The scariest day of Abigail Ristino’s life happened in 2011.
The now 27-year-old Army veteran was working convoy security during a deployment to Mazar-e-Sharif, a province in northeast Afghanistan, when a fuel truck the convoy was escorting flipped over in the rocky terrain.
Ristino and her fellow soldiers keenly watched the surrounding mountain ranges, a silhouette of black outlined against the night sky. Meanwhile, Afghans who were stopped because of the incident, became angry and began getting out of their cars to approach the convoy. Other than a string of coiled razor wire, Ristino and another soldier were the only barrier between a dozen angry Afghans and the trucks.
“They were pushing us and shouting at us in Pashto,” she said, referring to the Afghans’ native language.
After what seemed like hours, the truck was righted, and they began to drive. The convoy was safe.
It is a stretch from the rough Afghanistan landscape to the palm tree-speckled green of Central Florida, where Ristino is one of 1,387 military veterans attending UCF and one of 694 using the GI Bill to pay tuition and fees, according to the Veterans Academic Resource Center at UCF.
The 2011-12 deployment consisted of almost 15 months of convoy missions — some lasting 20 hours — but Ristino said that was why she joined.
“I had always been sort of a tomboy,” the senior criminal justice major said.
In 2009, she was working in her hometown of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, as a certified nursing assistant. She lived at home, had a boyfriend and partied on the weekends. But something was missing, and she was not sure what.
“I always thought the military seemed so cool,” she said.
Despite no bills and a well-paying job, Ristino visited an all-service recruiting center, first knocking on the Marine Corps’ door. They were not there. She tried the Navy’s door. No answer.
Finally, a soldier opened the Army’s door, and told her she did not belong in the Marine Corps or Navy. She was sold.
Ristino went to basic training at the U.S. Army Training Center in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Following basic training, she attended wheeled vehicle mechanic advanced individual training, also in Fort Jackson.
Ristino was stationed in Baumholder, Germany, with the 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. During her 2011-12 deployment, Ristino’s unit assisted in the coalition forces’ goal of transferring security of Mazar-e-Sharif from the International Security Assistance Force to Afghanistan’s military.
Without those experiences, Ristino says she wouldn’t be where she is today.
“I wouldn’t be in college if I didn’t have the Army and the GI Bill,” she said. “I wouldn’t have even thought of UCF.”
Ristino separated from the army in 2013 and returned to Cape Cod for five months.
“There was nothing for me there,” she said.
A close Army friend who lived in Orlando invited Ristino to move in with her, so long as they both applied for school and attended with their GI Bill benefits.
She said the process was simple. Once she was accepted at UCF, Ristino visited the Veterans Academic Resource Center, or VARC, to file a Veterans Services Certification-33. The VSC-33 compiles basic information about the student veteran and the number of credit hours for which he or she is requesting benefits.
“A lot of people join to use the benefits,” said John Patrick Gabler, a student assistant at the VARC. “That’s something we know going into sign our enlistment contract, that we’ll be able to use our education benefits when our contracts are complete.”
University spokesman Mark Schlueb said UCF received more than $2.45 million in education benefits from the VA in the 2015 fall semester.
Almost 73 percent of student veterans using benefits at UCF use the Post-9/11 GI Bill, according to VARC, which pays tuition and fees directly to UCF for a period of 36 months. It also pays the student veteran $1,435 per month, prorated to approximately $48 per in-class day during the beginning and ending months of each semester. Veterans also receive a $1,000 annual stipend for books and supplies.
“We have some veteran students who are not using the GI Bill to pay for their education,” Schlueb said. “They may have other scholarships, they have already used their GI Bill benefits at another institution, or they’re saving their benefits for a dependent or graduate school.”
Of the 694 undergraduate student veterans using the GI Bill, most study in the College of Health and Public Affairs, the College of Engineering or the College of Sciences. Seventy-one study psychology, the most popular program among student veterans, 55 study criminal justice and 47 study health services, according to VARC.
“It’s like free money,” Ristino said. “I’d be stupid not to use it. It pays my rent, my truck and a little extra I can spend how I want. Plus I’ll get a piece of paper at the end of this that says I finished my bachelor’s and that sets me apart from the job competition.”
She said she never compares her experiences to that of the average college student, but Ristino acknowledges her college experience is vastly different from other Knights.
“I don’t listen to them complain or say they’re having the worst day of their life, or something, and think, ‘That’s nothing compared to what I’ve been through,’ because to them, it probably is the worst day of their life,” she said.
Ristino said she carries with her the military philosophy, noting some significant changes between the 19-year-old who joined the Army and who she is now.
“I always address and treat people with respect,” she said. “That’s something I never did before the military.”
Another change between her pre- and post-Army self: She is 80 percent deaf in her left ear as a result of gun fire noise during the deployment. She refuses to wear a hearing aid.
“I’m only 27,” she said. “I don’t want to be wearing a hearing aid already.”
She also avoids fuel trucks on Florida highways.
“We had them blow up over there, and dying by fire seems like a horrible, painful death,” she said. “When I’m driving here, I’ll pull over just to let a fuel truck pass.”
When the deployment ended, she said a sergeant major gave her platoon invaluable advice.
“He told us, ‘They don’t owe you anything,’ talking about people in the U.S.,” she said. “He didn’t want us expecting handouts from people just because we chose to serve.”
She aspires to join the Orlando Police Department, but for now, is enjoying a uniform-free existence.
“I love having the freedom,” she said. “To do anything I want.”
Leona Mynes is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.