Navy man in the sky, scholar in classroom

USC School of JournalismMay 17, 2013 

  • About this series

    More veterans than ever before are returning from war and heading to college, in large part due to the benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. In just three years, it has helped 860,000 veterans go to school.

    At the University of South Carolina, the number of student veterans doubled to 800 between 2009 and 2012. Senior journalism students at USC in recent months interviewed student veterans about their experiences.

On the University of South Carolina campus, Frank Jordan blends in. He is quiet and keeps to himself, and on the surface, he is indistinguishable from the 31,000 other students who weave in and out of classrooms throughout the day.

But a closer look at his straight posture, buzz haircut or the dog tag hanging from his key chain reveals something else.

Jordan is a veteran of war.

After enrolling at USC in 2005 and not finding college to his liking, Jordan decided to join the military. After a year and a half of intense training, he spent five years in the Navy as an airborne cryptologic analyst, flying in manned reconnaissance missions. Most of his time served was spent in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

“When you think Navy, you think boats and water,” the Columbia native said. “I never saw a ship.”

His job was on the plane, providing intelligence support for combat troops on the ground. Because of the sensitive nature of his work, there are many things Jordan cannot talk about. Seemingly innocent questions – How high did the planes fly? How long was your lengthiest mission? – prompt quick head shakes. “Can’t tell you that.”

But after three deployments to Turkey and one to Qatar, Jordan has plenty of stories that are not off-limits. Like how the flight suits he wore felt like oversized pajamas with lots of pockets, or the ancient rock he took home as a keepsake, or even the time his plane’s engine failed.

It was an exciting life to be sure, Jordan said, but one thing was missing – his degree.

In 2011, Jordan returned to USC and is pursuing a bachelor’s in biology. He plans to go back into the Navy as an officer and eventually become a pilot. To do that, he needs a college degree.

For Jordan, the biggest initial challenge of being a student veteran was reintegration.

“I came in with an advantage because I don’t look old,” the 26-year-old said. “I kind of blend in.”

But getting used to a sporadic schedule with university classes was difficult, he said. So was the lack of discipline in some of his classmates.

“I remember one math class I was taking, and the professor was trying to talk and it was a good five minutes and the students still wouldn’t be quiet. I took it upon myself to tell them to be quiet so he could teach,” Jordan said. “When you are so used to structure and regulations and rules, and it doesn’t exist all of a sudden, it throws your brain for a loop.”

For professors, veterans like Jordan are a dream to teach. If there’s an assignment, veterans do the assignment, said geography professor Edward Carr, who has had Jordan in two of his classes.

Jordan missed Carr’s class only once, and even though it was a large class, Carr noticed, he said, because Jordan was such a constant. And on that one day he missed, Jordan sent Carr an email apologizing.

“Frank’s the kind of guy that, if he says he’ll do something, I know it will get done,” Carr said. “That’s very true of military students.”

Carr also noted that in the subjects he teaches, which relate to the world as it is today, veterans tend to pick things up much more quickly.

“I’ve noticed that these guys have been around,” he said. “They’ve seen stuff.”

Jordan agreed that this time around, he is a completely different student. He is more focused and mature, traits he attributes to his military training.

About once a week, Jordan eats dinner with his parents and younger brother, Kaley, 22, who live in Columbia. His mother, Susan, teaches physical education at Brennen Elementary while his father, Don, is a mathematics professor at USC. Jordan sees his older sister, Elizabeth, about every three months. She lives in North Carolina and with her three children.

Jordan fills his time almost completely with school and a work-study at the Center for Science Education, where he helps organize symposiums and science fairs for middle and high school students.

Typically, Jordan takes classes in fall, spring and most of the summer.

Jordan’s family understands that he is back first and foremost to finish his education, something he has learned to value greatly.

“With the job I had, information was the weapon,” Jordan said. “Especially after going back to school for two years now, I believe that the more you know, the more powerful you can be.”

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