Feature Story

A Classroom Hero

Clearing Life's Hurdles to Achieve Success

Marine First Sergeant Ben Holmes
(BA, History, 2011; MEd, 2014)

National University may not be the first place that most people look for heroes, but students and alumni will appreciate that it often takes a lot of courage to enroll.

Pursuing a degree or credential program is a big step forward, requiring substantial commitment. It is a major business decision, comparable to buying a home or a car. Consequently, there can be anxiety about making the right choice that is sometimes accompanied by doubt and even fear of failure.

New students may wonder if they are smart and diligent enough to complete an academic program. The encouragement of a classmate or a graduate can be incredibly reassuring, and sometimes a few supportive words can make the difference between success and failure.

Sometimes faculty or administrators will discover a student so inspiring that they are compelled to share his or her story. These are individuals who carry heavy burdens, defy incredible odds and overcome significant obstacles in order to reach their goals. Alumnus Ben Holmes is such an individual.

Mr. Holmes is a first sergeant with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. This year he will retire from the Marine Corps after 20 years of active duty service. As a Marine, he has six deployments and three combat tours (two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan) under his belt. The alumnus has also earned two Purple Hearts. In April 2011, he was severely injured in an explosion that ultimately cost him his right leg.

Considering all that he has contributed and sacrificed for his country, many consider 1st Sgt. Holmes a hero. It is a title that 1st Sgt. Holmes appreciates but politely discourages. From his perspective, he was simply doing his job and dismisses his misfortune the way some dismiss a bad day at the office. He is equally modest about his achievements in the classroom; and yet if 1st Sgt. Holmes can inspire just one other student, then he is willing to share his academic tenacity with others.

“There were many moments as a student where I came to an impasse and had to battle my doubts,” he says. “There were times when I faced many obstacles and had to remind myself: ‘I can do this!’ For anyone else in a similar situation, I want to say ‘You can do this too!’ and it’s important to know at National University you will never be alone.”

1st Sgt. Holmes earned a Bachelor of Arts in History from National University following his combat injuries, graduating Magna Cum Laude. He went on to pursue a Master of Education degree, specializing in classroom technology and earning entrance into the Pi Lambda Theta honor society. He is currently a fully credentialed history and social science teacher, working toward his second master’s degree (this one in history).

Considering his battlefield experience and impressive academic accomplishments, it is difficult to imagine the tenacious, gung-ho leatherneck as a hesitant, uncertain, perhaps even intimidated student. The truth is however, that 1st Sgt. Holmes had “slugged away” with college courses on and off for years until signing up for classes at National University, a decision that he credits with altering the path of his education and the trajectory of his life.

When he deployed to Afghanistan in October 2010, 1st Sgt. Holmes was only five classes shy of his bachelor’s degree and optimistic about completing his studies upon returning from deployment.

“By that point I was in love with National University,” he says. “The format allowed me to take classes between major field ops. The flexibility allowed me to continue learning, regardless of where I was stationed. The instructors were savvy, knowledgeable, and completely understanding and flexible with my military commitments.”

A year-and-a-half and 16 surgeries later, while assigned to the Wounded Warrior Battalion-West, the convalescing Marine had some difficult choices to make. There was the outside hope that 1st Sgt. Holmes would recover from his injuries, return to active duty and possibly to Afghanistan. However, if he decided to pursue the MEd program with a teaching credential, the four months of student teaching would clearly be a sticking point.

“If I started the MEd but returned to full duty before student teaching, I would have to wait several years and wouldn’t be credentialed until after I retired,” 1st Sgt. Holmes figured. “I knew it would be tough, but the chance to earn my master's degree and be a credentialed teacher before retiring from the Marine Corps was a chance I had to take.”

In May 2012, 1st Sgt. Holmes was at the Carlsbad campus of National University, doing homework when his phone rang. It was a call from his doctor that he had anticipated but had also hoped to avoid: In spite of all medical efforts, his wounded leg would have to be amputated. That final surgery severed all hope of returning to combat, and it also cut extremely close to his commitment as a student and may well have his opportunity to complete student teaching.“Seconds after getting off the phone with my doctor, I called my faculty advisor to explain my situation and asked if it was still possible to continue with the program,” 1st Sgt. Holmes recalls. His advisor, Dr. Nedra Crow, helped guide him through “some of the darkest times and toughest decisions of my life” and ensured 1st Sgt. Holmes that he had her full support and that National University’s credentialing staff would do whatever it took to ensure he completed the program.

On June 1, 2012, Sgt. Holmes’ right leg was surgically removed just below the knee. Three days later, he rolled into his first night of class in a wheelchair and Professor Crow recalls saying to herself, “This guy is amazing. He is fully committed to being a teacher. I’m going to do whatever I can to support him.”

That summer, while learning to walk again, 1st Sgt. Holmes started student teaching at Oceanside high school – “not the easiest school at which to teach,” Professor Crow adds. If there were any doubts that the disabled student teacher couldn’t control his class and earn the respect of his pupils, they were almost instantly dispelled.

“Those kids were fantastic, and student teaching there was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” said Sgt. Holmes. The explosion in Afghanistan had damaged his body and robbed him of his military career, but in the end it had also strengthened his soul and redirected him to a place where he seemed destined to be.

Higher education has the ability to transform and rebuild lives. Most people have latent, undeveloped talents, and passions that, if encouraged, can redirect and reshape their future in profound and powerful ways. It takes courage to recover from loss, injury, and disappointment, to get back up when destiny knocks you down hard or gradually wears you down with obstacle after obstacle. Bravery isn’t always where you think it is, and neither is success or fulfillment.

“Learning is often about self-discovery, overcoming doubts and proving what is possible,” says Professor Crow. “It’s been amazing to watch Ben quietly clear so many hurdles and get to a place where he is happy, productive, and thriving. It’s been incredibly rewarding for me to see him succeed. I’m sure he feels the same way about the students he has inspired, and I have a hunch that there are a lot more than he realizes. Ben Holmes is certainly a hero to me.”

1st Sgt Holmes attributes much of his success to the many National University faculty and staff members that have supported his educational pursuits since 2007. Whether it was professors who shuffled deadlines to accommodate his active duty commitments or advisors who went the extra mile to ensure that he received full credit for military experience; 1st Sgt. Holmes describes National University staff as: “folks that just ‘get it’, and place the success of individual students above all else.” 1st Sgt. Holmes success will continue to be a priority for National University after he leaves active duty later this year. He has been awarded a scholarship from the university to pursue a Doctorate of Education, that he hopes will allow him to impact the lives of others, the way that so many at National University have impacted his.