COLUMBIA, S.C. — After five years in the Marines, including a tour in Afghanistan in which he saw buddies die in combat, Andrew Kispert found going back to college as a new veteran one of his biggest challenges yet. For starters, there was the strangeness of resuming civilian life.
‘‘The hardest part is the culture shock,’’ said Kispert, a 27-year-old veteran student at The Citadel in Charleston, who expects to graduate next year with a degree in political science. ‘‘It’s the shock of no longer being in the military and under that strict regimen.’’
Tens of thousands of new veterans are expected to return to the workforce or to college in the next several years as the military downsizes after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and as the Pentagon budget is pared back. The Army is drawing down to 490,000 troops from its current 522,000.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has proposed even steeper cuts in his latest budget, which would reduce the Army alone to its smallest size since before World War II, about 440,000 troops if approved.
And that means more veterans on college campuses everywhere.
The challenges of helping the veterans go to college and stick with it until they graduate was the focus of a major conference Friday at the University of South Carolina that drew representatives from schools as far away as California and Arizona and as close as Mississippi and the Carolinas.
For Kispert, life after the military meant overcoming a sense of isolation he felt with younger college students who had never experienced combat.
‘‘You can’t really strike up a conversation too well because you haven’t gone through the same experiences,’’ Kispert noted.
Currently, there are more than 100 veterans enrolled at The Citadel, where about 60 percent of the alumni are veterans, and which has a veterans’ services center. It recently ran an ad campaign urging veterans to finish their degrees there.
Kispert, who takes day classes with cadets but does not participate in the military system, says being at The Citadel has helped.
‘‘I’m still surrounded by a military lifestyle, which has helped me say goodbye to one chapter of my life and open up a new one,’’ he said.
Karen Pettus, director of disability services at the University of South Carolina, said schools across the country are trying to get ready, adding, ‘‘We all know there will be a significant increase of military veterans on campuses in coming years.’’
Among the challenges, schools will have to work with returning veterans on establishing their academic credentials and finding areas of study that take advantage of skills learned in the military.