For 15 years of his life, Penn State student veteran Matt Keenan acted as an intelligence specialist in the U.S. Navy. His 20s were spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, collecting and analyzing classified data.
Now, at 33 years old, Keenan (senior-anthropology) spends his weekdays pursuing an undergraduate degree and “integrating into a new identity.”
“I can handle it,” Keenan said.
Keenan, his wife Brittany and their dog Dwight have started the transition back into civilian life with the help of Penn State, they said.
Brittany (junior-nutritional sciences) said she and Matt met in the Navy A School, which is the school where individuals undergo technical training.
After graduating high school, Brittany said she heard rumors that the military would pull her out of school — something she “later learned as being false.”
“It was 2007, which was when the military was surging its forces because there was such a loss in Iraq,” Brittany said.
Throughout her time in the military, Brittany was also an intelligence specialist but said she only worked with Matt once.
Though Matt and Brittany spent time apart while serving, they said they did anything they could to adapt to the distance.
“You just find ways to stay busy and try to understand that your time together is precious when you do get it,” Brittany said.
When she was away from Matt, Brittany said she picked up more work responsibilities and stayed later.
“It was rough, but it was definitely a testament,” Brittany said. “It made life so much better when we were able to come together, like whenever we were able to spend that time together.”
As Brittany entered college life, the coronavirus pandemic entered the lives of the world.
“I went from managing people and feeling important to not having a purpose,” Brittany said.
Brittany, being a social person, said she “struggled” with the transition back to civilian life, especially with virtual learning. She started going to her professors’ office hours in hopes of some social interaction.
“[My professors] would ask me if I had any questions, and I would just say, ‘Nope, I just need a friend,’” Brittany said.
Now, Brittany works as the president of the Penn State University Veteran Organization, and Matt works as a student sponsor for the Office of Veterans Programs alongside his friend, John Buckley.
Buckley (senior-forest resources management) said he and Matt act as “a liaison between the office and administrative staff with the students.” They hold office hours for their smaller groups of Penn State student veterans and act as “a stabilizing force of help.”
“We kind of rally together as the older student veterans,” Buckley said.
Before attending Penn State, Buckley spent five years as a Navy hospital corpsman, providing medical care to infantry marine battalions while they’re in the field.
During his years of active duty, Buckley said he traveled throughout the United States. He was based in California and was deployed to Afghanistan twice.
“That was it — five years, in the blink of an eye,” Buckley said.
For Buckley, serving in the military wasn’t part of his plan.
After going to a community college for a short period of time, Buckley said “even at that level, it’s really expensive,” so he began “exploring other options” — that’s when he stumbled upon the Navy.
“I was just a young, restless man wanting to get away from the place that I’d spent my entire life growing up,” Buckley said.
After his time in the military, Buckley worked as a farmer before entering Penn State.
Buckley said he wanted to “maximize the benefits” he gained from his service, so he applied to the university and heard back three weeks later.
“Putting together applications for college is no small feat, so for me to be able to reach out and be accepted three weeks later — that to me was the end all, be all,” Buckley said. “I just knew, ‘OK this is where I’m going to end up.’”
Despite his “segmented college experience,” Buckley said Penn State “has definitely held up their end of the idea that what you put in, you receive,” saying the university has been a “great place to learn.”
Since transitioning back to civilian life, Buckley said Penn State has helped him adapt, especially through the forestry programs it offers. He said it teaches the classes at a higher level with more resources than other universities offered.
Buckley is now 33 years old as an undergraduate student, which is an “interesting experience” that he said he’s grateful for.
“I’m just so much more open and receptive to the education that’s put in front of me than I ever was in my early 20s,” Buckley said.
However, Buckley and Matt agreed that they sometimes feel like outsiders because of the age difference.
On some occasions, Matt has been told by other students that he’s “too old” to be a teaching assistant, but he continues to “try and relate” with the other students for the student experience.
“Ageism is definitely floating around here,” Matt said.
Buckley said when he overhears conversations his peers have with each other, they’re very different from the conversations he has with his friends — “but at the same time, [he] kind of loves it.”
“A student body with diverse life experiences, diverse leadership qualities and skills — veterans are a really important piece of that puzzle because of the uniqueness of their experiences,” Buckley said.
For Matt, he’s tried to separate his military experiences from his current life because “it’s healthier for [him] to really try and integrate into the perspective of a student.”
“I’ve really taken initiative to become a student and really integrate in that new identity,” Matt said. “I refer to it as my past life.”
Brittany said she’s glad she’s been able to study alongside Gen Z students because she thinks they’re more “compassionate and empathetic” than older generations.
“Community and inclusivity — that’s what I like,” Brittany said.
Brittany said while she misses the “camaraderie” of the Navy, Penn State’s Veterans Affairs and Services has helped them ease their way into a new mindset.
“Those lifelong friendships that you find are pretty unmatched,” Brittany said. “It’s really hard to recreate it in the civilian sense, but then you share that common ground with some other folks…There’s that venue for us to interact with one another and be on that journey of transitioning from being this military member to veteran to student.”
Though Brittany is still working on transitioning fully into civilian life as a student veteran, she said Matt has rediscovered his love for education and Penn State.
“He finally feels like he’s where he belongs.”
MORE NEWS COVERAGE