Date November 8, 2021
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Pawtucket native, U.S. Army veteran combines Brown education with service to community

Brehan Brady — a self-described working-class kid from Pawtucket who transferred to Brown from the Community College of Rhode Island — joins other student veterans in forging a new path after their military service.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In March 2021, when 41-year-old U.S. Army veteran Brehan Brady marched through Brown’s Van Wickle Gates with fellow new students, it was a moment like no other.

“I know it's a bit cliche, but walking through the Van Wickle Gates and participating in the tradition that marks the beginning of one's time at Brown was the big ‘This is really happening!’ moment for me,” said Brady, a transfer student who is now a junior concentrating in German studies with plans to declare a second concentration in history. “Sometimes it seems like every day is a series of ‘pinch me’ moments.”

Brady, who lives in Westerly, Rhode Island, with his family, is a self-described working-class kid from Pawtucket. With two tours in Iraq as a U.S. Army infantryman in the 10th Mountain Division and the 101st Airborne, he is also one among a growing presence of student veterans on College Hill.

Before coming to Brown, Brady earned an associate’s degree at the Community College of Rhode Island, with financial support from the G.I. Bill and urging from his wife, Ashley. There, a professor suggested he apply to Brown, a prospect he considered “pie-in-the-sky.” But after attending an information session hosted by Kimberly Millette, a U.S. Air Force veteran who directs Brown’s Office of Military-Affiliated Students, he was hooked.

Millette described the University’s effort to double the number of military veterans enrolled as undergraduates by 2024 and the impact of a $20 million gift from U.S. Army veteran Joseph P. Healey, which is enabling full scholarships for student veterans at Brown. She spoke about the University’s renewed Reserve Officers Training Corps affiliations and a burgeoning partnership with Service to School.

Even more importantly, her welcoming nature offered an instant feeling of acceptance, Brady said: “To have that personal connection was really important. Brown is an institution that values the experience that veterans bring to the University.”

"I feel that I have an obligation to use the education that I receive at Brown in service to other people, whether that be in academia or in the public sector."

Brehan Brady U.S. Army Veteran and Brown University Junior
Brehan Brady

Brady jokes that he took a “gap decade” before deciding to return to school, but he quickly realized that the pursuit of his degree would profoundly alter the trajectory of his life. For one thing, it’s given his body a much-needed break, he said, from a career of extensive hands-on work, including as a rigger in a shipyard. There’s also a renewed excitement he and his wife now share about the future vs. when he was on active duty.

“You are living minute to minute,” he said of his Army experience. “Absolutely nothing is guaranteed. Now, I can imagine five years to 10 years from now.” Brady said he’s had to confront survivor’s guilt over the years after losing friends killed while serving overseas. Earning his degree is helping to ease the pain. “To be where I am now, and to be doing what I’m doing, I know wherever my brothers are, they’re proud of me.”

Brady said going to Brown has exposed his daughter, a first-year high school student, to the possibilities that exist after high school. It’s also giving him the chance to immerse himself in study in a way that complements the skills he built through his military service.

“Being accepted at Brown gave me the opportunity to dive completely into my education, to take advantage of the Open Curriculum and let my interests lead me. We do our time in the service and to be able to use the G.I. Bill to attend an institution like Brown — this is how the military elevates people.”

Despite the challenges of beginning at Brown amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Brady has built strong relationships on campus. Before arriving, he’d read the work of Omer Bartov, a professor of European history; since his start, he has now taken a history class with Bartov and learned that each of them, at separate times, served in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt with their respective country’s military.

He describes his classroom interactions with Brown students as symbiotic: “I’m treated like any another student and accepted into their circles,” he said. “We bring our own unique perspectives with us into our classrooms.”

With the University now home to an expanding Student Veteran Society — this year, 36 student veterans are enrolled as undergraduates at Brown — a close-knit community of peers has provided immediate support.  

“It’s kind of like showing up to school and having a preexisting support system,” Brady said. “I cannot emphasize enough how reassuring it is to be able to rely on other members of the Office of Military-Affiliated Students for support and advice, whether it be about what classes to take, how to access services and programs on campus, or where to find the best doughnuts in Providence.”

Brady hasn’t yet decided what career path might await after graduation, but he knows that service to his community will be a part of the plan. Engaging in the community and giving back is second nature to him. In addition to his military service, he’s led teams for Special Olympics Connecticut’s Penguin Plunge event.

Last month, Brady pitched in to building a Habitat for Humanity home in Westerly, helping to coordinate the project as a member of a local Knights of Columbus chapter. He has also begun planning for Brown’s Student Veteran Society members to participate in another Rhode Island Habitat for Humanity build next spring. 

“I feel that I have an obligation to use the education that I receive at Brown in service to other people, whether that be in academia or in the public sector,” he said. “Also, as a member of the veteran community, I have a two-way responsibility: first, as an advocate for further engagement between veterans and Brown University and, secondly, as a representative of the University within the broader veteran population.”