Currently in her final year of the University of Michigan-Flint Bachelor of Social Work Program, Gretchen Neumann is feeling excited that graduation is not far off—especially after years of sporadically taking college courses at various institutions since she joined the United States Navy in 1999.
Gretchen served five years active and three years inactive duty with the Navy, traveling constantly, and picking up college credits whenever possible. The military paid for her college and, now as a disabled veteran, the military continues to take care of her tuition. She's grateful for all of that. However, the Navy has given her much more than an opportunity to earn her college degree.
"The military has shaped the person I am," Gretchen said. "It's the reason my goals are set so high. It's why I address my professors by their professional title. It's why I come to my classes early and why I never miss an assignment. I never give up."
Perseverance is a big part of her life. Married with three daughters and two sons ranging in ages from one to 15, Gretchen balances a busy family life in Clarkston, Michigan with her UM-Flint course schedule. She grew up in southeast Missouri in a lively farming family, one of seven kids.
Strong and energetic as a child, she said being able to serve her country in the military was her childhood dream. She wanted to join so she could "travel everywhere, climb rock walls, jump out of planes, shoot guns, and go camping every day and get paid for it."
Following boot camp in Chicago, Gretchen traveled to California, Japan, Spain, France, Germany, and Switzerland. She served in the Navy's Civil Engineer Corps as a diesel mechanic for the Seabees Construction Battalion and specialized in small engine repair on concrete machinery.
"We are the ones who come in after the Marines and build runways, hospitals, and bridges, and prepare the way," she said. "I had to carry an M-16 and a wrench because we were working under fire."
On September 11, 2001, her unit's scheduled flight to Spain that day was cancelled, and for 10 consecutive days following the attacks, they mustered for duty before being sent back to the barracks. Eventually her unit arrived at the Naval Station in Rota, Spain.
"In Spain, we were sent on three detachments to the Middle East," she recalled. "We had to make sure our wills were prepared and that we were mentally ready for whatever may happen. All three times, I was ready to go and they pulled the females off for safety reasons."
Eventually discharged due to injuries sustained while in the Navy, Gretchen has set her sights on finishing her bachelor degree next spring and becoming a first-generation college graduate in her family. She is a member of Phi Alpha Honor Society at UM-Flint, works hard to maintain a high grade point average, and hopes to continue studying social work in graduate school.
Her military experience boosted her college success at UM-Flint in many unexpected ways. "I learned respect, time management, perseverance, and ambition from being in the Navy," she said. "I had the time of my life there."
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