by Maddison Cervantes
The day before Harrison Hayes’ freshman orientation at the University of Nevada, Reno in 2008, he turned to his girlfriend and made a decision that would change every fiber of his 18-year-old being.
Hayes was in need of an alteration, perhaps one that held more importance in his life than a degree in business.
Born and raised in Kaiserslautern, Germany, Hayes was a military brat with his father in the Air Force. Still very much Americanized, Hayes attended a Department of Defense School with his fellow United States military children and both his mother and father are from California. When Hayes was 16 years old, his family left Germany and moved to Reno, where he attended Galena High School.
Instead of going to college at the local university, as Hayes had originally planned, he opted to follow in his father’s footsteps and enlist in the Air Force.
“It’s kind of a cliche, I suppose, but I decided that I wanted to serve my country,” Hayes said. “I felt like I had been given so many opportunities and I wanted to be able to do my part as well.”
Because of his military family, Hayes had an idea of what he was getting himself into when joining the Air Force. However, once he left for boot camp, Hayes was surprised by the camp’s disciplined and structured environment. Still, he held no regrets in his decision, and enjoyed every moment of it.
He explained that there is a common theme, or bond, in the military that Hayes believes is impossible to comprehend if one has not taken part in it.
After approximately one year of training in the United States, Hayes was assigned to the 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron in Okinawa, Japan, where he spent three years as a communication technician. Hayes’ experience was centered on the flying aspect of the military.
“While it was fun while it lasted, I can’t really see myself going back in that capacity,” Hayes said.
His time in the Air Force felt less like a job to him, and more like a lifestyle. His fellow service members became his family. What he went through with them created this specific bond, in which he could not simply relate to other people once he came home.
“It’s not the easiest thing to transition from the military back to a life that you once lived,” Hayes said. “The military becomes so deeply ingrained in what you do and who you are, it actually serves like an identity.”
Hayes said that once he parted with the military, he experienced a loss of identity, and this was not something he found easy to share with his friends and family.
“I think that I didn’t want to show [my struggles], and I didn’t show it, but it was actually really hard,” Hayes said. “Getting my feet back on the ground took some work.”
In December 2012, Hayes returned to Reno after his four-year term. He explained that one of his biggest struggles when getting out of the military was the absence of a tight bond and constant support system.
Aside from this, and the lack of having a constantly immense amount of responsibility, Hayes stated that he managed to fit into the flow of his daily life.
He is now 24 years old, and is currently progressing in his fourth semester at UNR, moving toward his bachelor’s degree in social work.
Sophomore Michael Daley, a friend of Hayes’, described him as intuitive and down-to-earth; someone very pleasant to be around.
“I first met [Hayes] in English class,” Daley said. “He was very kind and laid-back, but also private.”
Daley explained that when he learned of Hayes’ history in the Air Force, it became apparent to him that Hayes’ privacy was a result of his experiences overseas, but he was never informed of anything specific.
When Hayes returned home, he explained that he tried many options to find his footing, such as volunteering in the Reno community.
Hayes volunteers at Infinity Hospice, visiting patients diagnosed with terminal diseases and other illnesses.
“I’ll sit by their side and make a friend, and I’ll be with them until whenever their time comes,” Hayes said.
Besides volunteering, Hayes dove into his academics, surfing on the west coast and spending quality time with friends and family.
Hayes believes that he joined the Air Force as one person, and returned home someone completely different. Without the military, Hayes said that his life would not be in the positive place that it is now.
“I was not ready to navigate myself to overcome the obstacles that were going to come my way and will still come my way in the future,” Hayes said.
Through the discipline and experiences Hayes had while serving, he gained the ability to assess and push through the tough times in his life.
Now that he is able to overcome these challenges, Hayes is continuing down the steady road of earning his degree. He hopes to become a licensed social worker, eventually moving forward as a therapist.
“Today, I don’t face struggles,” Hayes said. “It’s been a learning experience, but I’ve got it down now.”
Maddison Cervantes can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @madcervantes.