Commencement Close-up: Sixty-year-old retired Army medic Sandy Green earns bachelor's degree and aims to help disadvantaged kids

Sandy Green

Sandy Green (right) with Dyna Jones, his UTSA student teaching supervisor at the recent College of Education and human development teacher induction ceremony on the Main Campus

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(Dec. 19, 2012) -- Sandy Green still recalls how his teachers told him that education just wasn't his strength. They suggested he work in the steel industry like many other African Americans did in Pennsylvania in the 1960s.

"I just got used to the idea that I wasn't very smart," the 60-year-old said. But this Thursday, Green will graduate from UTSA with his bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary learning.

Although he had a strong academic start in his segregated all-black school in Virginia, the loss of his mother and his subsequent move to live with his aunt when he was 10 took its toll on his grades. In 1970, by the time he turned 17, he dropped out of school to enter the Army.

The military gave him a chance to pursue a career helping people, something that he really enjoyed. "It was happenstance that I became a medic," he said. "I didn't know much about it, but, it was something that kind of suited me. I loved the service. I liked being around people."

Green served as a combat field medic in New Jersey from 1970 to 1973, then another three-year stint as a medic from 1973 to 1976 in Tacoma, Wash., and in Germany.

In 1976, during a four-month break from the Army, he encountered a life-changing experience. While driving down a Virginia road, he fell asleep at the wheel. Fortunately, he was jolted awake by rocks in the highway median.

"That scared me. I knew I needed to change things. I needed to do something with my life," Green said.

So, he decided to re-enter the Army permanently, albeit in a new role. He returned as a psychological technician.

"I wanted to work with mental patients," he recalled. "Medical ailments are easy to treat; you can see them. But when somebody has a mental ailment, it's hard to see. There are situations going on that are chemical or physical -- situations beyond their reach. I wanted to assist people. This is a segment of our society that gets overlooked."

Until his retirement from the Army in 1991, Green served in Philadelphia, Korea and New Jersey. Ultimately, he retired at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

Upon retirement, he enrolled in community college as a pre-nursing student. The single father took classes full time while attending to the needs of his three boys and working as an educational aide at Estrada Achievement Center in the San Antonio ISD. The school serves youth with special needs, offering counseling, chemical dependency treatment and other support services.

Frequently, Green would be assigned to the alternative class, a group of students that many substitute teachers found difficult to handle. He caught the eye of then principal Sharon Callihan, who recommended that he pursue a second career in teaching.

"I remember asking her why would I want to teach -- these kids are a pain," he said. "And, she told me, 'Because you need each other. The kids need someone who cares for them and someone who believes in them.'"

In 1997, Green began taking education classes part time at UTSA. A few years later, a VA counselor contacted him to say he would no longer be eligible for benefits. So, he dropped out.

In 2008, however, the VA contacted him to say that it had made a mistake. It wanted to reinstate his eligibility and encouraged him to return to UTSA. Green, in his 50s, flat out rejected the possibility. The VA counselor, however, was very persistent. She sent him emails and letters. She called him incessantly. Eventually, he broke down and scheduled an appointment with her.

"She told me that I owed it to myself and to my sons to finish my degree," he said. Those sons are now ages 31, 30, 28 and 7.

So, he returned. And in the process, he became interested in reading.

"Reading is something that kids with special needs have trouble with, but reading connects us with everything," Green said. "They say that initially, you learn to read. After that, you read to learn."

This Thursday, as Green receives his diploma, his family will be in the audience to celebrate his success. He aspires to build a career at the intersection of Special Education and Reading. In the meantime, though, he's relishing the prospect of crossing the commencement stage.

"I'm still pinching myself," he said. "It's still hard to believe I'm here. It still seems like a dream."