John Lira renews a book from the UTSA library on Thursday May 10, 2012. Lira, one of about 3,600 UTSA students graduating this week, stands out from the crowd due to his years of service in the U.S. Marines, his tours to Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula and his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite his disabled veteran status, he'll earn a bachelor?s degree in political science and a minor in global analysis from the UTSA Honors College this spring with plans to go on to graduate school.
The rustle of graduation gowns and the cheers of family members at John Lira's two university commencement ceremonies this weekend are very different from the sounds that haunted him when he returned from tours in Iraq with the Marines.
It started on a day in 2005 when a mortar shell landed below where he stood on a barrack balcony in Iraq.
“I felt this huge surge of pressure, of wind, like I'd just jumped out of a plane. Then all I heard was fiiiing, and I passed out,” said Lira, adding that the blast was strong enough to knock paint off the walls.
He had a concussion, but after two days of bed rest and some over-the-counter painkillers, the San Antonio native was back at work as an intelligence analyst. Lira, then a sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve, remembered hearing “weird echoes,” even rock 'n' roll music, in the following days.
Back in the States, the echoes added up to a diagnosis and an acronym: PTSD. He overcame it to join more than 3,600 UTSA students slated to attend commencements this week. He'll receive a bachelor's degree in political science with a minor in global analysis.
The first in his family to finish college, Lira excitedly started a new family tradition as his daughter Rozlyn, 6 saw him walk across the stage Friday during an Honors College ceremony. Today, he plans to celebrate again at a less formal Latino-influenced commencement ceremony.
This spring, UTSA reported that 2,740 students, nearly 10 percent of those enrolled, were either active duty military or receiving veterans' benefits. Of those, 125 received benefits for disabilities related to their service.
The initiatives can help students with PTSD who may have difficulty concentrating in classroom settings, have a heightened sense of danger in everyday situations, feel isolated or struggle with nightmares. Dianne Hengst, UTSA's director of disability services, said her office serves increasing numbers of students with PTSD.
Lira is a member. He received counseling to move past his anxiety, and school became a safe haven, he said.
The graduate has since completed fellowships at Princeton University and at the National Defense University in Washington D.C. He hopes to study public policy and international affairs in graduate school at Harvard, Princeton or another top university.
But there's still a tinge of sadness when he thinks about how his disability has come between him and his desire to remain in the Marine Corps. He hopes to work with Marines in an agency like the Department of Defense.
“I still want to serve my country,” Lira said. “That's really the driver. ... One door closes, and these are opening.”