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Feeling isolated as a 27-year-old veteran, Jacob Hinton helped grow the Carolina Veterans Organization as president.
Feeling isolated as a 27-year-old veteran, Jacob Hinton helped grow the Carolina Veterans Organization as president.

When he was only 19, Jacob Hinton deployed with the 82nd Airborne Division to the mountains of Afghanistan.

Hinton, on his first of two combat tours in that country, served as a forward observer with the infantry. He protected his fellow soldiers by calling in air strikes and mortar support against the enemy whenever they were in a position to pose a threat.

In this deadly business, Hinton said, he clearly knew the rules of engagement.

But the terrain he encountered when he set foot on the Chapel Hill campus in fall of 2013 proved to be treacherous in ways his eyes could not tell him.

The day-to-day danger he faced here as a 27-year-old combat veteran, he said, was the overwhelming sense of being alone.

How he got here – and managed to get in – was an odyssey as odd and inexplicable as going off to war, Hinton said.

He grew up in Grants, New Mexico, in a county with one high school and fewer than 10,000 people. The only thing he knew about Carolina back then was that the great Michael Jordan played his college ball there, Hinton said.

Yet, in December 2010, a month after he left the Army, Hinton drove from Fayetteville to Chapel Hill to apply. He told people in admissions about his GED and they looked at his test scores.

“They told me I wasn’t competitive,” he said.

Hinton said he tried to shrug it off, but he was too proud to take their word for it that he was not good enough, and too stubborn to take no for an answer.

He enrolled at Wake Technical Community College, then took time off in 2012 for the birth of his son before giving Carolina a second try. This time, he filled out a formal application and wrote an essay in which he detailed how he believed his military service had prepared him to become involved in international affairs.

Not long after that, his acceptance letter arrived.

A rocky start

At first, he walked around campus with a tremendous sense of pride, but that feeling quickly faded as the semester went on and he found himself feeling more and more isolated.

When fighting a war, at least there was the cold comfort of knowing his buddies had his back. At Carolina, he felt none of the other students knew – or cared – that he was even there.

The fact that he had been in the military had nothing to do with that, Hinton added. Other undergraduates knew he was older than they were, and the gap in age divided them like a wall.

“I was 27 years old and I didn’t know anybody. I had no peers, nobody to hang out with,” Hinton said.

At least not until that November when he heard about a newly formed veterans’ group called the Carolina Veterans Organization (CVO). “I reached out and said, ‘Hey, I’m feeling like I’ve got to meet somebody.’”

He discovered there weren’t all that many people to meet – just the three organizers and four veterans who joined.

“The three organizers told me they were all graduating and they didn’t have anyone to take over,” Hinton said.

At that moment, Hinton knew he had found a new mission. College, he had come to see, was another fight for survival unlike any he had encountered before. Maybe, he thought, the Carolina Veterans Organization could be a way for them to look out for one another.

In February 2014, Hinton took over as president of the group, and membership gradually grew from a handful to more than 60.

Over the course of the year, Hinton reached out to people like Student Body President Andrew Powell and Winston Crisp, the vice chancellor for student affairs. Crisp, he learned, was a military brat who knew Fort Bragg and understood the ethos of “we” that military life instilled. When Crisp told him he wanted to help, Hinton believed him. The two of them began meeting on an almost monthly basis.

He also met several times with Chancellor Carol L. Folt, who had arrived on campus in 2013 just before he did. “She is extremely interested in student veterans,” Hinton said.

While still at Dartmouth, Folt worked on the Veteran Affairs Council. Last May, she participated in the first Red, White and Carolina Blue graduation ceremony, held to recognize military-affiliated students participating in spring Commencement.

Last year, Hinton said, he watched with the rest of the crowd.

At this year’s ceremony on May 8, Hinton will be one of the graduates receiving the red, white and blue Military Honor Cord to wear at Commencement. He will also give a speech about the experience of student veterans, the advances made to improve it and the distance yet to go.

Completing the mission

“The culture here is we want to do things for the military, but we don’t want to ask the military how to do it,” Hinton said. “That’s like taking any diversity group and putting a non-member of that group in the middle of it who says, ‘We’re going to do this for you.’ They don’t know our needs like we do.”

A turning point may have come last November when Hinton appeared in a video prepared for the University Board of Trustees in which he talked about the lack of University support and the need to find ways to help veterans connect with each other.

Now plans are underway to find a permanent home in the Student Union for the CVO and to add a veteran affairs coordinator in Student Affairs to focus exclusively on veterans’ special needs.

“The number one thing to help veterans succeed in higher education is to link them up with other veterans,” Hinton said. “It gives them camaraderie. It gives them back a social structure they no longer have that they used to rely on.”

With those connections in place, Hinton said, veterans are more likely to complete college and get a degree.

Hinton will graduate with a double major in political science and peace, war and defense. He was also inducted into the Order of the Golden Fleece, one of Carolina’s highest honors, based on service to the University as reflected in scholarship, loyalty and leadership.

Hinton plans to go to law school eventually, but meanwhile he has interviewed to be a military academic adviser at Fort Bragg. It would be a perfect fit, he said.

His future uniform may be a business suit, but one way or another, Hinton will always be a forward observer looking out for the soldiers following behind.

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