Joining the military can be a great life decision, as is attending college. So, what happens when you do both? For these 10 veterans, the answer was to exceed any reasonable person’s expectations of a successful life by an incredible margin. I’m not going to say you’re definitely going to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a world famous entertainer, the next great American novelist or one of the coolest men to ever walk the face of the earth if you attend college after military service. However, I am going to raise your hopes to unrealistic levels by listing 10 famous veterans who jumpstarted their incredible careers by going back to school.
With the advent of the post 9/11 GI Bill®¹, over one million veterans have gone back to college after serving. Not since World War II has there been a better time for veterans to go back to college. And now with the number of military friendly online colleges, it’s never been easier. Here are 10 famous veterans who have shown transitioning into civilian life with a college degree is the way to go:
Before the Cosby Show, before the sweaters, before the pudding pops, Grammys, Emmys and five platinum comedy albums, Bill Cosby was a hospital corpsman in the Navy. He served in the Korean War helping those who were seriously injured recover with physical therapy and presumably humorous anecdotes from his childhood. Since Korea didn’t have a great standup comedy circuit at the time, he came home before embarking on his entertainment career.
After the military, he attended Temple University on a track scholarship. While at Temple, he worked as a bartender. While tending the bar, Cosby learned the tips flowed a little easier when he joked around with customers. Thus emboldened by the idea that people would pay him if he made them laugh, Cosby began performing shows.
Okay, so Cosby didn’t go back to school and get a degree in comedic studies that directly led to his success, but he did put himself in an environment to succeed by going to Temple after he served in Korea. He remains as one of Temple’s most dedicated alumni.
Charles Bronson was an actor who mostly starred in action movies that make Liam Neeson’s Taken films look like sequels to The Notebook. For instance, the title of his biggest series of films was Death Wish. This was not an ironic title. Bronson starred as a vigilante wreaking havoc on the criminal underworld that murdered his wife and assaulted his daughter, all the while growling at people in his trademark voice. He also starred in slightly less violent classics like The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape.
Unlike some Hollywood tough guys, Bronson had the military service record to back up his silver screen persona. He enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1943 and served as an aerial gunner before being a crewman on a B-29 Superfortress. He was awarded a Purple Heart for injuries he sustained while fighting. After the war, he took advantage of the GI Bill® and went to school to study art before moving on to what would make him famous - acting. Thanks to his schooling, he was able to make his film debut in You’re in the Navy Now and start his film career. Bronson is yet another one of those famous veterans who made the most of his military service and of his education.
You might be more familiar with the term “Catch-22” than with the name Joseph Heller. Catch-22 was the name of Joseph Heller’s most famous novel, but he didn’t name the book after the term. In fact, the term was named after his book. Judging a work of art can be a tricky, subjective practice, but you can tell something has become a cultural artifact of significant value when it enters into everyday speech.
Besides creating a new phrase for a lose-lose situation, Catch-22 also happens to be one of the greatest works of satire ever written and is considered by many to be among the greatest novels ever written by an American author. Heller wrote the book, which centers around a fictitious World War II Army Air Corps Captain, after serving as a B-25 bombardier in Italy and graduating from the University of Sothern California and NYU on the GI Bill®.
Heller’s experience is a perfect example of someone creating something extraordinary out of the combination of military service and college education. The subject matter for his novel came from his experiences in the Army Air Corps, while his ability to write about the experiences was at least refined while at school. Finding one of the many military-friendly schools out there can help you make the most of your military experience in a similar way.
Medgar Evers was the type of person who makes you look at whatever you’ve accomplished and feel embarrassed that you were ever proud of anything. He grew up in Decatur, Mississippi, where he had to walk 12 miles to go to school. Despite basically having to complete a half marathon every day, he graduated from high school and still had enough energy to join the Army to fight in World War II. After extensive service in the European theater that included fighting in the Battle of Normandy, he came home and enrolled in Alcorn State University—which was called Alcorn College at the time—and graduated with a degree in Business Administration.
As a black man living in Mississippi in the 1950s, few could blame Evers if he then decided to leave the South and go work somewhere that wouldn’t make his children attend segregated schools. However Evers was never one to back down from a fight. He became an active member in the civil rights movement and became the NAACP’s first field secretary for Mississippi. In this position, he helped coordinate sit-ins, boycotts, and assisted James Meredith in his efforts to attend the University of Mississippi. Unfortunately, Evers’ position was as dangerous as you would expect and he was shot in the back and killed in his own driveway.
Evers was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. He is remembered not just as a military hero but also as a martyr to the civil rights movement. His courage in serving his country overseas and at home demonstrates the extraordinary capabilities of a vet with a college degree.
Relatively speaking, Clint Eastwood managed to get a cushy assignment for his military service. He somehow managed to inject some of the heroism his many characters would display into his otherwise boring job. Eastwood was studying at Seattle University in 1951 when he was drafted by the Army. He was put on lifeguard and swim instructor duty at Fort Ord in California – not a bad assignment considering the Korean War was going on. However, on the way back from visiting his parents for the weekend in Seattle, the plane he was riding in somehow ran out fuel and was forced to make an emergency landing in the Pacific Ocean. Undeterred, Eastwood and the pilot proceeded to swim three miles to shore, which had to have bolstered Eastwood’s credentials as a swim instructor.
He was discharged from the Army in 1953 and like so many other WWII vets, took advantage of the GI Bill®. He went to LA City College to study drama. Fortunately for Eastwood, he didn’t learn not to squint and say his line through his teeth there, an early criticism of his work that would eventually become his hallmark. He’d go on to star in movies such as Hang’em High, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Gran Torino and talk to empty chairs at Republican national conventions. All of this was possible, at least partially, because Eastwood decided to go back to school after serving.
William H. Rehnquist
William H. Rehnquist is yet another example of a veteran who took advantage of the GI Bill® offered to soldiers after World War II. He went to Kenyon College for one quarter before joining the Army Air Forces in 1943. There he got a rather unusual assignment: he entered a meteorology program. He spent most of his time in the war bouncing around bases in the United States before becoming a weather observer in North Africa in 1945.
Maybe it was a lack of TV quality hair and a flashy smile, but either way, Rehnquist didn’t become a weatherman after the war. Instead, he attended Stanford University on the GI Bill®, where got his BA in polysci, before going on to earn an MA in government from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford. Another future Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, was also in his class at Stanford Law School, and they even dated for a short amount of time. Maybe their politics didn’t match up, or maybe they had no desire to be the legal world’s equivalent of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, but they both seemed to recover just fine from the breakup.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon appointed Rehnquist as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court. And in 1986, Ronald Reagan made him Chief Justice. Obviously, like anybody on the Supreme Court, Rehnquist’s career depended very much on his education. Attending college after military service allowed him to get started for free.
There may be something of a battle of the late night television hosts going on today, but many people think that if Johnny Carson was still in the late night game, it wouldn’t be much of a competition at all. Cited as an influence by Letterman, Leno, O’Brien and Fallon, Carson’s Tonight Show performances remain a cultural touchstone.
Before he was anywhere near a mic, Carson was an ensign aboard the USS Pennsylvania during World War II. He was headed to a combat zone when the war ended, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t gain a lot of experience from his military service. He entertained his fellow sailors with magic tricks and later stated that the best part of his time in the Navy was doing a magic trick for James V. Forrestal, who was the Secretary of the Navy at the time.
After the war, Carson went to the University of Nebraska. In a testament to his entertainment talent, he somehow successfully charged fellow students money to perform magic tricks instead of getting mercilessly ridiculed for them. Carson graduated with a degree in radio, which granted him entry to radio broadcasting and eventually television. Carson is one of those famous veterans who have a direct line from his service to his degree and to his successful career.
George HW Bush
You may know Bush Sr. as the progenitor of a political dynasty, the 41st President of the United States or as that guy who said, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” but did you know he also was a war hero and a Yale graduate?
War hero is a label that may get applied a little too freely to politicians who happened to have served, but if anyone is worthy of the label, Bush Sr. is. Serving as a naval aviator in World War II, Bush received three Distinguished Flying Cross Air Medals and a Presidential Unit Citation. During one mission, his airplane’s engine caught on fire, but Bush still managed to release bombs over his target. He then proceeded to bail out and waited to be rescued for four hours in an inflated raft.
Instead of sitting back and spending the rest his days thankful he was alive—as he had every right to do—he chose instead to attend one of the best universities in the world. He graduated from Yale in just two years before embarking on a successful business career. He was a millionaire before he became President. As a millionaire, hero pilot and President, all Bush had to do was be a cowboy and an astronaut to work in all the standard childhood dream jobs. His combination of military and academic experience played no small part in that success.
Gene Hackman is known primarily for his roles as some variation of a hardnosed no nonsense military leader. So, unless you only know him from the Royal Tenenbaums, it should come as no surprise that Hackman served in the Marine Corps before he was a famous actor. He somehow managed to join up at the age of 16 and served for four and half years, primarily as a field radio operator. When he came home, he took advantage of the GI Bill® and studied journalism and television production at the University of Illinois.
Interestingly, he didn’t fully pursue acting until the age of 30, when he enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. Supposedly, he was voted one of the two “least likely to succeed” in that class. Of course, Hackman would go on to succeed, earning two Oscars in his long and illustrious career. Though there weren’t any military-friendly online colleges for Hackman at the time, he was still able to make a great career for himself.
These days, Paul Newman might be associated more with salad dressing than with movies, but that doesn’t change the fact that he also happened to be one of the coolest men to ever exist. Besides making movies like The Color of Money, Cool Hand Luke, The Sting, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Newman also won multiple national championships in open wheel IndyCar racing and was a huge philanthropist. That salad dressing? If you didn’t know, all of the profits and royalties from the Newman’s Own brand go to charity. By 2013, the company had donated over $380 million.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Newman also served in the Navy during World War II. Colorblindness prevented him from being a pilot, so he became a radioman and gunner in torpedo bombers. He was aboard the USS Bunker Hill for the Battle of Okinawa.
When he left the Navy in 1949, Newman went to Kenyon College where he earned degrees in drama and economics before receiving further schooling at the Yale School of Drama. Still not done studying, he then went to New York City to learn some more about drama under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. By 1958, he was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood thanks to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which he starred along with Elizabeth Taylor.
True, few people have as much innate charisma as Paul Newman, but locating some military-friendly schools when you’re done with your service can give you a chance to at least have the same initial career path as him.
¹GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.