Max Denning

9/11, Chris Talbert made a decision that many Americans made: to enlist in the military. Except, Talbert was only in junior high, so he had to wait until he graduated high school. A handful of years later, he enlisted in the Marine Corps as a combat engineer.

Seven years since leaving the military, Talbert is now in his senior year at Eastern Oregon University, where he is studying business administration and agriculture science. Talbert started a chapter of the Student Veterans of America to help veterans adjust to college life and to meet fellow student veterans. But, just a few years ago, it was unlikely Talbert was going to end up in college.

In 2009, Talbert was in Afghanistan as part of one of the first units to do route clearance in the area. They were among the first U.S. soldiers to drive on some of these routes in Afghanistan, and they encountered resistance in the form of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

“I hit four IEDs while I was over there,” Talbert said.

The second IED Talbert’s squad came across killed two soldiers.

“It was tough because you feel responsible in some way. You get some survivor’s guilt,” Talbert said.

On Sept. 10, 2009, Talbert was driving a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle, when he drove over a 200-pound IED, the fourth and final one he would confront while in Afghanistan. The explosion gave Talbert a severe concussion and fractured his back in three places.

After healing from his injuries, Talbert returned to the United States and spent two more years in the Marine Corps stateside.

Talbert returned home to Montana in 2011, where he began to struggle with addiction.

“I spent a few years battling alcohol and drug addiction because I didn’t want to face (the deaths of my fellow soldiers), and I found when I was on alcohol and drugs I didn’t really feel anything. I avoided it,” he said. “Eventually, I learned all that did was prolong the pain and suffering, and I had to face it regardless.”

Talbert said rediscovering his faith made his recovery from addiction possible. He said he grew up going to church, but had become less religious as he got older.

“I eventually allowed myself to come back to God,” he said. “That has done more to heal (me) than anything else I have ever tried.”

It took a few years after returning to civilian life for Talbert to consider continuing his education.

“It took a good three years before I was in a place where I was able to handle it,” Talbert said of pursuing a college degree.

In 2015, Talbert enrolled at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg. In his first year, a gunman opened fire in a classroom at the community college and killed nine people before killing himself. While Talbert wasn’t on campus that day, he said it almost drove him to quit school, but his grandfather convinced him to keep attending classes.

His studies at UCC helped him realize he wanted to pursue degrees in business and agriculture science, with hopes of having a farm someday.

See more in Friday's edition of The Observer.