brendan Hart is not your typical Dartmouth sophomore. A retired member of the U.S. Marine Corps, Hart enrolled at this rural New England College this past fall as a member of the class of 2009. Unlike most of his classmates, he has experienced the stresses and pressures of the battlefield firsthand and, as a result of his time in the military, has gained a maturity not shared by his peers.
"Veterans as a whole have faced challenges and obstacles that most in my generation have not," said Hart in an interview with ABC News. "With that being said, they also bring a unique perspective to a classroom."
Hart, along with two other Marines at Dartmouth, is part of the first class of soldiers to participate in the American Council on Education's new initiative designed to provide individualized college counseling to seriously injured veterans. It was the brainchild of Dartmouth President James Wright. A Marine veteran himself, Wright has played an instrumental role in creating opportunities for wounded Iraqi soldiers and other veterans to receive a college education.
"It was shortly after the battle Fallujah. I watched on television the accounts of what these young Marines were engaged in. And I got to thinking: What can we do about all these young men and young women who are being injured over there?" said Wright, who initially visited wounded Marines at Bethesda Navy Hospital and later helped raise $350,000 to hire professionals to counsel them on their futures.
Hart's road to an Ivy League education was by no means easy. In 2006, while a member of the 2nd Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team, he was exposed to a contaminated dose of the small pox vaccine, which caused all his internal systems to shut down, effectively rendering his immune system defunct. While receiving treatment at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., Hart met American Council on Education representative Heather Bernard, who put him in touch with Wright and, consequently, changed the course of his life.
Similar to many soldiers' experiences, the shift from battlefield to classroom was difficult for Hart.
"I found my experience transitioning up to Dartmouth was one of uncertainty and anxiety, actually. I wasn't sure where I would fit in among the student body."
But the transition has been rewarding as well, he said. "I have a newfound appreciation for education and what education allows us to do. I have a newfound appreciation for differing views. I appreciate healthy, respectful dialogue."
Unlike most college sophomores, Hart's focus and drive are obvious, differences that make him stand out even among such an elite group of students. But, aside from pursuing a major in American history, Hart believes his purpose at Dartmouth is not just to learn but to educate others about his experiences too.
"Students are interested in my experiences, and I've been more than happy to speak to them about it," he said. "What I'm trying to do is bridge the gap between my generation of veterans and my generation as a whole. I was coming up to Dartmouth with the understanding that it was my responsibility to present a real-life picture of a veteran who is passionate about his military service but is also passionate enough to break down the barriers that exist today."
In the two short years that lie ahead, Hart has his work cut out for him. His goal is to graduate in the spring of 2009 and continue on to a "top-tier law school." Ultimately, Hart hopes to use his education to give back to the community, which gave him so much, by becoming a veterans advocate. "I see myself getting involved in advocacy work, working primarily with transitioning veterans back into civilian life," he said. "I see myself being a voice for those that otherwise would not be heard."