Brothers share bond of service

Sean and Kyle McLafferty are student assistants at the Veterans Center.

After finishing high school in Ferguson, senior Sean McLafferty didn’t want to go to college. He went to Georgia instead, followed by North Carolina and then New Orleans. Then he went a little bit further: Iraq.

Sean and his brother, Kyle McLafferty, will graduate this year. They are roommates and best friends. Their plans include teaching in Spain and attending graduate school.

And they are both members of the United States Army.

Sean said circumstances played a big role in his decision to go into the Army.

“September 11 happened when I was a sophomore in high school. Iraq started the year before I graduated,” Sean said. “I honestly just wanted to serve my country and have a career without college.”

Sean joined the Army out of high school.

He went to Fort Benning, Ga. for basic training. After a period in North Carolina, he helped in the relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina. Then he was deployed to Iraq for 15 months, and he was isolated from his family.

“When you get in a situation, you don’t really know what’s going on outside of your situation,” Sean said. “I didn’t really know me being in Iraq interrupted my family’s life that much, until I got back.”

Kyle watched as their mother would point at the television, with footage of the military flashing across the screen.

“That’s Sean,” Kyle remembers his mother saying. That’s Sean!”

It was tough for Kyle too. He came home one day during Sean’s deployment to see a car with government license plates out front.

“Shit,” Kyle thought. “I don’t even know if I want to walk into the house right now.”

It was an Army recruiter, there to talk to Kyle about joining the military.

“You don’t realize what you just did to me,” Kyle told him.

Kyle said he always kind of knew he would wind up in the Army.

“In the back of my head I always knew I was going to be in the Army, from when kids would run around and play army guys,” Kyle said.

It wasn’t easy for Kyle, though. He graduated from high school in 2006, but his grades kept him from getting the jobs in the Army that he wanted. That, coupled with the impact Sean’s deployment to Iraq was having on his family, made him decide to hold off on the military.

He took what he calls the “scenic route” for a few years. He worked at UPS. He went to community college.

Kyle said the brothers grew closer when Sean went to Iraq.

“When he got out completely, that’s when we became pretty inseparable,” Kyle said.

After Sean returned to the U.S., he joined the Army Reserves. Kyle joined the same unit.

“I just thought the idea of us serving together, at the same time in the same unit, was pretty cool,” Kyle said.

They’re at the same stages in their lives — non-traditional students, serving their country, attending MU — and that is part of what makes them friends.

Like anything else, according to the McLafferty’s, there are goods and bads with military service.

“The absolute positive I’ll take away is the people ,” Sean said. “We’ve shared some of the highest moments of our life together and the lowest moments of our lives together. It’s a bond you really can’t break.”

Besides the relationships, the money has been good, Sean and Kyle said. Both brothers said they wouldn’t be able to afford college were it not for the financial assistance they received from the military.

But there are things they have missed as part of the military.

In the 15 months he was in Iraq, one of Sean’s best friends from high school died of leukemia. Sean didn’t get to attend the funeral. Sean also did not get to attend the wedding of his friend, who got married and had a child all while Sean was overseas.

Members of the Army Reserves are legally obligated to attend training sessions one weekend a month and two weeks a year, at minimum.

Once, Kyle missed the first four weeks of classes because of military service. He had to take the semester off, and he got a job at Office Depot instead.

Kyle also missed MU’s 2010 game against the University of Oklahoma, when ESPN’s College Gameday came to Columbia. Kyle watched the game in a hotel room in Virginia. The other soldiers invited Kyle to hang out, but he couldn’t.

“This is a huge game,” Kyle said. “They’re rushing the field! My brother’s there!”

Sean decided to go to college when he realized the physical toll a career in the military would take on his body. When he was applying to enroll at MU in the spring of 2010 after taking some classes at a community college, he walked into the admissions office at Jesse Hall.

He told them he was there to apply and they told him to do that online. It was the first part of a transition from military service to college life for Sean.

“Going into the service was, number one, a culture shock,” Sean said. “And then coming out of the unit, going from an all-male unit to a higher education environment where there are women — that’s a huge culture shock.

Part of what eased Sean’s transition was the Veterans Center, where he and Kyle work as student assistants.

As student assistants, they educate veterans on their GI Bill benefits. Beyond that, Kyle said they want fellow veterans to just feel welcome.

“We have a flat screen TV and an Xbox 360,” Kyle said. “We have an entire lounge area now. So our vision is to have veterans who aren’t necessarily sure, getting adjusted to the academic setting, but they have this place to go where they know they’ll meet other veterans that might have similar experiences that they have.”

Veterans Center director Carol Watson Fleisher said that the McLafferty’s weren’t just hired because they are veterans, but also because of how informative they can be.

“They’re helpful to their fellow veterans,” Fleisher said. “That’s what we admire the most, because that’s what we do here. They’re dependable, and they’re wonderful.”

Sean and Kyle said they only have positive things to say about the University and its treatment toward veterans, including when they have to miss school for Reserves obligations.

“The outgoing chancellor Deaton, all the way down through the staff at Jesse Hall, they’ve been nothing but good to veterans,” Sean said.

Kyle will graduate in December, Sean in Spring 2014.

Kyle will be teaching English to business professionals in Spain. When he returns to the U.S., he hopes to use his biology degree to work as a physician assistant in the Army. The new service requirement that job would bring, tacked onto the current obligation he has in the Reserves, means he could be in the Army for another nine years.

Sean hopes to get his master’s degree in public affairs at MU, staying in Columbia to work on public policy issues. He said he’s been interested in politics since he was young, and that his military service only amplified that.

Though their lives are diverging, they share one common thought.

“I’ve just been absolutely blessed to serve,” Sean said.

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