My Journey from the Military to the University of Utah

by Nolan Acree, Army Veteran and University of Utah student

Life always seems full of transitions from moving away from home, attending college, to getting married and starting a career. Everyone goes through some sort of life altering transition in their lifetime. In this piece, Nolan Acree, Army Veteran and a University of Utah student, is reflecting on the biggest and most difficult transition in his life – leaving the U.S Army.

Most would think that joining the Army would be the most difficult transition but for Veterans that enlist at 18, a life rhythm is quickly created. The rhythm that develops inside our mind is building relationships with our fellow Soldiers, pushing through challenging tasks, building our mind to be stronger than our bodies, and much more. All these things are done on a regular basis from Monday to Sunday. It becomes your life: you breathe Army, eat Army, drink Army, and even sleep Army. It’s a job like no other. The workday never ends. It is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Whether or not you enjoy what you’re doing, an attachment is created to some part of the Army.

Building relationships

For most like myself, the biggest part is the relationships that are created in the Army. These relationships are strongest I have ever felt in my life. When you hear military members use the terms Brothers and Sisters, it is the truth. Everyone you come to know in the Army and everyone you meet or see in the camouflage uniform is part of your family. The reason why we say we are family is because of the emotional connection with one another. The connection is that we are willing to lay down our lives for one another. This characteristic of selflessness is something you don’t find in many other jobs. That bond alone is stronger than anything, and is developed through being shoulder to shoulder in some of the worst times together, from bullets flying over your head, mortars hitting around you, sleeping in subzero temperatures, and eating some of the worst food possible.

Losing the bond

When I left the U.S Army in 2020, losing this bond was the most difficult thing to overcome. I quickly realized that the camaraderie is something I will never be able to find again in my new world. Transitioning from seeing my brothers and sisters every day, to rarely even hearing from them, my heart began to feel pain. It was a pain like no other, one that most would say is impossible to get through. I lost a sense of purpose, a sense that the people around me had my back, that the people I was with now wouldn’t be the ones to lay down their life for me. It made me an emotional wreck on a daily basis. I felt that I had no one. But if I had learned anything from the Army, things could always get worse.

I remember multiple times when I was feeling at my lowest, I knew that life could always be worse than it is right now. Like many Veterans, I could be homeless or sick and not even have a way to contact my loved ones. This fact alone made me feel grateful for what I had, grateful that I came home safe and breathing unlike so many of my brothers and sisters. My old team was also one of the greatest sources in the world. They always took my call and reached out to make sure I was doing okay. They let me know everyone was still safe, and reassured me that what I was doing was the best opportunity for me. They constantly reassured me. It was at that point that I knew the bond was not broken, and that people still cared about me.

Seeking support on campus

Once my mind started to settle down into school and get ready for a great fall semester, I started to see what was available for Veterans in the Salt Lake City community and on campus. The first resource I went to check out on the first day of school was the Veterans Support Center (VSC) on campus. I met the Director, Dr. Paul Morgan, and like he does with every Veteran on campus, he invited me into his office to get to know me better.

I told him of the tough time I was having and my current emotions. That is when I received one of the greatest pieces of advice. He told me, “You did your job.”

This piece of advice helped me the most. Instead of feeling like I was missing something, it made feel excited that I had a new bright future ahead of me. That the world would keep moving forward. My past would never leave me, and the bond would never be broken. It will grow and branch off.

Finding new meaning

Since my conversation with Paul Morgan and other members of the Veterans Support Center, my new friend groups began to grow. I started to realize the more involved I was in school and in the Center activities, and the more I bonded with fellow Veterans who I could see face to face, the more I felt a sense of my military community come back. Deep conversations about service, country, and faith helped me realize there is much to look forward to. Through helpful activities like socializing, prayer, and talking about my military experience with fellow Veterans, I felt like I had a new home.

From then on, I was able to focus on my new mission at hand: graduate from the University of Utah. The boots will always stay clean, and the body and mind will always be ready to help my brothers and sisters. Since then, I have made it my personal goal to help Veterans like me to transition from their military service to starting education and making sure they understand why they are here. I want them to know that the bond to the military will never be broken and only grow stronger.