Cashing in on the rewards of the Air Force

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. -- I'm a full-time student for the first time since graduating high school six years ago, taking advantage of the GI Bill benefits I earned through an active duty enlistment. 

I knew there would be some changes. After all, this is college -- or at least community college -- but who would be better prepared for it than someone who just finished four years in the military? I soon discovered the changes I found were not what I expected. 

I was a little hesitant to jump right into the herd of students. All of my friends who went off to college after high school have since graduated and, at 24, I was certain I'd be one of the oldest freshmen on campus. Then I met 56-year-old Chuck in my literature class and found out school officials had labeled him one of the many "non-traditional" students on campus. I was a little more secure with the age difference I have with younger students. 

But it wasn't Chuck who surprised me. It was everyone else. The more I looked around at the other students, the more I noticed differences between them and me. People I pass in the hallway are plugged into their iPods and hold a zombie-like stare. Countless pairs of students walking together avoid conversation with each other by holding cell phones to their ears, engaged in what appear to be vital discussions at 7 a.m. Students who look like they just got out of bed casually enter a classroom up to an hour late. 

What's happened to everyone? Six years isn't that big of an age difference, and I don't feel like I have gone through some dramatic change in my scholastic absence. I soon realized that it wasn't age that separated us, but my four-year military commitment. 

I can no longer ignore the fact that my time in the Air Force has changed me. My enlistment took me from Texas to Florida to Mississippi. In basic training and technical school, I learned more than just how to do a job - I was taught how to live as an adult. I learned certain ideals and core beliefs that shaped who I am and what I will become. 

This year's celebration of the Air Force's 60th anniversary has highlighted the changes the service has gone through, from biplanes to bombers, from air power to air and space power. The Air Force's changes have been far from subtle, but it's not the technology that makes it the greatest military force in the world: it's the people who operate that technology that makes us far superior. 

The fact that the people are the Air Force's greatest asset is a belief that has been instilled in every Airman since basic training and is a fact that is apparent on every Air Force base. 

I was nervous about going back to school, but my time in the Air Force helped me to realize that these were changes I should welcome. I'm not just cashing in on my GI Bill benefits, I'm taking advantage of the work ethic and core beliefs I learned while I was on active duty and which are reinforced through my current service as a reservist. 

I should have expected all of the changes when I went back to school. After all, this is college -- or at least community college.