Celebrating the red, white and blue – and yellow

Yellow Ribbon sends veterans back to school
By: Lien Hoang, The Press Tribune
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Mike O’Docharty is now settling into a quiet life in “beloved Roseville,” a complete about-face compared to his Navy career after 9/11, when everything was “go, go, go!” No more jumping out of choppers as a rescue swimmer. No more flying off aircraft carriers. No more posts in San Diego or Norfolk or Iraq. “I don’t need to do any more traveling,” he says with a smile. But he can thank his 22 military years for what he has now – a free education at Drexel University. As part of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the Yellow Ribbon program picks up the tab for veterans to go back to school. It splits all costs – including housing and spending money – between the government and participating schools. “I didn’t even see the bill,” O’Docharty, 47, says of paying for Drexel, which can cost $50,000 to complete an advanced degree. After retiring from military life in 2007, O’Docharty took on the job of chief of workforce development at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. He’s also working on a master’s in human resource development, and the career he’s building up to resembles his military experience in important ways. O’Docharty is preparing to go into training for workforce development, which reminds him of the flight instruction he delivered for much of his time in the Navy. It’s a sweet deal, and O’Docharty understands why some politicians might oppose the program. Why would an enlistee stay in the military if he or she can go back to school? “I could just imagine young people making that decision,” he says. “It seems like a no-brainer.” But fellow Drexel student, military man and Roseville resident Chris Hetrick decided to do both – return to school while still on active duty. By day, he flies remote combat missions full time at Beale Air Force Base. By night, he studies part time toward a master’s of business administration. “Getting back to school is actually refreshing,” the 31-year-old says. “It’s definitely busy, they have instructors with real-world experience. And they bend over backward to accommodate their students.” In class, Hetrick discusses financial management, business operations and leadership, which will help him make a career transition to consulting and strategic planning. In the Air Force, he knew a different form of leadership: commanding air crews under stressful conditions. Hetrick flew more than 100 combat flights in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2004 to 2007. He remembers the thunderstorms over the Arabian Gulf, the Northern Lights as he glided across the North Atlantic and the weekly soccer matches with locals in Turkey. And that’s just the sort of diversity Drexel is looking for. “I have found that our military students bring incredible work experience,” says Nancy Thompson, director of recruitment for the school, which boasts as many as 16 Yellow Ribbon participants. Six are from Placer County, with two from Roseville. “They’re very bright and very committed individuals.” Nationwide, 1,227 colleges and universities currently participate in Yellow Ribbon (compared with 1,181 schools last year). That includes seven schools around Sacramento. As of the latest figures from Veterans Affairs, the program disbursed $57 million in a one-year period for the education of 29,816 veterans. But enrollment numbers aren’t static. Hetrick has told Drexel he could be deployed at any time. Indeed, some of his classmates have already interrupted their education to serve abroad. They can continue to take some classes online, but either way, Thompson says, there’s always a spot for when they return. Lien Hoang can be reached at