‘If you’re not dead, you’re not too old’: U.S. Coast Guard veteran Jack Horner ’21 juggles college classes, fatherhood

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As a business owner, Jack Horner '21 did not initially plan on attending college after his time in the United States Coast Guard and gave his GI Bill to his two daughters. COURTESY PHOTO / JACK HORNER

Each week, The Flat Hat profiles one person — a student, faculty or staff member, or alum that is deeply connected to the College of William and Mary. This week, The Flat Hat presents its second profile in a series about student veterans on campus

After six years serving as a member of the United States Marine After 22 1/2 years of service in the U.S. Coast Guard, Jack Horner ’21 has decided to steer toward a different path. Since his retirement from service four years ago, he has built up his own business as well as taken on the endeavor of being a full-time student at the College of William and Mary. He is also a husband and the father of two college-age daughters.

During his time in the Coast Guard, Horner served as a federal law enforcement officer and a defensive tactics instructor. He visited 31 different countries to train other militaries and to perform security risk assessments of international ports. Horner said that his favorite continent to visit was Africa — where he was deployed 11 times — and that these travels were the best part of being in the Coast Guard.

However, the constant traveling ended up being the reason Horner decided to leave the Coast Guard after 22 years. He stated that the hardest part of his job came after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, when his job changed completely.

From 2001 to 2012, Horner was deployed on average 225 days out of the year. This meant 225 days spent away from his wife and two daughters who were living here in Williamsburg at the time.

“I missed Christmases, birthdays, cheering competitions, soccer games,” Horner said.

He was finally located in Washington D.C., where it was still too far for him to commute from home every day. A memory that stuck out to him was during an evening after he left work: he listened through the phone while his oldest daughter played basketball. Horner felt in this moment that he had given up enough in the 22 years he served and decided to start a new course.

“Why am I missing out on this stuff?” Horner said. “It was time to try something new.”

Horner is the owner of his own business called the Bravo Maritime Group in Williamsburg where he teaches self-defense to clients and improves security for businesses and homes. His passion for security and helping people protect themselves stems from his time in the Coast Guard, but he actually got the idea for the business when his oldest daughter was heading off to college.

He and his wife wanted to make sure that she knew self-defense before moving away from home, so he wrote up a course for her and a few of her friends. The work came naturally, and that was the beginning of his business.

Horner said he never intended on going back to college. He was content with his business, and because of that, he gave his GI Bill to his two daughters, who now go to school in North Carolina.

The GI Bill is a law that provides benefits for soldiers once they retire from the U.S. Armed Forces.

These benefits include compensation to attend high school, college and vocational schools, as well as mortgage and business loans.

He is thankful that the bill was able to cover his daughters’ college expenses, and knows they will be thankful one day as well.

“I don’t think they’ll get it now, but maybe in their 20s and 30s when they’re talking to their friends and they’re talking about their huge college debt, and they don’t have one, that’s when they’ll appreciate [it] the most,” Horner said.

Things were running smoothly with his business until about a year and a half ago when he applied for a Federal Emergency Management Agency contract and was unable to get it because he did not have a bachelor’s degree. He decided that he would not miss out on any more contracts like that.

“So here I am,” Horner said.

Horner decided to apply to the College on a bit of a whim. He was walking around campus one night with his wife, admiring how pretty it was and how much he loved studying history. Horner has always felt like one thing he missed out on was going to a brick-and-mortar college. He said he remembered his wife telling him, “If you’re not dead, you’re not too old,” and that sold him. He decided to apply to the College in 2017, and is now a part of the class of 2021 as a government major.

Horner’s experience at the College has been a unique one. Being a student veteran comes with its own set of challenges on top of the rigorous academic standards. Horner stated that the College doesn’t always necessarily do a great job of dealing with veterans.

“That’s one thing that William and Mary doesn’t do a good job of, of how to deal with veterans,” Horner said. “Hopefully [people] can start correcting the misnomers that are out there about vets.”

He spoke of how students often don’t know how to interact with him because he is older and comes from a non-traditional background. Connecting with other students has been difficult, especially since he has a family and a business and is also a full-time student.

It can also be challenging in situations where his professors are younger than him, because although he knows he is the student and is there to learn, he often feels as if professors are trying to prove themselves to him.

There are a lot of misconceptions about student veterans. For example, one professor told Horner that veterans were the rudest students that he had because of his perception that they always sat in the back of the classroom. However, Horner explained that in his mind, there is a reason for this habit: veterans are often more conscious of the safety of their surroundings, including the location of emergency exits in the back of a classroom.

“When the next Virginia Tech shooter comes through the door, it’s my job to protect everybody,” Horner said.

There have also been many cases where Horner said he noticed students being rude to him if he was struggling in class, and that this further shows the divide between student veterans and younger students.

To bridge this gap, the Student Veterans Association has been working on a training program called Green Zone, which involves an open dialogue between undergraduate veterans and faculty and staff.

Horner is very involved in this process, and he is excited about changes that will be made in the near future. Currently, there is one event every semester, and in the future it will be implemented into the First Year Experience programming for new students during Orientation. This semester’s event has already happened, but there will be another in the spring.

“We’re here just to be students, just like you are,” Horner said. “I mean it’s a slight difference. I’m 45, but whatever. Trust me, I’m having a lot more trouble with the computer than you are.”