Finding their own way home

The Northwoods River News
By David Chrisinger
10 Nov 14

By Andy Hildebrand

A year ago, Rhinelander High School alums David Chrisinger and Brett Foley, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, completed a 50-mile ultramarathon to raise money for charity and awareness of the immense challenge veterans face when trying to transition back to civilian life.

It all started with late-night chats between the two friends, but for Chrisinger, before long, working with veterans had blossomed into a full-blown passion.

He pored over book after book and article after article, learning as much as he could about the process veterans go through when their time in the service is over.

Now, a year after completing the marathon and many more since he first started working with Foley, Chrisinger has continued learning and started teaching.

“Before the 50-mile run that was last October, Brett (Foley) and I got invited by a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to come and talk to his class,” he said. “The class was on running and the meaning of life. It was kind of perfect for us because we were raising money and talking about veterans (transitioning) out of the military. There was an administrator in the general education department who came to watch.”

Afterward, the administrator came up to Chrisinger and asked if he could turn the presentation into a class for student veterans. “The idea certainly intrigued me,” he said.

From there, Chrisinger turned his attention to what he does best – research.

“I started looking around to see if other universities had classes like this,” he said. “I found a couple and I talked to the professors who taught them. I devoured all these different books and research articles about veterans in college, the sorts of things they struggle with and the things they need more help with. I put together a proposal for the class, went through the review process and it was approved, thankfully.”

The class is called “Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life” and its objective is to prepare incoming veterans to succeed at UWSP. Chrisinger said all freshmen at the university must take an introductory course, but the courses available aren’t necessarily great fits for veterans.

“The class is situated in this program at the university called the first-year seminar,” he said. “All the freshmen have to take one. There are different topics that they’re centered around. There’s one on ‘Lord of the Rings’ and there’s one on the history of The Beatles. They’re supposed to be fun topics and a lot of what is taught in the course is how to be successful in college. They’re seen as a foundation level class that prepares you to be successful and help you graduate. They were having trouble with non-traditional students in general and veterans specifically who just weren’t relating to the material. A lot of it is geared toward 18-year-olds. Veterans have significantly more life experience than that.”

Chrisinger knew he needed to shape his syllabus in a way that would appeal to veterans and make the transition to college life easier while still teaching the skills needed to succeed in class. As it turned out, that meant he would wind up doing much of the work himself.

“I really struggled to find a single book that talked about all the things I wanted to talk about in the class, so I ended up just writing a lot of the articles that I’ve assigned,” he said. “We also have assigned a book called “The Long Walk” by Brian Castner, who’s an Iraq War veteran. He was an explosive ordinance disposal technician and its a very powerful book about coming home from war and transitioning into civilian life.”

Castner provided a focus for the class to rally around, and it involved one of the lessons Chrisinger learned from Foley years ago.

“One of the things Castner did was write about his experiences, and that’s something I found really helped Brett (Foley) too,” he said. “I’m having the students do a lot of reflective writing in the class, and for their final exam, they’re actually writing a paper between eight and 12 pages. The topic is transitioning out of the military and into civilian life. What’s cool is, we’re going to compile all those essays and put them into an edited collection and sell it through Amazon as a fundraiser for the veteran’s club on campus.”

Later in the semester, Castner will visit the class. He will also give a campus-wide talk about bridging the gap between civilians and the military.

With his syllabus in place and the semester drawing near, Chrisinger said he didn’t know how the students would react.

“I was nervous about the class,” he said. “I didn’t know if they were going to buy into it or if I was going to be a joke to them. For the first couple days, I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t tell. Then they really started to loosen up and open up. One of the students told me afterward they were sizing me up a little bit. They didn’t know what to expect. They realized it was a safe place and they could be themselves without feeling awkward or strange or judged. I think they appreciate that.”

Little by little, Chrisinger got to know his students through class and their assigned writing. Exercise was another approach Castner focused on in his book, so with a 50-mile ultramarathon already in his back pocket, Chrisinger formed a running group with his class. They meet in the evenings a couple times a week. It’s not mandatory, but many of the students attend.

Chrisinger worked other assignments into the class that encourage the veterans to venture outside their comfort zones and into campus life. At first, it was easier said than done.

“The students also have these four out-of-classroom experiences they need,” he said. “They have to go to a varsity sporting event, an academic club, a non-academic event and a veteran’s group. I thought the varsity sport would be the one everyone did right away, but nobody was doing it. After class one day, a student came up to me and said, ‘You know, I can’t speak for everyone, but crowds are kind of tough for me.’ I didn’t even think of that. It didn’t even cross my mind.”

Instead of scrapping the assignment, Chrisinger decided to turn it into a field trip of sorts.

“So I thought, what if we all did it together,” he said. “I ended up having the class over to my house and we made chili and a campfire. We had lunch and then walked over to the Pointers football game. We all sat together. It was a nice day and a good game. They connected with each other outside of class, and I think that’s what that class has been successful at. They’re connecting with each other and they’re forming friendships.”

As the semester wore on and the group got closer, Chrisinger discovered he was learning too. Despite all of his research and prior work on behalf of veterans, interacting with the class and watching them grow opened his eyes.

“I was a little bit surprised how adamant they all were about how they didn’t regret being in the military,” he said. “It’s something they’re very proud of, even if they had bad deployments or they lost their best friend, which did happen to one student. They had these terrible experiences and suffered through these situations. I have one student who was in Washington D.C. on 9/11 and was doing Pentagon rescue. That’s awful. He was digging through the rubble and pulling body parts out. None of them regret it though and they’d do it all again. They’re proud of their service and they’re proud they served their country.”

It was an important lesson for Chrisinger to learn. The class is meant to help veterans with the transition to college life at UWSP, but that doesn’t mean these aren’t very capable students.

“I wouldn’t say I didn’t expect this, but I was pleasantly surprised that these students are very strong critical thinkers,” Chrisinger said. “They’ve had a lot of life experience and they have a lot of skills they can bring to the university that they didn’t think applied. They thought because they haven’t taken a test since high school it would be tough, but they have the hard work and critical thinking skills that the military supplied them with. They’re beginning to see how to apply those skills at the university.”

That’s been Chrisinger’s goal all along. He wanted to help his students find a way to fit back into civilian life. Finding the best way to teach that was a work in progress though.

“They don’t want to be seen as victims,” Chrisinger said. “They signed up for it. They knew what they were getting into. They did their jobs the best they could and now they want to go to school. Maybe in the back of my mind I thought maybe I was going to have people who were traumatized and people who were suffering. I just didn’t know what to expect. A lot of what I was doing in the beginning was showing different ways how veterans through history have overcome their suffering in different ways. The students appreciated hearing those stories and seeing these different models, but they wanted to choose their own path. That’s become the theme of the class. You have to find your own way home.”

It’s been the latest step in a long journey of discovery for Chrisinger. His class is reaping the rewards of year of research. What started as way to help a struggling childhood friend has grown into much more.

“When I first started working with Brett (Foley), part of what motivated me to help him was to try to better understand what my grandfather had been through in World War II,” Chrisinger said. “He had come him from the Pacific and was not what we picture the greatest generation being like. He was an abusive alcoholic. He let his family down in a lot of different ways. When I started working with Brett and started reading about past generations of veterans, I started to better understand what my grandfather had been through and how little help there was out there for them. That’s what’s so encouraging about the post-9/11 generation of veterans. There are so many great groups out there looking to provide support to veterans.”

For vets hoping to continue their education at UWSP, that support is readily available in Chrisinger. He’ll teach again next semester with same goal in mind, helping heroes find their own way home.

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