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Warrior Scholar Project helps veterans transition from battlefield to classroom

Helping vets prepare for college
Warrior Scholar Project helps veterans prepare for college life 05:05

Veterans at three college campuses just finished a weeklong academic boot camp. The programs in Michigan, Texas and Massachusetts were the last of more than a dozen that took place this summer.    

At the Warrior Scholar Project, classes start at 8 a.m. on the campus of Amherst College for highly trained soldiers, sailors and Marines now hoping to become elite students. Their guide for the week is Joshua Buck, a former Army sniper and drill sergeant now drilling a different kind of lesson.

"We teach three things. It's critical reading, critical writing and then, you know, de-greening, or adjusting to the culture change," Buck told CBS News correspondent Jan Crawford. He said de-greening means "taking the uniform off."

For the past two summers, Buck has been on the front lines of the Warrior Scholar Project, helping veterans move from the battlefield to the classroom.

"These men and women are not trained for college. So that's where we come in, we're a boot camp. … We are an academic boot camp," said Sidney Ellington, a former Navy SEAL and the program's executive director.

Joshua Buck, a former Army sniper and drill sergeant, is now drilling a different kind of lesson. CBS News

"Once they've been through that, now they're a whole lot more confident, just like a soldier or a sailor is more confident coming out of boot camp," Ellington added.

It might sound strange that experienced veterans would need a confidence boost, but as former Navy Corpsman Barry Frederick points out, being a student is different than being in uniform.

"Many of us getting out of the military, that was a big chunk of our lives. So we lose that part, that sense of being part of something. So we go to school, we become part of something else," Frederick said. 

The government spends $12 billion a year helping veterans pay for college through the GI Bill, but currently 40 percent of that goes to for-profit colleges, and post-9/11 veterans barely make up 1 percent of the nation's elite colleges and universities.

Amherst professor Geoffrey Sanborn spent time with the prospective students and said colleges like his need more veterans on campus.

"Their military background is like a source of strength in this context. You know? It's not something that you have to kind of, like, check at the door," Sandborn said.

The program encourages vets like 21-year-old Tracy Santos to consider community college with an eye on eventually transferring to a top school – after first learning how to be a student again.

"I think the scariest part is that these people that I am now surrounded by have come from school… It's like, I've been out of school for four-and-a-half years and it's like starting over," Santos said.

Santos joined the Marines right after high school. She said one key to the program is it's taught by veterans.

"So they know exactly how to talk to you and put what you've done before in the service to what you can be doing now," Santos said.

Buck spent 11 years in the Army, including three tours in Iraq, and went through the Warrior Scholar Program himself in 2015. Now he uses his personal story to remind the students of what's important.

"I have eight friends tattooed on my arm that have died, but only three of them actually died in combat. The other five went out due to demons in their own head," Buck said. He added there's more than five now.

Fueled by that loss, Buck is working toward medical school, where he hopes to become a psychiatrist to help more veterans with the transition home. It's personal for Buck.

"Every one of these vets, whether I just met 'em this week or I haven't met 'em yet, you know, I consider them family," Buck said.

With nearly 200,000 service members leaving the military each year, top schools like Georgetown are actively trying to recruit more veterans. With that in mind, the Warrior Scholar Project is hoping to expand next summer. While the service they're providing can be invaluable, as the president of Amherst College told us last week, the benefits these veterans bring to the colleges is even greater.

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