HANCOCK - Although they have taken much different roads to get to Finlandia University, John Kolbas and Jon Michael have something in common: They're both utilizing the GI Bill to enrich their post-military lives.
While they may have taken basic training nearly 20 years apart, both were discharged relatively recently and opted for Finlandia to finish out their education and start a new life on the civilian side.
Kolbas - who is from the Iron River/Gaastra area - entered the Navy right after graduation in 2004, attending basic training in Chicago. He then worked on a cruiser out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and was soon deployed into the Northern Gulf, near Kuwait.
Zach Kukkonen/Daily Mining Gazette
Finlandia University in Hancock.
After a time in the Northern Gulf, however, Kolbas became severely ill and had to return to the United States. Following a medical discharge, he discovered how difficult the transition back to civilian life can be.
"It was extremely difficult, going from a military standard to having no standard of living," Kolbas said.
However, Kolbas remembered doing a job shadow at a rehab clinic in high school and enjoying it, so he began his journey toward a degree as a physical therapy assistant. After spending a year at Itasca Community College in northern Minnesota and becoming a father to a little girl, Kolbas decided to go to Finlandia to finish his degree and make his daughter proud.
"It's a huge motivation," Kolbas said of his daughter. "I want to show her that there's more than just grunt work, that I can do more to provide for her and myself, and that she can do the same thing."
Michael actually attended college before entering the military - spending three years at a bible college in Grand Rapids, Mich. - but decided the Air Force was where he was needed. Originally, he planned on a four-year enlistment, but four years turned into 10, 10 turned into 20 and finally in 2007, Michael retired after nearly 23 years in the Air Force.
"I went in and did four years, and absolutely loved it," Michael said. "So we re-enlisted once, and the next time I was up for re-enlistment, my wife says, 'Well, if you re-enlist again, you go over 10, and if you go over 10 you're going to 20.' I said, 'If you're halfway to retirement, you might as well stay for it,' so we spent 10-and-a-half years in Europe."
Dealing with what the Air Force called personnel, Michael worked on evaluations, decoration, deployment orders, records filing and other responsibilities, including flying four-star generals around Europe. Michael and his family ended up spending time all across the continent, from a couple places in Germany to Belgium, even to Iceland.
After Europe, Michael moved to the Copper Country to work with the Michigan Technological University Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps for four years. On the cusp of retirement in 2006, Michael did one last assignment in California, but ended up returning to Hancock after about six months.
"One day, I woke up and thought this isn't fun anymore," Michael said. "When we were gone, my daughter had stayed living in our house here, and had gone to Finlandia that year, so it was kind of an easy decision where to come back to because we still had the house."
After a couple years, Michael decided to put the GI Bill to good use and enrolled in Finlandia in 2009.
"I knew all along that I had 10 years to use my GI Bill," he said. "I wanted to finish my business degree, and the post-9/11 GI Bill came out and was a really good opportunity to get that kind of incentive and push me.
"It's easy to be lazy and hard to be disciplined (after retiring), but that was my motivation to begin again and finish up."
They may have traveled different paths to get where they are, but both Michael and Kolbas agreed the military helped to make them what they are and prepare them for the next chapter.
"I had great experiences in the Navy, and I had not-so-great experiences, but it definitely helps with the maturity of taking responsibilities of school," Kolbas said.