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​From the battlefield to the Ivy League: Warriors go back to school

The academic boot camp that's helping veterans make the transition from battlefield to college campus
The academic boot camp that's helping veteran... 03:40

When Thomas Raio returned to civilian life in 2012 after a deployment in Afghanistan, he never wanted to carry a gun again. He also didn't want to work a minimum wage job.

But after six years at war with little time for reading and writing, the 25-year-old New Jersey native wasn't confident about the other alternative for him: college.

"I was in a really rough transition in my life when I got back from Afghanistan. I had some relationship issues; I had a lot of emotional uncertainties," Raio told CBS News.

"It was a lot to take in at one time, so going to a university like Rowan University--I was kind of a little bit reluctant to just dive head first into it."

Then, Raio learned about the Warrior Scholar Project (or WSP), an academic summer boot camp designed to help veteran soldiers make the transition from battlefield to campus.

In the summer of 2013, Raio and 23 other veterans filed into Yale University for two weeks of 16-hour days of academic training from top Yale professors and support from Warrior Scholar Project directors, many of whom are Yale and Harvard graduates and former veterans themselves.

James Levinsohn, the Director of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University, who is involved in the program, sang its praises. "Not every veteran wants to go to college--or even should--but most will be successful if they do it. And a project like this that eases the transitions and convinces them that this is completely doable is fantastic, and I'd love to see it more broadly implemented."

Levinsohn added, "I meet these students, I talk to them and I know they are going to be successful. But sometimes, I'm a little more sure of that than they are." One man who's been instrumental in convincing these student-veterans that a Yale education is within their reach is Christopher Howell. The program's 31-year-old co-founder served in the Australian army's special forces for a decade before enrolling at Yale.

Howell is seen by students as a role model, a paradigm of the program's goals who's living proof that veterans can succeed at the highest level of education in this country.

WSP is designed to feel familiar to veterans, an academic curriculum seen through camouflage-tinted glasses. It includes an analytic reading technique called "ninja reading" and a rigorous grading system to bridge the military and academic cultures.

"We spend a great deal of time dealing with social and emotional aspects of transitioning out of the military," Howell explained. "You're going from environment where you're around a very specific subculture into an environment with 18- to 22-year-olds, and obviously the culture is very different."

Nathan Lyons is a 27-year-old former Army Ranger who started his sophomore year at Columbia this past September. "Buckling down on several papers and having them be viciously graded gave me a metric of where I was at and what I needed to improve on," Lyons told CBS News. "It gave me a solid foundation for someone going into Columbia."

Outside the classroom these warrior-students talk about Alexis de Tocqueville over dinner. The informality of the conversation is conducive to helping them see the associations between de Tocqueville's views on liberty and equality and their own military experience. And that, in turn, builds their academic confidence.

"I was a squad leader, so the other marines looked up to me for advice," Raio explained. "I never really thought I'd take that into a classroom, but the WSP was all about making yourself an asset in the classroom."

Howell graduated from Yale last May. Now he's overseeing the expansion of the three-year-old organization from Yale, Harvard, and the University of Michigan to six more campuses across the country.

There are many programs in the U.S. intended to help veterans get an education after they've served their country but few aimed at helping them succeed, which Howell points out is an easy thing to overlook. "It's such a simply absurd idea, [but] when you have someone who has been out of school for such a long time they probably need to be taught how to be a student." Otherwise, he says, "It's like giving them a car but never teaching them how to drive."

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