MISSOULA – Kyle Brekke admits feeling lost when he first found Missoula.

A Minnesota native, Brekke kicked off his senior year of high school by signing up for the U.S. Marines. During five subsequent years in the infantry, he was stationed in Hawaii and deployed to Hong Kong, the Philippines, Korea and Japan. Afterwards he bounced around colleges in California, becoming an unhappy economics major.

“It was a weird stage in my life,” the veteran said. “I kind of dropped out. Then COVID hit.”

Brekke decided to return to Minnesota. He had always found solace in the outdoors, so he and his pickup camper took a circuitous, soul-searching route home that passed through Missoula. A friend showed him around town, and he walked across the University of Montana campus beneath looming Mount Sentinel.

“It felt right,” he said. “I was thinking about a forestry degree, and as soon as I got back to Minnesota, I applied.”

Brekke isn’t alone. More than 1,400 military-affiliated students attend UM, which this year earned a Gold ranking for being a Military Friendly School from MilitaryFriendly.com. He learned right away why UM earned the designation.

“I applied to all the big forestry schools, and the communication process was really smooth for me here at UM,” said Brekke, now a junior in the University’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation. “An adviser put me in touch with a veteran in the forestry school, and he told me all about things and sold me on it. I didn’t get that from any other school I applied to.”

That same adviser, Darryl Lee, helped Brekke land a job with UM’s Military and Veteran Services Office. In that role he helps other veterans like himself transition to university life. This includes helping them process their benefits and getting them signed up for everything from health care and housing to email.

“We even help them get to class and decide where they want to sit in class,” he said. “Some of them are older and getting back into all that can be a struggle. The main thing is we try to have other students helping them who have basically lived through the same experience.”

The Military and Veterans Services Office is located in a house at 1000 E. Beckwith Ave. on the edge of campus. It’s a base of operations where veterans can share experiences and support one another. Brekke said they offer a lounge, coffee station and television, and the basement has a bank of computers where veterans can study and work on assignments.

“UM really provides a special learning environment for military and veteran students because we clearly understand where our students are coming from while empowering them to get where they want to go,” said Patrick Beckwith, the West Point Military Academy graduate who directs UM’s Military and Veterans Services Office. “We earned the Military Friendly Gold designation because we recognize our military and veteran students are a core component of the UM identity.”

Beckwith said his office actively works to recruit veterans and active-duty members of the military and their families. It also works to certify and process VA benefits and collaborates with UM academic departments to help improve credit transfer

Brekke has helped launch the University’s new Student Veterans Organization, which is designed to help students with military connections succeed in higher education and navigate post-military life.

“This includes an ambassador program where we try to match veterans with another student in their major,” he said. “We want to alert them to all the available resources at their disposal and help them plan for the classes they need to take.”

Brekke said he felt supported as a veteran when he arrived on campus, and it doesn’t hurt that UM is surrounded by mountains and nearby wilderness.

“The school and the outdoor opportunities here are endless,” he said. “For a lot of veterans that was a lot of what the career was – you are outside, rucking and camping – and you can do a lot of that here as well. I try to get out a lot in our area.”

Brekke plans to graduate in 2023. Does he feel like he’s found his path?

“It took me a long time to figure out where I need to be,” he said. “I’m glad I didn’t rush it, and I’m happy where I am. I felt a little lost, but I found a home here.”

- by UM News Service -