05/30/2011 01:44 pm ET | Updated Jul 30, 2011

Is the Military a Good Alternative for At-Risk Youth Looking to Get an Education

As a young man growing up in the inner city, every time I would see military recruiters in poor communities passing out materials at events I would cringe and get angry. I wondered if they were spending as much time and energy trying to enlist young men and women from more financially stable communities or did they just figure those kids were going off to college so there was no need to target them as aggressively. I never sought to find any proof to support the theory but I often still wonder.

I would find myself conflicted about their recruitment efforts. After all, I was one of those kids at the age of eighteen who saw the military as perhaps my only way out of poverty, selling drugs, homelessness, or gangs. I didn't do well in high school, just enough to get by since I was a half way decent athlete. But when the time came to graduate and most of my friends were talking about college I had no idea what was next for me. I had not taken the SAT (actually fell asleep on the PSAT), my grades were poor and therefore my options were limited.

After my father informed me that after graduation I had to leave his home, which was understandable given my behavior and attitude. My options were either go back to California or live in Jersey City with friends. Both options would have definitely led to a life of crime. I decided to join the Army.

In hindsight it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I remember getting my ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) scores back and wanting to take any job that would allow me to leave as soon as possible, because I was living on the streets hanging with a group of people involved in crime. But the recruiter wouldn't allow me to take just any job because she said my scores were too high. I remember her saying, "trust me, you'll thank me later."

Scores too high? I found that odd given that I was never considered smart, often told I was stupid and wouldn't amount to anything. I never tested well and now here was someone telling me my scores were too high to take just any job. I listened to her, held off for a few months and later went through Basic Training at Ft. Bliss, Texas then off to training in Ft. Sam, Houston preparing to join a medical unite. Basic training was the place where I heard those unfamiliar words again; I graduated as Solider of the Cycle and had to give a speech, a Drill Sargent walked up to me and said, Tune, you're smart as hell..."

All of that was the easy part. A word of advice to any young person who sees the military as an escape from the challenges and difficulties of life, it ain't that simple. If you think that enlisting in the military is how you want to pursue getting a college degree, you better read the small print.

When you join the military, basic training is preparing you to become a soldier. MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) training is preparing you to do a job, a job that helps you to serve your country. You do not enlist in the military to get an education, you enlist to become a soldier. The pursuit of higher education is in your hands. The opportunities are available on just about any military base in the world. But here's the thing, do not expect someone to guide you to those opportunities or for someone to come and tell you when and where to sign up for college courses. That's your responsibility. Simply put, it's just like being a civilian. You must be focused and discipline yourself to get everything out of it that they make available. Military bases are a microcosm of broader society. There are people who pursue education and those who don't. There are those who get paid, party and spend their money frivolously and those who don't. As a young person, the military doesn't change you but it will give you the tools to change. You can choose to use them or not.

I was two years into my enlistment before I took advantage of the educational opportunity afforded me at practically little or no cost. While in the military, I enrolled in classes and went to school at night and on weekends. After Desert Storm, I made up my mind that I wanted to get out of the Army and attend Howard University.

I worked hard to get a 3.8 GPA, found out from a military lawyer that if you get accepted to a college, served three years of a four year commitment, then the Army will let you leave for school. I got accepted to Howard with only 10 months left on my enlistment so they let me out five months early to start school that summer. Four years later I graduated with honors and received numerous awards.

By all definitions I was an at-risk teen when I went in the military and in fact during the first two years I was still acting like an at-risk teen, only in a uniform. The military taught me to believe in myself, people told me I was smart, encouraged me to succeed. But it was my choice to become a disciplined young person willing to get what I wanted or I could have chosen to remain angry and blame everyone else.

I believe joining the military is all about what you make of it. You can go in thinking you want to get an education but never take the initiative to pursue it. The encouragement, positive reinforcement and support I received came from more seasoned soldiers.

I don't believe at-risk kids should have to join the military to get an education or gain access to opportunities. But for kids like me it can be the only path out of a bad neighborhood and into a better life. As we celebrate Memorial Day -- we can honor the sacrifice of those who fought for their country, while also realizing that the military shouldn't be the only path of opportunity for those with few choices.