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“The hardest thing is trying to still feel relevant. In the Army, I was accustomed to ‘being somebody’ and having a real-life purpose... Now, my only responsibility is what I make for myself.”
Robert Baumgartner

Writing a New Chapter

One year after leaving the active duty Army, Sgt. Robert Baumgartner struggles with earning a college degree in English and transitioning to the Army Reserves to help support his family.

Robert Baumgartner returned to his hometown of Buffalo with high hopes after he left the active-duty Army last August.

After five years of being an Army journalist and with a combat deployment to Iraq under his belt, Baumgartner felt he had done his duty for his country and was eager to begin his new life with his wife and two children.

After his first year of college, there are days he questions his decision.

“The hardest thing is trying to still feel relevant,” he said. “In the Army, I was accustomed to ‘being somebody’ and having a real-life purpose... Now, my only responsibility is what I make for myself.”

He said he expected the change from being a soldier to a student to be jarring.

“I was nervous about getting out of the Army, but was excited about earning my degree,” he said. “I assumed that college would be the logical next step.”

Like thousands of veterans before him, Baumgartner decided to use the Chapter 30 Montgomery G.I. Bill to return to college. The bill has allowed him to attend college full-time without forcing him to find a part-time job.

“The New York state system pays 98 percent of my in-state tuition, while my lack of income allows me to qualify for a Pell Grant which easily covers the remaining two percent with money left over,” Baumgartner said.

That excess money allows him to help his wife Jennifer, an Air Force reserve officer, with the family finances and bills.
Before Jennifer started working for the Air Force reserve center in Buffalo, Robert said money was very tight but his college benefits covered their expenses.

“I could, and did, go to school full-time when my wife wasn’t working, but it wasn’t ideal,” said Robert. “We were ‘house poor’ in the sense that all of our bills were paid, but it left very little left over for discretionary spending.”

As Jennifer transitioned from her career as a full-time Army officer to an Air Force reservist and civilian employee, it allowed her husband to devote himself fully to being a college student. He admits, it hasn’t been an easy transition.

“College isn’t as fulfilling as being a soldier,” he said. “I miss having that sense of purpose. I miss the camaraderie. I miss being a professional. College is very good about teaching theory, but I’m finding more and more that I miss the actual real-world experience of being a journalist.”

Even with his frustrations about pursuing his education in tow, Baumgartner has pushed through his first year at Buffalo State University and is set to earn a dual degree in journalism and English in three years.

“It’s all ‘check the box’ and a ton of knowledge that I’ll never use, to be honest,” he explained. “I think with my life experience, many of these classes feel like a waste of my time.”

Jennifer understands her husband’s frustrations, but does not fully agree with all of his opinions about Buffalo State.
“The only ‘challenges’ he faces are in his own mind,” Jennifer said. “He has to stop thinking of school as a waste of time, check in the block process and glean as much as he can.”

Baumgartner has been able to use the time management skills he learned as a noncommissioned officer to maximize his study time and attain a good grade point average in his first semester.

“The degree will be worth the effort,” he said. “It is just hard now…Being a student and being a soldier are two different jobs. It is not realistic to expect the same sort of job satisfaction.”

In order to fill the void left by leaving active duty, Baumgartner recently rejoined the Army Reserves and has been assigned to the 305th Military History Detachment in Pennsylvania.

He thinks the choice will offer him more money and a chance to experience the things only the Army can provide as he continues his education.

“I’ll have to manage my time a little more efficiently, but I think it will help focus me,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d miss the Army as much as I have. The reserves will be a good opportunity to tell stories and help give me some of that motivation. There are a lot of roles I play: husband, father, student, provider. They are all very meaningful, but I’ve missed being a soldier.”