Michael Dakduk could've coasted into college with the help of the Millennium Scholarship. But the first-generation college student was eager to explore the world (he'd never been outside the West). And he wanted "to do something meaningful, something beyond myself." After two Middle Eastern tours, he returned to his hometown college to major in public administration. He helped launch UNLV's student veterans group and now serves as vice president of the national organization. In the spring, he landed the prestigious Truman Scholarship, which provides $30,000 for graduate studies. Once again, though, he's thinking of deferring school to serve once again.
I was inspired by teachers at Rancho (High School) who had served in the military. There was something about the way they carried themselves. Even after they left the military, they were still leaders, and they were still serving others.
Everyone has a funny way of trying to define leadership. I don't think you can give it a Webster's dictionary definition. You see a leader and you know it. Doesn't matter their rank or status; it's about the way they influence others.
I researched every branch of the military before I enlisted. The Marines offered the smallest sign-on bonus but the biggest challenge.
I served in Iraq in '05 as a junior-level supervisor in communications for combat operations. By 19, I was responsible for the lives of six people. Where do you get that opportunity anywhere else in life?
I volunteered for a special operations unit knowing I'd have to deploy a second time. That didn't bother me; I figured that's my job, that's what I was supposed to be doing.
Afghanistan was much more intense. The world's focus was on Iraq when I served there. We rolled in a convoy of 50 vehicles. In Afghanistan there were maybe nine. There was so much less support. We felt much more isolated and vulnerable.
One day we were preparing the incoming unit to take over, just driving along in the Helmand Province to show them the lay of the land. A roadside bomb went off and one of my fellow communicators died. He was just 20 and that was our last mission. That's part of what motivated me to get involved in veterans affairs. I think we should be living memorials to the people who have made more sacrifices.
The transition from military to civilian life can be really hard. Take getting a job. There's a perception that the only skill that a person who served their country has is to hold a gun. When I got out, the only job I quote qualified for was at the Palms (casino) in security. I mean, really? My leadership skills, my aptitude for learning didn't matter to a lot of employers.
Leaving a Legacy on Campus
I had no aspirations to be president of UNLV's veterans group, but no one was raising their hand, so I did. The group gives us a common bond and a way to tackle challenges together.
We wanted to establish ourselves by doing something meaningful. Can you believe that Las Vegas was one of the only major U.S. cities without a veteran's monument?
[UNLV's monument was dedicated on Sept. 11.] It took a year and a half, which to me was a long time. I definitely got a lesson in diplomacy. It didn't occur to me that there'd be so many differing views, especially over the design. Finally, Tony (Montenegro, then vice president of the student group) said, "Let's take it to the seventh floor," meaning, the president's office in the Dungan Humanities Building. Then it got done.
Fundraising wasn't that hard. One in nine Nevadans have served at some point, so we started with the local veterans organizations. As an institution, I think UNLV has done a good thing in starting the RebelVets office. I hope it evolves as a major resource for students. I've had to learn to look at things in steps. I know what I want it to be, but it all takes time.
The gap between 18 and 22 (years old) isn't major. But 22 with two combat deployments is another story. It makes you different. It makes your needs and priorities different.
Challenges for this Generation's Vets
There are going to be a lot of veterans with access to the new GI Bill. That will bring federal dollars to campuses, to Nevada. But universities have to understand that a lot of these guys will come with issues -- physical disabilities, traumatic brain injury, PTSD. You can't just take their scholarship dollars and not provide services they need to succeed.
I've now moved on to be vice president of the national student veterans organization. Our legislative agenda includes the topic of my Truman Scholar proposal: discriminatory clauses in the new GI Bill. For example, if a wounded warrior has trouble attending college in person and chooses an online institution, he won't qualify for the housing allowance. That makes no sense to me. He still has to live somewhere.
Another issue is that many university programs don't accept military credits. Shouldn't the studies you do overseas in the military at least fulfill your international studies requirement?
I will always be very involved in community leadership. I wanted to do that in Nevada, but the economy, both in terms of being in a recession and not being (economically) diverse, means there is really no job I would love to do here. I think a lot of young people face the same situation. It makes me sad for my state.
The lack of support for higher education is sad, too. Nevada needs UNLV to be a great school, but it can't achieve that with only the people within these walls working at it. We need our political and business leaders, especially those who are alumni, to support education too.
I applied for the Truman Scholarship because I saw the words "public service" in the criteria. The Honors College dean (Peter Starkweather) helped me put together my application. He said, "Well, your GPA is a lot lower than a typical Truman Scholar, but don't get discouraged."
I think (Starkweather) might have thought I was a little arrogant. I told him, if I could get past the paper application to the finalist interview, I knew I'd get the scholarship. I was that confident. I knew I could win them over.
My GPA is higher now, by the way.
I graduate in December. I'm actually considering doing one more tour under a special program where you go back just for one more deployment.
People ask why I'd do that. I'm not surprised they ask, but I stopped explaining it. The discussion always turns political -- if we should be there or not. At the end of the day, though, young men and women are there, regardless of your view or my view. They are there because of decisions made by the past couple of administrations. Someone has to put on the uniform; why not me?
I kind of have this idea that I don't want to get big-headed. I figure, how much more of a leader will I be if I can say, "Right now I'm here with you. Then I'm going to grad school -- and so can you."
I just can't see doing an internship in the time between commencement and grad school. I don't want to say it's menial, but after what I've already done, is an internship really for me? I mean, filing paperwork or leading men? There's really no comparison on where I can achieve more, where I can be more.