Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Soldiers Becoming Scientists

Credit: Corporal Michael Villa

Proposed in 2007 and enacted in 2008, the newest version of the U.S. military's veterans education program—variously known as the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the Webb GI Bill, or the New GI Bill—aims to provide returning servicemen and servicewomen with the opportunity to begin or continue higher education at colleges, universities, and professional training programs. Last year, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) paid out $10.5 billion in educational assistance from its $69 billion budget, $8.1 billion of which supported returning vets on the New GI Bill.

"The military—especially deployments and being in a leadership position—forces you to mature a lot earlier than you would if you went directly into school." —Jason Hettmansperger

Veterans are eligible to receive benefits from the New GI Bill if they have served on active duty after 10 September 2001. The program pays for up to 36 months (4 academic years) of tuition expenses, the amount of funding dependent on the amount of time spent in service. The New GI Bill also provides stipends for living expenses and books.

According to the 2011 VBA Annual Benefits Report, 116,499 veterans used GI Bill assistance during the 2011 fiscal year to pursue undergraduate degrees; 21,043 used it to pursue graduate degrees. Some of those veterans were studying science. VBA doesn't keep track of who studies what, but according to department heads and student veterans contacted by Science Careers, computer science seems especially popular among returning veterans.

Due to the increasingly technological nature of modern warfare, veterans today return home with not only determination and a solid work ethic—character traits of good scientists as much as of good soldiers—but also with technical and other important job-related skills. Approximately 38% of active enlisted men and women directly serve in technical or medical capacities. Many of the rest learn how to use technically complex instruments and become familiar with a wide range of technology, even if they don't serve in explicitly technical roles.

A 2009 report by the National Science Foundation says, "Post-9/11 veterans offer the nation’s engineering and science employers a diverse and pre-qualified pool of future talent. The vast majority of those who serve in the enlisted ranks of the nation’s armed services are high school graduates with strong cognitive aptitudes. … They have experience managing technical systems and solving complex problems. They know how to work in teams and how to lead."

Science Careers spoke with four veterans with scientific ambitions—all supported by the New GI Bill or other VBA funding—about their experiences, motivations, and scientific goals.

Sergeant Jason Hettmansperger

Credit: Corporal Michael Villa
Sergeant Jason Hettmansperger

After he graduated from high school in Somerset, Kentucky, Jason Hettmansperger says, "I wasn't ready to just go to school. I really sought after adventure, challenge—and the military was able to provide me with the lifestyle I was after.”

Hettmansperger joined the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) Reserve as a member of the military police. He served two stints overseas as a convoy and border security officer, first in Iraq (from 2008 to 2009), and then in Afghanistan (from 2010 to 2011). Between those tours, Hettmansperger enrolled in the University of Kentucky, working toward a computer science degree when he had time off from military service. He is now 27, has fulfilled his military commitment, and will start his junior year in August.

Hettmansperger says he always wanted to do something technical, but his experience in the military cemented his interest. "We had a lot of tools that were very technologically demanding in the Marines," he says. Having used some of the tools computer scientists developed in the lab gives him a respect for both the research and its applicability, he says. "Having seen it from both ends is an awesome thing."

Yet, the work Hettmansperger is most interested in has nothing to do with war. He was hooked on computer science, he says, by a University of Kentucky research project that allowed scholars to read otherwise unreadable ancient texts from Pompeii, under the direction of computer science professor Brent Seales. "They can't unroll these scrolls without destroying them," he says. "So they were able to take these scrolls and take a very accurate scan of them. So then they had programs that could digitally unroll it, and the scan was so accurate they were able to determine what the pages said. … I thought, all of this is happening right here at the University of Kentucky, and I could be able to participate in that," he says. "It made me realize that this is definitely what I want to do."

Hettmansperger believes his military experience has made him a better student. “The military—especially deployments and being in a leadership position—forces you to mature a lot earlier than you would if you went directly into school," he says. That added maturity has "helped me to be able to have the focus and drive to take it more seriously than some of my peers." He plans to go to graduate school for computer science.

The New GI Bill "has been an exceptional resource for me because I don't have to get out and have a part-time job and put in 20 hours a week just to be able to pay for my apartment. I'm able to focus solely on studies."

Lance Corporal Aaron Cruz

Courtesy of Aaron Cruz
Lance Corporal Aaron Cruz

Aaron Cruz comes from a military family. His stepfather, mother, and both grandparents served. But he didn't enlist right after high school; first he worked as a mail carrier.

At 25, Cruz enlisted in the USMC, serving as an Asian-Pacific cryptologic linguist working on "top secret" projects, he says. Now 30 years old, married, and just finished with his USMC contract, he's pursuing a computer science degree at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa. “I've always been fascinated by languages, and computer programming is just like learning another language," he says.

Cruz says that his military training, with its regimentation and rule-following, also pushed him toward computer science. "In computers, it's a lot more 'if X, then Y' mentality" than in other areas of science. "The military is so regimented that it's kind of like that. It was probably a safer field for me to go into than astronomy or psychology."

Another factor played into Cruz's selection of computer science: the job market. He noticed that people with computer science degrees were getting hired and receiving good salaries.

Airman First Class Cheryl Kastanowski

Courtesy of Cheryl Kastanowski
Airman First Class Cheryl Kastanowski

Although many members of Cheryl Kastanowski's family served in the military, she was the first woman to do so, and it was something of a last resort. In her mid-20s, she found herself in a dangerous domestic relationship. The best way to escape and gain the skills and resources she needed to start a new life, she decided, was to join the armed forces.

So in 1987, at 27, Kastanowski enlisted in the Air Force as a print journalist and photojournalist. In those days, she says, the United States was involved in no major overseas operations. She spent her time traveling from base to base, recording the goings-on of uniformed men and women. The work took a toll on her feet, she says. "A lot of veterans have problems with their feet, and I have horrible, horrible feet."

After leaving the Air Force, Kastanowski earned a degree in sociology from the University of Kentucky. She worked for several years as a social worker, but she didn't enjoy the work and wasn't making much money, she says. "I was at the point where I had to do something."

Then VBA's Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program attracted her attention. Three years ago, she sought and received educational assistance under VR&E. She qualified because her foot injuries had caused severe arthritis in her knees and spine. VR&E covers tuition, books, and some of her living expenses.

Kastanowski is now enrolled in the University of Kentucky's plant and soil science program. "My grandfather was a minister in the Chicago area but was also a well-known horticulturist," she explains. "And it's in my blood, too." When she finishes her studies, Kastanowski plans to experiment with sustainable agriculture. She is especially interested in plasticulture, a technique pioneered at the University of Kentucky that uses plastics to improve aspects of agriculture. "I'd like to experiment with different plastics and fabrics in varying colors and thicknesses: how well they suppress weeds, help retain moisture, and how their use increases or decreases quality and yield," she says.

She is also interested in horticulture therapy, which harnesses the therapeutic properties of gardening. "We're hoping to offer more options for the disabled gardener, as well as promoting the healing properties associated with horticulture," she says. "I know how much it's helped me, and I'm sure there are many more out there like me."

Sergeant Jonathan Cruz

CREDIT: Lisette Martinez
Jonathan Cruz

After high school, Jonathan Cruz (no relation to Aaron) enrolled in Lorain County Community College, in Ohio, to study biochemistry. He had known since he was a child that he wanted to study science. "What encouraged me to join the military was to acquire something I was lacking at the time. I needed some discipline, some motivation. … I kind of figured that the military would help me gain some of that.”

At first, Cruz served as a Russian linguist for a signals intelligence unit at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Then he served two tours in Fallujah, Iraq, working with the 2nd Radio Battalion to intercept and analyze signals on local digital networks.

In 2008, after 5 years in the USMC, Cruz's contract ended and he enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), eager to learn whether his military service had given him the dedication needed to do well in college. Around the same time, Cruz and his wife had a son, adding an extra layer of difficulty to his educational goals.

Cruz excelled in his studies and finished his undergraduate education with three bachelor's degrees: biochemistry and molecular biology, biological sciences, and Russian. "Since getting out of the military and going back to school, I've become a sponge, absorbing everything," he says. In 2009, he participated in a summer research program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he studied the genetics underlying autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease. He intends to continue studying the biochemistry of diseases. He recently was accepted into UMBC's master's degree program in applied molecular biology.

He hasn't decided yet what he'll do after the master's program. He may continue on the research track and get a Ph.D., or he may apply for medical school. Right now, he says, he's leaning toward a research career.

Cruz says his military experience instilled a work ethic that is rare among people who haven't served. "There's a significant difference between those who came back and those who haven't served in the military," he says.

In addition to being more focused, Cruz says, he takes on leadership positions more readily than his peers do. "I used to be a team leader at my unit, so I gained those leadership skills and learned the mindset of working in a team," he says. "I find myself randomly bumped into leadership positions. Some of them I volunteer for, and others I just find myself in. … Sometimes nobody takes the initiative, and somebody has to."

Mark Perks, a senior chemistry lecturer at UMBC who had Cruz in several of his classes, says that Cruz's maturity was evident the first time they met at a reception for new chemistry majors. Even when childcare emergencies required Cruz to miss a class, he would immediately ask how he could make up the work. "Returning students are committed," he says. "They're on a mission, and they tend to do very well."

Michael Price is a staff writer for Science Careers.