A high school dropout with a series of arrests and expulsions — and few options — Colin Kalahar followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Army at 19. He saw firsthand the impact of war on his fellow soldiers, and he soon came to realize how serving in Vietnam had affected his father’s mental well-being.
It was through his own military service that Kalahar finally found both the discipline and the opportunities he needed to pursue higher education. And through the plight of his father and others, he’s now found a career path as well.
The Pleasanton native earned a bachelor’s degree in social sciences at CSU Stanislaus in 2011, and in the spring, he hopes to graduate with a Master of Social Work degree that will lead him to a career counseling disabled veterans and those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I’ve seen the people I love trying to navigate that system and get a lot of barriers thrown up in their way,” Kalahar said. “I just want to be in that system as a face of hope for these guys. It’s truly a blessing, and I’m going to make the best of this and every opportunity that comes before me. There’s not a day that I wake up and don’t pinch myself.”
As a kid, Kalahar never would have imagined he’d be getting his master’s degree at CSU Stanislaus. He didn’t think he’d go to college at all. Even after leaving the Army 13 years ago, he remained jobless, with no aspirations of a college degree and no idea of a career to pursue.
So he returned to the military, this time in the Air Force.
“The Air Force not only encouraged you to take advantage of education, but implicitly required you do so,” Kalahar said. “I had never believed I could actually succeed academically.”
Kalahar moved to Florida after leaving the Air Force, learned about the education benefits available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and enrolled in classes at the University of South Florida. He still doubted he could hack it in college, but to his surprise, he got all As and Bs and realized he could actually earn a degree. In 2008, he moved to Turlock to be closer to family and started attending CSU Stanislaus.
Inspired by Family, Friends
While Kalahar attributes much of his life’s turnaround to his military service, he can trace his career path back to his childhood. His father suffered daily from the aftereffects of serving in the Vietnam War.
“He made it clear that he couldn’t watch any of those cool war movies with me, because they just brought back bad memories,” Kalahar said. “I specifically remember him describing his aversion to the sound of Huey helicopters that could trigger some sort of flashback.”
Kalahar didn’t think much of it as a kid. But once he was in the military himself, he realized his father wasn’t the only one haunted by war.
During Kalahar’s own service, his best friend from the Army was sent home from Iraq after suffering a severe head injury during combat. The guilt he felt for leaving his mission and friends behind festered in him, causing nightmares, depression, isolation and hyper-vigilance, and he was given medication to numb it all away.
“He used to be electrifying — the funniest guy you ever met,” Kalahar said. “Now, it’s like you just ripped his personality and soul out of him, like he’s hollow. It’s been hard to watch him and his family go through that.”
While studying for his master’s degree at CSU Stanislaus and interning at the Salvation Army and the Modesto Veterans Center, Kalahar has seen dozens more veterans like his father and friend with post-traumatic stress disorder. And he knows there are thousands more out there who need more help than the Department of Veterans Affairs can handle.
That’s now become his life’s mission. While pursuing his bachelor’s degree, Kalahar resurrected the veterans club at CSU Stanislaus and served as its president for two years. He recently started a new job as a psychology technician at the Livermore VA Hospital.
Kalahar said he feels honored to be able to serve veterans as his career, and he could not have gotten this far in school and in life without his family, the VA education benefits and the university’s veteran support system.
“I didn’t graduate high school, and now I’m about to finish my master’s degree and start this job,” Kalahar said, almost in disbelief. “CSU Stanislaus and the VA have provided me this amazing opportunity.”