When you’re doing a group project with a former Marine, don’t be surprised when the Marine takes charge. “It's just that training that kicks in,” said Charles Mitchem, a graduating senior who served in the Marine Corps for six years before coming to Virginia Tech.  

A political science major with a minor in war and society, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Mitchem had learned to create timelines, divvy up tasks, and get things done during his military service. Naturally, he used those skills in his classes. “I can see how it's very annoying for other group members,” Mitchem said. “But at the same time, I've had a lot of them just be like, ‘Oh, sweet, thanks. We know what we have to do.’”

Mitchem wasn’t always like this. As a rowdy, undisciplined teenager in Pulaski County, Virginia, school was the last thing he cared about. Had he started Virginia Tech back then, he’s 100 percent sure he would have dropped out.

On the other hand, he’d always wanted to join the military. Most Halloweens, he dressed up as a soldier. When a Marine Corps recruiter called the summer before his senior year of high school, he enlisted at age 17. 

Within a few months of his high school graduation, he’d shipped off to boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island, South Carolina. “It was horrible,” Mitchem said with a laugh. “At the time, it was the hardest thing that I had done.” The recruits were systematically broken down and built back up. Halfway through the misery, Mitchem realized, “I’m stronger than I thought I was. And I can do this."

His first post was as a mechanic in Okinawa, Japan — a leap for someone who’d never been on an airplane before. Two years later, he was invited to become an embassy security guard. Training in Quantico, Virginia, followed, including taking a face full of pepper spray.

When he was assigned to the U.S. embassy in Serbia, “I had never even heard of Serbia,” said Mitchem. He went on to work at embassies in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Podgorica, Montenegro, before separating from the Marine Corps and returning to Virginia in March 2018.

If boot camp was hard, returning to civilian life was even harder.

Taking classes at New River Community College, Mitchem felt utterly disconnected from other college students. No one understood what he’d been through. “I had a pretty rough go of it,” he said. “I just felt isolated and lonely.”  

Life improved when Mitchem transferred to Virginia Tech in spring 2020 at age 26. Through the Virginia Tech Office of Veteran Services, he finally found his people: fellow Hokie veterans who, like him, had endured indescribable life experiences, built a career, and experienced the deep camaraderie and challenge of the military, all before finishing their undergraduate degrees. “I don’t know how to explain the bond that there is between veterans from all walks of life,” said Mitchem.

At the VeT Zone, a lounge in the Johnston Student Center for military-connected students, vets swapped stories of military life. In fall 2021, as a work-study student in the Office of Veteran Services, Mitchem helped organize a Marine Corps Birthday Ball.

He also joined fellow veterans for one of Virginia Tech’s greatest pleasures. “Going to a football game was something that really made me feel that Hokie pride,” Mitchem said. “Even though I grew up here, the UNC game this past year was my first ever game. I loved it.”

As much as his Marine Corps service sometimes made it hard to fit in, it also helped him achieve his dream of a college degree by turning him into a reliable, disciplined leader. The kind of guy who uses the skills he picked up as an embassy guard to diplomatically navigate difficult conversations in political science classes. The kind who likes to sit with veterans from the Korean War or Vietnam to talk about shared experiences. The kind who knows exactly how to keep a group project on track.

Now that he’s graduating, Mitchem hopes to spend his career working with veterans somewhere like the Office of Veteran Services. “There’s just that unspoken bond, that sense of family," he said. "It's one of the things that is super important to me. Helping out the veteran community is what I'm striving to do now.”

The Veterans' Achievement Ceremony will honor student veterans like Mitchem on Tuesday, May 10. Cyril Clarke, executive vice president and provost, will speak at the event, to be held at 2 p.m. at the Peggy Lee Hahn Pavilion. Approximately 20 graduating seniors will be presented with a military stole and cord to wear as part of their graduation regalia.

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