The Books They’ll Carry: Operation Veteran Admission | Community Notebook | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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The Books They’ll Carry: Operation Veteran Admission 

Last Updated: 08/03/2015 9:31 am

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Soon, it got so bad he had to be put on antidepressants. But sailors are not allowed to work on a nuclear reactor when they're on antidepressants. So he was temporarily reassigned to building upkeep duty, after the ship had returned to the Norfolk shipyard. That only made things worse. And the medication made him gain weight. He failed his second and third physical standards tests—strike one came after a surgery—and the navy discharged him.

"Figuring out a new direction to go, it's not easy," Finlay says now. "I kinda stagnated when I got out of the military. I wasn't sure what to do with my life. I was kind of lost." He spent three years adrift on unemployment benefits, partying and living with family. Meanwhile, he was the victim of domestic violence at the hands of his girlfriend, with whom he had two young children. They broke up and he took her to court to win custody. "It was a tough time," he says. "I didn't know what to do. I didn't feel like I really fit anywhere. Getting going was tough."

Finlay and his kids moved up to Fishkill from his home in Hastings, further away from New York City's temptations. Without the distractions and with kids to care for, he rediscovered his focus. But he didn't know how to put his life on track. He'd lost several important documents, including his discharge papers, which held the key to his benefits. He got in touch with local state senators, who passed him on to OVA. "It seemed like they really kinda got it, the sense of when you get out of the military, not really knowing what you're doing," Finlay remembers of his first interactions with Carrell and Ridley. "Just getting out is confusing. They seemed to know through hard experience how tough it was and really wanted to help. I was really happy to hear from them."

OVA guided him through the labyrinthine process of recovering his lost papers. They helped him apply for his benefits, for the GI Bill, and for the various tuition grants he was eligible for. They made him aware that he was eligible for treatment for the depression he had left the military with. And then they set about making a plan. If he accomplished little else, Finlay had discovered a love for cooking in his lost time after the navy. He decided he'd like to go to the Culinary Institute of America. OVA explained what it would take to get in. That he needed six months of work experience in a professional kitchen, and that it wouldn't hurt for Finlay to get his feet wet academically again. So he's looking for a part-time cooking job and enrolling at Dutchess Community College. "I'm still in the beginning of the process," Finlay says. "But if these guys hadn't helped me I'd have no idea what I was doing. I'd still be sitting here." Finlay hopes to eventually get his bachelor's degree in food science from the CIA. Then he'd like to become an executive chef and perhaps open a restaurant.

The Next Chapter

Getting a veteran through the process is a marathon. Carrell and Ridley have each been talking to a half dozen others, steering them in the right direction. They want to keep their organization as local and grassroots as possible. When I called Carrell a few months after we first talked to ask some follow-up questions, I caught him at a mall. He'd just spotted a man in old combat boots and asked him what he was doing for a living. He drove a truck, so Carrell told him about all the college money out there for veterans like him and handed him his business card. "We're just trying to help people get ahead," he says.

click to enlarge feature_vet_scan-36.jpg

As for Carrell himself, when he finishes up at Vassar in a year or so, he'd like to get an Executive MBA from the University of Texas-Austin. He's not sure how he'll pay for it yet. His GI Bill is due to run out. But he'll figure out a way. And then he'll probably start another OVA chapter down in Texas. "You kind of get to continue your service by helping veterans," Carrell says.

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