For more than a decade as an Army medic, Jeff Detrick oversaw the health and wellbeing of more than 100 soldiers at any given time. Some of that work was in the Middle East caring for those injured in the field.
"I liked the fact that guys come to you and look at you and know you're going to be there for them," he said of his Army career. "It's the best job in the service."
After 12 years, however, Detrick was ready to carve out a career path and a more settled life in the civilian world. After an honorable discharge, he enrolled at UNLV in the fall 2013 and is now on the pre-nursing track. That first semester, the 37-year-old found a gulf between himself and his college peers. The highly structured military environment instilled a certain intensity in Detrick not shared by many in the civilian world.
Detrick, now the president of the student veteran organization on campus, recalls his first day of school, when a class didn't start promptly on the dot. It unnerved him; strict routines were highly valued and a break from them were usually met with a swift reprimand.
"I didn't realize it was going to be that difficult," he said. "I don't think anybody knows until they get out and away from the environment. (As a civilian), you're on your own. It's like Adam Sandler in that room full of first graders in Billy Madison."
Christina O'Gara, 29, also enrolled last year in the pre-nursing track after seven years in the Air Force. Now in UNLV's Air Force ROTC program, she will apply her nursing degree to her future Air Force officer experience. She had a similar reaction to her first days at school.
"All I can say is no matter how much you prepare, you're never really prepared," she said. "You're not used to handling your finances, not used to the type of people you're interacting with, not used to people not knowing what you just came from. ... You're a little intense and everybody else is a little relaxed."
O'Gara also found the approach to teaching was different. "In the military you're given just the information you're expected to know. In college, you are given a lot of information, and you don't know what you're going to be tested on," she said.
Not all veterans experienced culture shock when leaving behind the military structure. Jonas Martita, a business administration major, had an easier time transitioning from the Marine Corps. He quickly tapped into the resources in UNLV's veterans office.
"I was tired of waking up at five in the morning just to go stand in a formation. I wanted to do bigger and better things for myself," the 27-year-old said. "The Marine Corps has a lot of great opportunities, but I wanted to make decisions for myself instead of people telling me what to do. I want to use my own voice."
Russell Cameron, a Durango High School graduate, like Martita, says he had a smooth transition. The former Marine, who spent time on the ground in Afghanistan gathering intelligence about terrorist groups, graduated with his criminal justice degree in May. He is entering the Army through UNLV's Army ROTC program and hopes to become an helicopter pilot.
Cameron said his past military experience helped him become a more disciplined student. Before entering the Marines, he worked construction jobs in Hawaii and briefly attended college. "I wasn't as focused. ... Now I'm quick to finish homework, not procrastinate," he said. "I also find it helpful going to professors during office hours. They have good advice. It seems like other students don't really use that at all."
O'Gara is also more focused on her studies after her military experience. She, too, attended college for a couple years before entering the Air Force. "I felt like I was wasting my time (the first time in college). I didn't even know my major," she said.
Other veterans have taken advantage of online opportunities to complete degrees while still on active duty. Army Major Charles Valentine is stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and is enrolled in UNLV's online Master of Hospitality Administration program.
Valentine should have his degree completed by the time he finishes his 15-year run as an Army officer in the summer of 2015. He was an enlisted Marine from 1986-94. He then completed a bachelor's and Master's of Fine Arts in painting and worked as an art gallery director before joining the Army in 1999. Now, after years on the human resources side of the military, he's "looking for a new family" in the hotel industry, he says.
The 47-year-old admits to being a little concerned about companies viewing him as "a guy who isn't malleable anymore" but believes he can market his skills.
"It's not about the age and experience and what-not," he said. "I'm able to get along with the younger generation. I've been running around with 22- and 25-year-olds. It helps to keep you young and marketable."