When the leaves famously turn from their summery green to the stained red and gold hue in small towns throughout New England, Keene State College students can be seen sipping cheap beer on their porches as students tend to do on fall weekend nights.
In the student neighborhoods in the heart of Keene, New Hampshire, Anthony Fino sits among them, talking and laughing, enjoying the normalcy of Sunday Night Football and friends.
Just like always, or maybe not, the comfortable collegiate life could not have been further from reality for Anthony Fino, when he first found out he was being deployed to the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.
Anthony, or just Fino as his friends know him, achieved the rank of Corporal E4 after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps from when he graduated high school in 2008 to being honorably discharged in August of 2013. He was part of the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) Battalion and served two tours to the Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan.
“I was 20 at the time I found out I was going to Afghanistan, I wasn’t really shocked. It was during ‘The Surge’ when Obama said he was going to send more troops to Afghanistan. We were told by our higher-ups that we were most likely going to be deployed once Washington made the commitment,” said the 26-year-old Derry, New Hampshire native.
President Barack Obama’s “surge” was a commitment of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in December 2009 with plans of withdrawing the reinforcements in 18 months.
The controversial escalation of troops was intended to address insurgent uprisings in the Helmand Province.
“It was good news for me [upon hearing about the deployment]. I didn’t want to sit in California the entire time. You don’t join the Marines and expect not to be deployed,” he said.
That was, after all, why Fino joined the Marine Corps. If he was going to sign the dotted line, it was going to be a commitment to the few and the proud. Though his relatives have a history of being officers in the Army and Navy during the Korean War, he was the first in his family to enlist in the Marines.
With Combat Operations such as the Battles of Marja, Sangin, Musa Qala and Now Zad raging in areas of the Helmand Province over the past decade, it’s easy to assume why The San Diego Tribune claimed it to be “the deadliest province in the country for international and American Forces.” The Marines were withdrawn from the nation toward the end of 2012 and passed off their occupancy to the Afghan National Army.
“I don’t want to answer that publicly,” said Fino when asked if he experienced combat during his service. He continued, “I will say that there was stuff going on… It was no playground over there.”
The war veteran then selected his words carefully, “My second tour was much more frenetic.”
The 26-year-old student was in the Marine Corps Electrical Division. His job was to manage and repair electrical generators in American bases throughout the region. He was part of a group of Marines that traveled in convoys to fix electrical generators in Marine bases throughout the desert. “There’s no such thing as an average day out there. If a generator stopped working at 3 a.m. then you would have to go fix it.”
Not many people know what it’s like going to war, and even fewer know what it’s like having to return to a civilian lifestyle. With over one million student veterans making use of the Government Issue bill to pursue advanced education opportunities in 2015, there are many student veterans who join Anthony Fino in the silent struggle of returning to normalcy.
“It was the most difficult challenge of my life,” said the Keene State senior without hesitation to the question of his transition process. “When you get out, you feel like you’re on your own.”
Fino arrived back in California after his second deployment in August of 2013. His first rule of order being back in the states was to move out of his apartment in twentynine Palms Marine Base, California, and make his way back to Derry, New Hampshire, which was a 2,910 mile journey across the country he committed five years of his life serving.
“I spent about two weeks with my family, and all of a sudden I was in a dorm room with two 18 year old kids,” said Fino. “It was a blur.”
In a month, he’d been from Afghanistan to California to New Hampshire, finally moving into his first college dorm, all at the age of 23.
After two months of living in Randall Hall, Fino decided to move to a single dorm room in Monadnock. “I couldn’t do it,” he said. “There were a bunch of drunk 18-year-olds running around so if they got caught, I would be found responsible because I was obviously over 21. I’m still good friends with all of them, I just wanted to separate myself from that awkward situation.”
Fino’s original goal was to go to college, even when he decided to enlist in the Marines. He will be graduating this fall with a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. He’s currently attending job interviews and wants to work in Information Technology or networking.
“This school’s been pretty good to me. My professors have been pro-veteran, regardless of their political spectrum, and I’ve had both ends,” he said.
“I think they should pay more attention to that, on veteran outreach, especially for new student veterans so they don’t have to feel like they’re taking it all in by themselves,” said Fino. “It can be overwhelming, and leaving that extremely structured lifestyle in the service, to being in college can make you feel like you’re alone.
“They should not put veterans with 18-year-olds. They should put them with somebody who’s over 21, or somebody sort of their age or even ideally another veteran if that’s even possible,” said Fino.
All students at Keene State are required to live on campus for a minimum of two years, including student veterans.
According to the Director of Residential Life and Housing Kent Drake-Deese, there are currently 34 veterans enrolled at Keene State. Drake-Deese is also the chair of the Veteran Student Advisory Committee (VSAC), and has, for the last three years, hosted a luncheon for student, staff and faculty veterans.
Drake-Deese said, “There are no student veteran groups on campus and that [VSAC] is pretty much all there is.”
Fino claims that more veteran support services may or may not have helped during his first year at Keene, especially for new student veterans who “don’t have to feel like they’re taking it all [in] by themselves.”
The Washington Post said “Roughly 2.4 million active members of the armed forces have left military service and returned to civilian life,” and that “in the next four years, another million” will be making the same transition.
New Hampshire has the eighth highest population of veterans per capita in the nation. New Hampshire residents represent nine percent of the state’s total population, according to naminnh.com.
Keene State College has seen an influx in student veteran applications this year.
According to Senior Business Services Assistant Robyn Lucius, “Some of our V[eterans] A[ssociation] guys we work closely with [and] encourage attending local schools to veterans so that could contribute to the rising number of applicants,” said Lucius.
When asked if she has to deal with any problems regarding veterans accessing their benefits, she responded, “Not really, as long as information is received timely, it’s a pretty basic process. Certain branches get different benefits, we just have to certify them and the rest is between the student and the VA.”
Marc Apesos can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org